Lukashenko’s Last Stand, Part 2: crushing the competition9 min read
Read the first part of this article, outlining Belarus’ recent economic and political decline, here.
Against the backdrop of economic stagnation, overdependence on Russian charity, and a novel coronavirus, a presidential race has begun in Belarus. It was supposed to be just another formality to secure Lukashenko his sixth term in office. Lukashenko, his life-long sparring partner Gaidukevich, and a few opposition nonames on the ballot – a repeat of the plan which worked out perfectly in 2015. But something went wrong. For the first time in Lukashenko’s career, not one, but three strong opposition candidates have stepped forward.
The first is Sergei Tikhanovski, one of the country’s most popular political bloggers. A straightforward fellow who became extremely popular with Lukashenko’s former supporters, blue-collar workers and people from provincial towns. He doesn’t beat around the bush, simply saying that elections in Belarus are so rigged that it makes no sense to participate in them. He has said that he wants to use this election campaign to ignite anti-Lukashenko protests all across the country to force Lukashenko out.
The second candidate is Viktor Babariko, who is perhaps the wealthiest man in the country whose fortune is not derived from Lukashenko’s goodwill. For 20 years he has been CEO of Belgazprombank, Belarus’ largest private bank. Even though the bank is owned by Russia’s Gazprom, Babariko can hardly be seen as a pro-Russian candidate. He is extremely popular among Belarusians for his art patronage and support of various cultural initiatives aimed at the revival of the Belarusian language and culture (as opposed to Lukashenko, who openly says that the Belarusian language is ugly and still tries to preserve his small Soviet Union).
The third is Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the US who had worked alongside Lukashenko for over 20 years but fell out with the regime in 2016. He is also very well known in Belarus for creating the IT Park in Minsk – Belarus’ Silicon Valley, and the only sector of the economy that has been growing in the last decade.
We don’t know the exact level of their support as political surveys are banned, even online polls. But it is extremely likely that any of these three would beat Lukashenko in a fair election. This is once again a new situation for Belarus, where, although all previous presidential elections have been severely rigged by the Central Election Commission, Lukashenko has always been far ahead of the competition (instead of the official 83% he had 40-60% depending on the year). He has always been so confident in his position that he openly admitted to having ordered the Election Commission to falsify the election of 2006.
Now that Lukashenko is behind three other candidates, he is clearly worried that usual falsifications might not be enough. Especially since Babariko launched a campaign called “Fair People” aimed at covering all polling stations with independent commission members, or at least observers. If successful, Babariko’s initiative could massively limit the room for falsification.
The situation is so worrying for Lukashenko that he had to urgently dismiss the entire government two months ahead of the election, as its key ministers, including the Prime Minister Sergei Rumas, were known for having very good relations with Viktor Babariko. The newly appointed cabinet can rightly be called a National Rescue Government. It is the first time in Belarusian history when all key positions are being held by siloviki – people from the KGB and other security agencies whose main asset is loyalty and readiness to execute any order from Lukashenko. Announcing the changes, the President said: “Today is not the time to destroy. Nor is it the time to build. Today is the time to save what has been built”.
The economy has been switched into manual mode. All talks with the IMF, EBRD, and other international financial institutions about possible loans in exchange for reforms are now cancelled. So are attempts to improve Belarus’ relations with the EU and the US. Paraphrasing Lukashenko, it is not the time to think of tomorrow, it is the time to survive.
An unprecedented crackdown has begun three months ahead of the election, before the actual race has even started (in previous years, crackdowns usually followed the election). Sergei Tikhanovski was denied registration and soon arrested as the result of an obvious police provocation. He is now facing up to six years in prison. Lidia Yermoshina, the chairwoman of the Central Election Committee, accused him of no less than “trying to change the President through the signature collection” – which is a preliminary part of the election campaign.
Viktor Babariko-linked Belgazprombank was raided by the financial police. Its entire top management was arrested. Babariko’s election campaign fund was seized. The authorities shut down Belarus’ largest crowdfunding platform, created by Babirko’s son, which was a crucial instrument to helping abandoned medics during the COVID crisis. Finally, Viktor Babariko, along with his son, and many of his family friends and business partners have been arrested and put into the KGB detention centre.
