The presidential election in Belarus that will take place on the 9 of August this year will be different from the ones in 2015 or 2010. This is because of a number of international, economic and social factors. Is the brewing conflict ready to erupt and wipe off Alexander Lukashenko, who has been running the country for a quarter of a century? – asks Mariusz Marszałkowski, editor at BiznesAlert.pl.
Lukashenko is in a tight spot
The Belarusian society is becoming increasingly weary with Lukashenko’s 26-years in office. This difficult situation is exacerbated by the SARS Cov-2 epidemic, as well as Belarus’s economic problems that have been piling up for years. Lukashenko is finding it increasingly difficult to keep stable the system on which his power is based. None of the previous presidential elections in that country can be deemed free and democratic. The election process alone did not meet the standards that are usually adopted by the Western world. However, this time the administration stepped up its interference in the campaign in comparison to the previous elections.
The first indicator was the sole process of registering presidential candidates by the Central Election Committee. First of all, the main challengers to the president – Viktar Babaryka and Siarhei Tsikhanouski – were arrested on flimsy charges. Babaryka was accused of embezzlement and money laundering by Belgazprombank, which he had run for over 20 years. The reason for arresting Tsikhanouski and the subsequent refusal to register him as a candidate seems even more bizzare. He was arrested on 29 May while he was collecting signatures for his wife’s candidacy, which is required if one wants to be registered as a candidate. The charges against him evolved from disrupting public order to obstruction of election organization. This was probably an entrapment prepared by the security services.
Another repression tactic was the ban on presidential polls (including online surveys) under the penalty of prison. According to polls published by the government-owned mass media, Lukashenko’s support is between 60 and 70 percent, but those have little to do with reality. In May when online surveys on websites were still legal, Lukashenko’s backing was negligible. That is how the meme “Sasha 3 percent” was born and became popular on Belarus’s internet. In view of the meme creators, 3 percent is the real support the current president enjoys.
Realizing he was in a tight spot, Lukashenko started claiming outside forces “from the West and from the East” were interfering with the election campaign (but failed to provide any details on who actually interfered). He regularly used threats and ensured a “Minsk maidan” would not take place, referring to the events in Kiev in 2004 and 2013.
Apart from the rhetoric, he had a number of meetings with the structures of force at the Interior Ministry, Defense Ministry and KGB. He also visited elite military units, which during his visits “by complete accident” practiced quashing street riots. The Belarusian internet also reported on the mobilization of military garrisons in the country’s main cities including Minsk and Vitebsk. Another recent event when a group of 32 alleged members of the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company, were arrested also raised eyebrows. Russian media informed the mercenaries were waiting at a health clinic near Minsk for a transfer to Sudan. Other sources, this time from Belarus, reveled the clinic belonged to trade unions, which are led by Alexander Lukashenko’s head of campaign. The administration reacted immediately by tightening security rules and introducing a requirement by which all participants of support rallies for opposition candidates must register with the Ministry of the Interior.
It is probable that the Wagner case will be expanded and lead the administration to taking to much more radical measures.
Reasons to worry
Alexander Lukashenko has been ruling over Belarus continuously since 20 July 1994. However, only the 1994 election can be deemed free. The subsequent elections were more of a political farce performed by one actor. Lukashenko amended the constitution in a way that allows him to rule until his death, which showed his real intentions.
For many years Minsk balanced between the East and the West, for which it often received praise from many commentators, including Polish. By some it was perceived as a road sign to an “independent and sovereign” foreign policy. However, in reality the balancing act was an illusion created by the administration in Minsk to help them win short-term goals. When reviewing Lukashenko’s achievements after 25 years as president, the picture we see is a bleak country, which by some is called “Europe’s last dictatorship”. Lukashenko himself often mocks this expression, as he somehow believes it is something worth bragging about…
Since the beginning of his presidency, he believed the Soviet legacy was an integral part of the Belarusian ethos. In contrast to other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Belarus decided, or Lukashenko decided, to continue all traditions from the Soviet Union like keeping state holidays, names of institutions (e.g. KGB) and, the most visible one, and one of the first changes Lukashenko made as president – reinstating old state symbols. During his administration, the history and symbols related to the pre-Soviet era, i.e. Belarusian People’s Republic, were completely wiped out. Within a year after assuming office, Lukashenko changed the symbols of the the Belarusian state. This was done after a referendum on the matter, which, according to some, was falsified. The earlier white, red and white flag and the Pahonia as the country’s coat of arms were replaced with symbols that referred to the Soviet tradition. Using “outdated” symbols was made illegal and punishable by prison. Despite the repressions, the symbols are used by pro-Western opposition during rallies and anti-governmental protests.
Lukashenko’s recurring tactic is to antagonize the West and stress the “brotherly” ties with Russia. The symbolic and rhetoric aspect of this modus operadi also includes specific decisions with regard to the economy, military and culture.
