Belarus – On the Way to the Bifurcation Point?6 min read
The reinforcement of state repression amidst an ongoing presidential election campaign and the demonstratively negligent stance of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko towards coronavirus constitute major irritants fueling protest potential in Belarus. Combined together, these factors may result in new qualitative transformations in the Belarusian political reality and lead to social unrest in the coming months.
Virus of revelations
Starting from the identification of the first cases in the country, COVID-19 was labeled by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as “common psychosis”. Despite recommendations received by officials in Minsk from the WHO, no effective measures of social distancing were taken in the country. On the contrary, Lukashenko advised locals to resort to vodka, saunas, and hockey in order to repel contagious disease, and also organized a full-scale military parade despite epidemiologic concerns.
Against this backdrop, public authorities are trying to maintain the illusion of control over COVID-19 in the eyes of the Belarusian population. In particular, official statistics from the Ministry of Health evoke distrust. With a population of 9,4 billion people, as of June 19, only 57,333 cases were reported in Belarus with an aggregate death toll not exceeding 337 persons. By contrast, in comparatively similar in terms of population size Sweden, famous for its relatively liberal manner of fighting the disease, the death toll reached 5,078 people with 56,360 total cases. Nevertheless, state officials keep reassuring the population that they have been taking full care of the situation, including by provisioning medical personnel with the necessary protection and sanitation means.
In the meantime, the Belarusian state machine uses all available resources to hide the real scale of the epidemic. While many ambulance stations still operate without the necessary protective equipment, information that leaks from medical personnel on the actual state of things is punished by administrative arrests and dismissals. Besides, many doctors claim having received unofficial order not to indicate COVID-19 as a diagnosis in order to comply with the desired statistical indicators. Officially, a considerable number of people are not diagnosed with coronavirus whereas the majority of hospitals’ facilities are rearranged to host people with ordinary pneumonia.
Despite the lack of tangible measures from the government, Belarusian civil society has demonstrated an unprecedented mobilization in fighting coronavirus. In this way, the most prominent campaign – ByCovid19 – was able to raise over US$250,000 over 45 days and to organize the supply of equipment and materials to local hospitals. Overall, the emergence of civil initiatives, filling the vacuum of power left by state inaction, represents a favorable base for the growth of societal self-organization capacity – a critical resource that may drive the evolution of the Belarusian political environment.
Elections as politisation trigger
Apart from the growing discontent caused by the insufficient state reaction to COVID-19, the Belarusian citizens’ desire for change is strengthening ahead of the presidential elections scheduled on 9 August. The electoral course has been marked by a noticeable turnover in the ranks of Lukashenko’s opponents. The emergence of new leaders and the fading of the traditional opposition into the background substantially differentiate the current campaign from all the previous ones. Among the persons with the highest level of support are former banker Viktor Babaryko, founder of the burgeoning Belarussian IT hub Valery Tsepkalo, and individual entrepreneur and video blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky. All of them actively capitalize on common population fatigue from Lukashenko’s ruling and inability to conduct a transparent and fair dialogue with his own population. At the same time, according to scattered data from unofficial online polls, the electoral rating of the incumbent president fluctuates between 4 and 15 percent. This fact received even more attention after the introduction of punitive fines on any attempts to conduct electoral online polls that are not authorized by the state.
The peculiarity of the current situation lies in the effective complementarity between the new political leaders. In particular, populist Tikhanovsky positions himself as the voice of the ordinary people and successfully stirs a usually passive electorate. His multiple trips around Belarus under the slogan “Smash the cockroach” (an analogy to the incumbent president), supplemented by the well-organized Youtube campaign, greatly undermined Lukashenko’s image that is cautiously polished by state media. On the other hand, Babaryko and Tsepkalo as individuals with well-established reputations demonstrate good chances to sow discord among state nomenklatura by winning the hearts and minds of the liberal part of acting public authorities.
Overall, the situation is aggravated by the regime’s repressive moves and by impulsive reactions from Lukashenko himself. Firstly, two out of Lukashenko’s three main challengers, Babariko and Tikhanovsky, have been already put in pre-trial detention centers on the basis of farfetched accusations. Secondly, law enforcement agencies have undertaken a series of arrests of journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens for participation in peaceful pickets, which were depicted as “unlawful political gatherings” containing direct criticism of public authorities. On top of it, short-sighted declarations of the Belarusian president who denies suitability of women to hold a presidential post or hints at his readiness to quell any protest by a mass shooting, add fuel to the fire of protests.
What prospects for Belarus?
The irreversible negative impact of COVID-19 on the economy pushes citizens to search for protection and guarantees from the Belarusian state that the latter is not able to deliver. A growing number of job losses, coupled with the decrease of monthly income in almost 48 percent of households, signifies that every second person in Belarus has felt direct implications of economic recession. With clearly expanding critical mass of dissatisfied people, it is only a matter of time until private material losses are linked to state-level mismanagement. The presidential elections represent a perfect platform for building such causal relationships in the heads of the Belarusians.
Under the guise of sovereignty protection, President Lukashenko has already unveiled his firm determination to hold on to power by all methods at his disposal. With the projected further escalation of tensions in Belarus, formerly constraining concerns about public image may no longer be a priority for the Belarusian leader. As the elections of 2006 and 2010 have demonstrated, when the question of power is at stake, Belarusians are risking to witness another wave of repressions against disobedient dissidents.
Notwithstanding the outcome of the presidential elections, repercussions of COVID-19 on the Belarusian economy and harsh repressive measures from the state will continue to inflame societal discontent. The latter represents an additional vulnerability point that may be exploited by either internal opposition or external forces to further destabilize the situation in the country in the pursuit of their own agenda: power reshuffle or, in the case of Russia, coercion to unpopular integration projects. In other words, Belarus may be one step away from a bifurcation point in its political reality.
The featured image for this article is adapted from a photo by Natalia Fedosenko for Tass