Hundreds of activists all across the country have been kidnapped and arrested. The detainees have been denied the right to see a lawyer. Their homes have been searched, their families threatened. Policemen broke the arm of one of the detainees’ mothers. There have been reports of policemen pointing their guns at children during searches. Wives of the detainees have been threatened with the seizure of their children. Those activists who have already been released are talking about unprecedented torture. One of the activists, leader of the Christian Democrats Pavel Severinets, while in custody tried to cut his wrists in protest against torture and inhumane conditions.
The same goes with businesses. Those who have dared to express their support for the opposition candidates are being shut down under various pretexts. One of the producers of national-themed souvenirs had to stop part of his company’s operations as it “constituted a threat to national security”.
Before his arrest, Viktor Babariko had been breaking all popularity records. He had the most campaign members among all opposition candidates in Belarus’ history. His people collected 425 thousand signatures in support of his candidacy, which is again an absolute record. The second best ever was Zianon Pazniak in 1994 with 216 thousand.
Lukashenko is clearly afraid. Every day he attacks his opponents on TV, calling them thugs, pigs, lice, and fat bourgeois. Realising that even falsifications might not be enough this time, Lukashenko has turned to terrorising his people. In a recent speech, he has warned Belarusians what happens when people do not obey their ruler by referring to the case of the 2005 Andijan Massacre, when representatives of the government of Uzbekistan opened fire into crowds of civilians.
All this has happened in just the few weeks after the election date was announced. In the remaining two months, we will undoubtedly see even more violence; more arrests, threats, and provocations. There is a chance that for the first time in history, no real opposition candidate will be allowed to run. The Election Commission has until 14 July to make the decision. But no matter whether all the candidates are arrested now or right after the rigged election, the level of discontent is so high that protests on 9 August, election day, are almost unavoidable. Moreover, judging by the number of people who came out on the streets even in the smallest provincial towns to support Tikhanovski after his arrest, it is likely that for the first time in the history of Belarusian elections, protests will take place not only in Minsk but also in other cities and towns.
Lukashenko is trying to work proactively, but he must also bear in mind the potential protests. For the first time in 26 years, he has significantly reinforced the security of his main Minsk residence. Students of police and military academies have been denied summer holidays. Retired policemen are also being urged to return to the service. The army is calling reservists up for military service one week before the election. There are reports of mass production and purchasing of anti-riot equipment. Lukashenko is preparing to give Belarusians one last decisive fight.
There is almost no doubt that he will win it. But what next? Next, Lukashenko loses legitimacy not only in the eyes of the people but also a significant portion of the nomenklatura. The Western vector is closed to him. In the East, Mother Russia is not shy to say that further support comes only in exchange for sovereignty. The Russian tax manoeuvre deprives Belarus of one of its two main sources of income. The other one – export of potassium fertilisers – is also going through a hard time because of low procurement prices. Yes, Belarus can still count on loans from Russia, China, and Lukashenko’s Middle East cronies, but the terms of these credits are far from friendly and at best they could help the economy hold on for another year or two.
After that, however much Lukashenko tries to avoid it, Belarus will need deep structural reforms. Otherwise, as long as Russia doesn’t change its mind and resume support, the most likely future for Belarus would be to default on its loans and devolve into a failed state. Lukashenko understands that better than anyone else. A few years ago, he initiated a constitutional reform, which he probably sees as the beginning of a Kazakhstan-like transit to post-Lukashenko Belarus. It is likely that the new constitution will significantly weaken the President and transfer more power to other branches, leaving Lukashenko with the status of an arbitrator in a different capacity.
The system Lukashenko built no longer works. He is no longer popular. He can extend his time in office with the help of the bayonets, but at the end of the day, he will have to make a decision: to reform Belarus himself, or to give up power and let others do it.
The featured image for this article is a photograph by Sergei Grits for the Associated Press.