The most striking example of the fact that Minsk’s famous balancing act does not actually exist is the president’s economic policy. The country’s economy is practically completely dependant on Russia. Both directly, e.g. because of oil and gas, as well as indirectly. Processing and refining petroleum products, chemical industry (fertilizers, potassium, nitrogen), as well as large military and machine industries are the core of Belarus’s economy. Each of those sectors depends on good relations with Russia. The profitability of factories mostly depends on the prices of Russian energy carriers, the demand of Russian industrial facilities or the orders from Russia’s Ministry of Defense. Naturally Russia agreed to this type of relations, understanding the long-term impact of this type of cooperation.
The dependency on oil and gas from Russia is the biggest issue. For over a decade, different conflicts over prices, contract terms and volumes of hydrocarbon supply have been erupting with a frequency of a few years. Every one of those ended, sooner or later, with Belarus’s strategic defeat. In result, the country gradually lost control over its strategic facilities such as refineries (the one in Mozyr was partially sold to Russia’s Slavneft) or gas pipelines. Thus, even the smallest attempts at diversification end after a few or a dozen months. The latest project whose goal was to make Belarus’s energy sector independent of Russia is the construction of the nuclear power plant in Astravets. It is done by a Russian company, based on Russian technologies, financed with a Russian credit, and is being built to make the country independent of… Russian gas.
A similar dependence emerged when it comes to defense and the military industry. The majority of Belarus’s officers higher up in the ranks graduate from Russian military academies. Subdivisions of the Belarusian army continuously practice as part of the Russian Battalion Battle Groups, and larger field exercises are conduced together with the Russian army. Additionally, the Belarusian airspace is integrated with Russia’s Western Military Area anti-aircraft defence system, which means in reality Russia is responsible for its protection. The Belarusian defense industry factories produce for the Russian army (MZKT for S-300/400 systems and Topol-M and Peleng launchers for systems Sosna-U in T-72B/90 tanks).
The country’s difficult position is exacerbated by the way the administration handles the coronavirus pandemic. In the slightly over 9-million population of Belarus, over 67.5 thousand cases of the virus were officially recorded and 550 people died. Of course this data should be approached with scepticism. According to Belarusian activists, the true number of infections and deaths is a few , or maybe a dozen times higher than the official data. The pandemic and economic issues contribute to the growing frustration of the society. Opposition candidates benefit from this.
There are two factors that make the current presidential campaign different from the ones that took place a few or more years ago. The first one is the scale of interest and engagement of the society. A society that for a quarter of a century has been neutralized by the state. Opposition organizations have been repressed, access to information has been limited and communities have been infiltrated by the secret police. Today, the engagement of Belarusians is incomparable to what happened in the past. This could be seen, among others, when signatures were collected for opposition candidates, who in total gathered over half a million signatures. It was also visible during the protests against the arrests of Viktar Babaryka and Siarhei Tsikhanouski. It was also visible during rallies for Tsikhanouski’s wife – Svetlana – who, after her husband was prevented from participating in the election, decided to run. In the end the Central Election Committee allowed her to take part in the August election.
In earlier presidential elections support for opposition candidates cumulated only in Minsk. Today the situation is different. Thousands of people from towns like Mogilev and Novopolotsk, which previously were not famous for their support for the opposition, come to meetings with Tsikhanouskaya.
This is the second factor that makes this year’s election different. For the first time, the core of anti-government opposition is not “ideological”. This campaign is not dominated by the choice between the mythical East and West. There are no discussions on joining NATO or the EU. There is no talk about who is for Moscow, Vilnius, Warsaw or Brussels. A pro-Western opposition does not exist in the political discourse. Of course, every candidate has their program, but international relations are not a major issue in them. This is the “novum” that reveals a truth that is difficult to understand for many people in Poland about the reality of the Belarusian society. Years of indoctrination by Lukashenko, tales of a brotherly nation, common language, values and culture made the Belarusians lose, to a large degree, the core of national identity, which impacts their relations with the outside world. The lack of a formal border with Russia, or the recently facilitated procedure of acquiring a Russian citizenship make many people believe, especially from eastern Belarus where many people work in Russia on a daily basis, that Russia is the natural guarantor of the stability of their state.
Therefore, there is no one candidate, who clearly and firmly supports integration with the West. The majority of registered candidates believe that Belarus should be a neutral country, outside of any military bloc.
Russia is trying to pretend it is not engaged on either of the sides of the election fight. None of the candidates officially received support from Moscow. Officially the Kremlin uses its standard formula claiming it “does not interfere in election processes in any country in the world.” This is a stark contrast to Russia openly supporting, e.g. Viktar Medvedchuk in last year’s presidential election in Ukraine. Either way, in case of the election in Belarus, Russia is a more mysterious.
None of the opposition candidates (including Tsikhanouskaya who got registered, as well as Babaryka, Tsikhanouski and Tsepkalo who were denied) is a significant threat to Russia, especially that every one of them has or used to have relations with Russia. Viktar Babaryka was a long-term head of Gazprombank’s daughter company, Tsepkalo feared repressions, so in the end he fled to… Russia, whereas Tsikhanouski lived in Russia a few years where he run a business and visited Crimea a few times after the annexation in 2014. Of course, these relations are not a reason to call any of the candidates a “Russian puppet”, but none of them is a “Western puppet” either, which is an important fact from a Russian perspective.
