On Sunday, some six million Belarussians are eligible to vote in the country’s presidential election. Whether they do or not, the outcome is hardly in doubt — the results could show incumbent strongman Alexander Lukashenko winning.
At stake isn’t who will win, it’s how will the inevitable victory go down in a nation that has been rocked by months of political and economic chaos — and that was before Lukashenko simply ignored the very existence of coronavirus and behaved outrageously. Instead of a lockdown to stem the pandemic, Lukashenko has suggested saunas or copious consumption of vodka will rid the nation of just under 9.5 million of COVID-19.
If that’s hard to swallow Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, has been in power since 1994 and won every presidential election since the country declared independence in 1991 after the break-up of the former Soviet Union. The wins, Lukashenko has openly conceded, were based on very liberal interpretations of democratic numerology.
Landlocked with Russia to its east, Poland to the west, the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to the north and Ukraine to the south, Belarus stands at a strategic European crossroads — a position that Lukashenko has played to strengthen his position either with the Kremlin or the West as needs be to best suit him. A decade ago, after an election that was more fiction than fact, the West imposed economic sanctions. Those were quietly dropped when it became clear Lukashenko would be key in bringing a tentative and fragile peace to the breakaway Russian-allied republics of eastern Ukraine. The Minsk accords brokered by Russia, the European Union and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, still remain in place and have at least quelled the worst of the violence that broke out six years ago and, according to the United Nations, has claimed some 13,000 lives.
This time around, Lukashenko has made it a point of accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of interfering in Belarus’ domestic affairs. The two nations have a long-standing treaty, propped up by Minsk’s oil refining capabilities — unrefined Russian crude is piped in, refined petrochemical products shipped out, and Lukashenko’s administration received cheap oil as a benefit. Western sanctions on Russia too are hurting its economy. Subsidies from the Kremlin are gone — with Minsk going to the International Monetary Fund. Belarus is in a severe recession — it has pretty much the same economic rankings as Chad, Niger and Mali, and its annual average income is some $1,300 annually.
Tikhanovskaya is the opposition favourite. She’s 37, an English teacher, attractive and articulate — a figure that many in the EU would be sympathetic to should Sunday’s results stretch credulity to breaking point.
While Moscow would like to see greater integration, Lukashenko believes that might lead to annexation — the Crimea and separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine serves as a lesson.
But while Lukashenko might have valuable experience in manipulating the outcome of his five previous presidential elections, this time, the stakes are higher.
Simply put, the more people who turn out and cast actual ballots makes it much harder to fix the results otherwise. And he is facing his biggest challenge so far.
In early June, state security forces arrested Viktor Barariko, the opposition figure who would have been Lukashenko’s main rival in Sunday’s vote. He was charged with fraud. The arrest was the catalyst for widespread protests against the long-standing president and his failure to take the pandemic seriously. For his part, he says the IMF made locking down a condition of receiving financial aid, something he says he won’t cave in to.
Another potential rival, Valery Tsepkalo, was barred from the election because of allegedly handing invalid signatures to Belarus’ Central Election Commission (CEC).
As part of his campaign promises, Lukashenko says he will double salaries over the next five years — but he won’t rework the constitution to limit the president to two consecutive five-year terms, a main opposition demand.
Last week, Belarussian forces arrested a group of Russian security contractors in Minsk and said outside elements were plotting a revolution there. The arrests were the precursor to a fiery address to his nation in which Lukashenko said he would protect Belarus from opponents he portrayed as wreckers controlled by “puppet masters” abroad.
For its part, Russia has said the detained men were transiting Belarus to a third country, but Lukashenko said those assertions were “all lies”.
“These people have given testimony and said they were sent specially to Belarus. Their order was to wait for further instructions,” he said.
This time around, Lukashenko is playing the strong leadership card against external threats and foreign interference.
His main election opponent is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former teacher whose blogger husband was arrested and prevented from taking part. There are three other candidates in the race: Anna Kanopatskaya, Andrei Dmitriyev, and Sergey Cherechen, according to the election commission. Each one collected tens of thousands of signatures in order to run.
But Tikhanovskaya is the opposition favourite. She’s 37, an English teacher, attractive and articulate — a figure that many in the EU would be sympathetic to should Sunday’s results stretch credulity to breaking point. What’s more, her liberal political agenda strikes a chord in Brussels — promising to free political prisoners and hold free and fair elections within six months.
And Brussels is watching closely. In the 2015 vote, it supported international observers who recorded more than 1,300 voting and counting irregularities. This time around, the international observers have been frozen out, and with Chancellor Merkel the current rotating chair of the European Council, Minsk is very much on her radar.