The Belarusian presidential election campaign features at least three candidates the government cannot control or ignore – all of whom have the potential to reach a broad audience.
Some countries have used the coronavirus as an excuse to delay elections; others to bring them forward before the virus does its worst, aiming to secure the current leadership’s dominance. Poland only abandoned its attempt to hold a presidential election scheduled for 10 May with four days to go.
Neighbouring Belarus plans to go ahead with its presidential election on 9 August, after bringing it forward by three weeks. But Belarus has the added difficulty of being one of the only two countries in Europe to have taken a minimalist approach to combating the virus. The other one, Sweden, saw its death-per-capita ratio rise to the highest in Europe in the third week of May; on infections, Belarus is now in eighth place. Officially, there have been only 190 deaths from the coronavirus in Belarus, but the government has been widely accused of under-reporting. President Aliaksandr Lukashenka went ahead with a lavish Victory Day parade in Minsk on 9 May, gloating over the fact that the equivalent event in Moscow had been cancelled. Given that many attendees were elderly veterans, the mood in Belarus could change sharply by 9 August if the death toll continues to rise.
Even without the virus, the presidential election comes at a difficult time for Belarus. Economic problems have accumulated since 2011. Russian pressure on the country has intensified since 2014. There was little opposition to Lukashenka at the last election – held in 2015, when the war in Ukraine was barely contained. But, since 2018, Russia has cut subsidies for Belarus and pushed hard for the country to join an “economic confederation”. One reason for the Belarus authorities’ risky approach to the virus was that the economy was already slowing down before it hit.
These tensions have produced a much more interesting field of presidential candidates this time. The situation presents the authorities with a difficult choice between allowing some freedom in the election as a safety valve for public discontent – with the accompanying risk of a loss of control – or organising the traditional fix, which will lead to other problems. An early and relatively open election also creates plenty of possibilities for Moscow to interference and even support opposition candidates. Belarusian TV is still dominated by Russian channels, while Russia has steadily built up its online presence in Belarus in the last couple of years.
No fewer than 15 “initiative groups” registered for the election by the 15 May deadline. By 19 June, the potential candidates need to collect 100,000 signatures, which is a lot in a country of fewer than 10 million people.
The authorities face a difficult choice between allowing some freedom in the election as a safety valve for public discontent – with the accompanying risk of a loss of control – or organising the traditional fix, which will lead to other problems.
Recent elections have followed a “3+1” formula. First among the candidates is Lukashenka (obviously). Second has been his traditional fake sparring partner, Siarhei Haidukevich, the Belarusian equivalent of loud-mouth Russian ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. This time, Siarhei Haidukevich has been replaced this year by his son, Aleh. The family’s real job has always been to attack the opposition. Third within the 3+1 formula is a token opposition candidate, but never the same one. This figure is usually pro-Western (to improve the image of the vote abroad) but too radical or too unknown to have much domestic support. The opposition finds it difficult to gain support because of competition from a fourth candidate – the one everybody talks about, because it is unclear whether they have the secret backing of the regime. Such suspicions help Lukashenka, as they discredit the very idea of opposition.
These fourth candidates usually have a licence to say outrageous things, attacking the opposition or spreading anti-Western conspiracy theories – though the fear that this might take votes off Lukashenka has led to Haidukevich’s withdrawal. Possible candidates this time include Andrey Dzmitryyew from the Russian-speaking Tell the Truth! movement and Siarhei Cherachen, a businessman who has a background in pro-Russian NGOs and who took over an old party, the Social Democratic Assembly, in 2018.
The “traditional opposition” tried to hold primaries for a unity candidate in spring, only to descend into arguments over whether to delay the election campaign because of the virus. Volha Kavalkova, Yury Hubarevich, and Mikalai Kazlow are currently in the race but are unlikely to acquire the 100,000 signatures they need. One of the two “moderate independents” who were allowed to win seats in the 2016 parliamentary election – Anna Konopatskaya– is also standing. It will be interesting to see whether she is more or less independent this time.
The most interesting aspect of the 2020 race is the fact that there are at least three candidates the government cannot control or ignore – all of whom have the potential to reach a broad audience. The biggest initial impact was made by a blogger, Siarhei Tsikhanowski, who uses YouTube channel A Country for [Real] Life to talk to ordinary Belarusians airing their grievances. Tsikhanowski is a kind of mixture of Lukashenka in 1994, when he first won the presidency through an anti-corruption campaign, and the new breed of social-media populist. As the regime does not like the idea of someone stealing and updating Lukashenka’s act, Tsikhanowski became the most high-profile candidate to be denied the opportunity to register for the election – although his wife tried to stand in his place.
This is also the first election in which the government has allowed high-profile regime insiders – who represent the most dynamic parts of the economy – to enter the race. With its traditional state-owned manufacturing sector in decline, Belarus has relied in recent years on a booming information technology industry, which has special legal and tax privileges. For instance, Tsapkala was on Lukashenka’s team in 1994, before serving as ambassador to the United States and founding the IT Park in Minsk. He has campaigned rather awkwardly, as a businessman rather than a politician – though this might turn out to be an asset. Viktar Babaryka, an articulate critic of economic stagnation, is more dynamic. Because Babaryka is the former head of Gazprombank in Belarus, there is widespread speculation about whether he represents the would-be Belarusian oligarchy or Russian interests.
It is unclear whether, after 26 years in power, Lukashenka still controls the domestic political debate. He has always made a virtue of saying that there will be no oligarchy in Belarus. But the candidacies of Tsapkala and Babaryka signal that the elite is diversifying its options. The growing power of private firms, especially those in the digital sector, is slowly undermining the old state-managed economy. The new economy tends to focus on services and to sell to the European Union, pushing Lukashenka further towards rapprochement with Brussels. Emerging Belarusian oligarchs could easily make alliances with their Russian counterparts. Nonetheless, as the Tsikhanowski episode shows, the authorities can exclude any candidate they do not like.
As such, the election may end up being another foregone conclusion, with Lukashenka once again taking more than 80 percent of the vote. Yet, even if the outcome is not interesting, Belarusian politics suddenly is.
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.