Also, Russia did not react aggressively to the arrests made by Belarus’s secret police made in Belgazprombank, which is a subsidy of Gazprom and Gazprombank. Considering Russia’s standard rhetoric that reaction was quite temperate.
There might be a few reasons. One is the fact that Russia does not really care about changing the administration in Minsk. Generally speaking, for years Lukashenka has been playing Russia’s game. Moreover, with every election he has become more susceptible to Russia’s influence and his bargaining power is wearing down. For a few years now Russia has been limiting its bankrolling of Belarus’s economy by selling cheap oil. It is also looking for alternatives to Belarusian military sector on its domestic market. In recent years the pressure to “integrate” with Russia has been mounting, which means Moscow wants to de facto incorporate Belarus.
Controlled internal social unrest in Belarus benefits Russia, because it makes it possible to enhance its impact on the future decisions of the administration in Minsk, e.g. with regard to integration between the two countries. It seems Lukashenko is resisting to the scenario proposed by Russia. However, if after the election, which most probably Lukashenko will win, there will be mass protests and if the administration decides to quell them, the new/old president will find himself between a rock and a hard place. The West will definitely reinstate limits and sanctions, which in recent years have been gradually loosened. This will eventually close Minsk’s alternative road. It will allow Russia to put even more pressure on Lukashenko.
Such a development is beneficial to Moscow, so it will not hesitate to act on it. Especially that in recent months it was Lukashenko who used Russia’s difficult situation to get the upper hand with regard to oil supply.
Russia perceives Lukashenko as a predictable politician. One of very few that they can really count on. And his supposed resistance to receive Russian jet fighters, or to recognize the annexation of Crimea doesn’t really matter. Belarus is one of the main trade partners of the unrecognized quasi-republics in Donbas. It is also one of the more active members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance. Minsk understands that there is no negotiating when it comes to issues that are crucial to Moscow. However, it is able to negotiate where possible. For many years the Belarusian authorities delayed the loosening of visa restrictions proposed by the EU.
Russia definitely understands that positive political changes in Minsk could impact its own internal situation. Moreover, these changes may cause a more radical political power to emerge, which will want real changes in the republic’s foreign policy. Alexander Lukashenko and his court guarantee that such movements will not be a threat as long as they rule the country.
Russia probably also learned its lessons after its political failure in Ukraine. The more brutal its actions were, and the more support it gave to political groups that supported Moscow, the worse the final outcome was. Today it is impossible to unequivocally state who is Moscow’s favourite, which makes this election even more unpredictable for Western observers.
The Western option
From the point of view of the widely-understood West this year’s election is especially complicated. On the one hand, Alexander Lukashenko is creating an image of a politician who is defending the country’s independence from Russia’s aggressive “integration” at all cost. For many this is enough of an argument to believe he is the “lesser evil”. On the other hand, there exist democratic values, which are non-negotiable for Western elites. Many in the West seem to forget that Lukashenko slightly opens the door to the West only when he is under a lot of pressure, but not from the West, from Russia. The 26 years of him governing the country have been full of corruption, repressions, kidnappings and murders. On the other hand, the possibility of another war, similar to what is happening in Ukraine’s Donbas and the presence of Russian “little green men” in Belarus, do impact the imagination of many commentators. The lack of a candidate who clearly supports the West does not motivate the European Union to grant wider support. So what can and what should the West do? Prepare for the worst. Belarus does not have a history of long and violent social protests like, e.g. Ukraine. Never before has the nation mobilized so much and demanded changes so loudly. In the past Russia showed that it was able to quite quickly adapt to the changing surroundings. It cannot be ruled out that the possible protests after the election will be disrupted through provocations by Minsk and Moscow.
August may be hot
The Belarusian president will not be changed thanks to the votes cast on 9 of August. Few believe that. In Lukashenko’s system the only way to change the president is “in the street” and through a “palace coup”. Both options are possible, depending on how the social situation will develop, which in turn depends on the determination Belarusians will have in fighting for change. It also depends on the participation of third parties. Russia will not give up on Belarus without a fight. Nobody believes that as well. However, a change that would be caused by street protests is not good for Putin, because it may suggest that it is possible to change the government in Russia the same way. This is why, after all, the most probable scenario is that Lukashenko will receive support quietly to brutally pacify the possible protests, which will cut off his escape route to the West. On the other hand, Lukashenko still has a strong position and support of the power structures. This allows him, at least on the surface, to calmly wait and implement his plans, including provocations.
For 26 years Alexander Lukashenko learned to play The sovereignty of his state is a secondary matter for him, which he has proven as the country’s president. It seems Belarusians see this as well. Still, he will not give up and when in a tight spot, he may not hesitate to use the military. Any government that decides to use this tool is not able to survive for long. Russians will definitely help, but they will demand payment. It will be high enough for the country, but not high enough for Lukashenko.