In the run-up to a difficult election for President Alexander Lukashenka, the three main opposition candidates have been excluded from the vote and there have been mass arrests. Western countries should try to deter further repression in Belarus without isolating the country.

Elections in Belarus are normally carefully stage-managed. This time, the authorities have lost control. In the run-up to the presidential vote scheduled for 9 August (and the 14 July deadline to be registered as a candidate), opposition candidates have gained unprecedented levels of public support. Three such candidates have caught the public imagination, expanded the opposition’s political space online, and appealed to both Belarusian-speakers and Russian-speakers. There are no real opinion polls in Belarus, but support for President Alexander Lukashenka seems to have been weakened by years of economic stagnation and his minimalist response to covid-19.

Rather than hold a real election, the authorities took the risky decision to knock all their strongest opponents out of the race one by one. They gave populist vlogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski – whose YouTube channel, A Country for Life, airs the grievances of ordinary Belarusians – a sequence of short prison sentences on trumped-up charges (related to public order and the organisation of rallies), ensuring that was in jail on 14 July. With candidates requiring 100,000 signatures to register to stand in the election, the authorities rejected 53 per cent of those collected by Valer Tsapkala, the former boss of Minsk’s IT Park (compared to a minuscule share of those for the “controlled opposition”).

The campaign of businessmen Viktar Babaryka, the former head of Belgazprombank (a subsidiary of Russia’s Gazprom), collected 435,000 signatures – an astonishing number given that there are only seven million voters in Belarus – and submitted more than 360,000 of them. The electoral commission eventually accepted 165,744 of them. So, the authorities banned Babaryka from the election for “receiving financial aid from abroad” – apparently his campaign team included Belgazprombank employees who had used their work phones. They arrested Babaryka and several bank employees on corruption charges.

But public support for the three candidates continued beyond the registration phase. While the authorities responded with increasing repression, it was never quite enough to stamp this out. By 8 June, 275 people had been detained, fined, and imprisoned in the previous 40 days. In big cities, voters organised impressive ‘solidarity chains’ that maintained social distancing. And, although the events were entirely peaceful, the authorities detained another 360 people during 18-21 June, as well as 280 others on 14 July. According to local NGOs, Belarus now has at least 25 political prisoners. However, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is unlikely to be given permission to conduct a normal observation mission in the country.

Belarusians may decide to copy Alexei Navalny’s ‘smart voting’ tactics in Russia: supporting the most independent of the remaining candidates.

The Belarusian authorities have fixed elections in the past, but the last-minute measures they have taken this time seem obvious and crude. Lukashenka and three ‘controlled opposition’ candidates are left in the race: Hanna Kanapatskaya of the United Civic Party, who was one of only two moderate opposition leaders to win seats in the 2016 parliamentary election; Andrey Dzmitryew from the Tell the Truth! movement; and Siarhei Cherachen, a businessman who was parachuted in to take over an old but tiny social democratic party in 2018. The one remaining popular opposition candidate is Tsikhanouski’s wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who registered to stand but has little organisational support for her campaign.

The most likely outcome is that Lukashenka will declare a big, fake victory. At the 2015 election, he claimed to have won 84 per cent of the vote on an 87 per cent turnout. This time, however, the authorities chose to hold the election in the holiday season, when many citizens would be away from the areas in which they are registered to vote. The coronavirus will still be a problem. But the government hopes that its core supporters will turn out anyway. And one-third of Belarusian citizens cast their votes early under various forms of pressure. Alternatively, a mass boycott is possible, making Lukashenka’s victory look even more hollow than it otherwise would. The third possibility is a bandwagon effect. Belarusians may decide to copy Alexei Navalny’s ‘smart voting’ tactics in Russia: supporting the most independent – or, in the Russian case, least bad – of the remaining candidates. Tsikhanouski seems set to stay in prison, which will handicap his wife’s campaign. And many members of his campaign team in the regions and his online helpers are under arrest. Nonetheless, Babaryko and Tsapkala have promised her their support.

The repression could become worse. Currently, the opposition has used social media to build influence. There is no formal protest organisation, but Babaryko has 289,000 followers on Instagram. Tsikhanouski’s channel has 245,000 subscribers. Protesters have gathered information (some of it inaccurate) from Telegram, while state TV outlets have stayed silent on the movement. It is possible that the nervous authorities will implement an information lockdown. Independent candidates are already marginalised in popular newspapers and on state TV.

Western countries imposed sanctions on Belarus in similar circumstances following the 2010 election. They lifted most of them in 2016, as the 2015 election was relatively quiet – with Lukashenka playing the stability card at the height of the war in eastern Ukraine. There is no doubt that Belarusian state repression is now severe enough to justify the reimposition of Western sanctions (as recently documented by the UN special rapporteur for human rights). And there have been calls for Western countries to target Lukashenka. For instance, British businessman Bill Browder has argued that current “human rights abuses will fall squarely under the auspices of the Magnitsky Act”.

Traditionally, the human rights situation in Belarus has deteriorated when it is cut off from the West. Since 2016, Western countries have sought to strengthen their links to, and leverage over, Belarus. They have also diversified their policy on the country since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in 2014, emphasising their support for Belarusian sovereignty. Given that these initiatives are still only in their early stages, sanctions would undoubtedly leave Belarus more isolated, economically weaker, and more vulnerable to Russian influence.

Nonetheless, so long as it takes place before the election, clear signalling from Western countries could prevent the Belarusian government from engaging in even harsher repression. It will be hard for them to maintain a principled position on human rights while supporting Belarusian sovereignty. But these are just the kind of difficult issues the European Union needs to contend with if it is to prepare for rapid political change in Belarus.

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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.