Why This Year Belarus’ Presidential Campaign Might Be the Most Interesting in Decades
Today Belarus’ Central Election Commission headed by its eternal chairwoman Lidia Yermoshina (she’s been in office since 1996) has completed the reviewing of the potential candidates’ initiative groups. This is the preliminary stage of the election campaign. The initiative groups will later be responsible for collecting 100 thousand signatures so that their respective candidates could make it to the ballot. Of the total of 54 applications, the Commission has approved 15. The basis for rejection in the absolute majority of cases was the candidates’ failure to prove that their initiative groups have at least 100 members. Some potential candidates were also born outside Belarus which disqualifies them from running straightaway.
The election campaign begins tomorrow. Those whose applications have been approved will now have exactly one month to collect 100 thousand signatures. What matters most at this stage is the size of the initiative group, as these are the only people who are allowed to collect signatures on behalf of their candidate. Collecting 100 thousand signatures in a month is an extremely difficult task even at normal times, not to mention during the pandemic.
It is an open secret that since 2006 no opposition candidate has collected the required amount. In 2010, during the ongoing rapprochement with the West, the Election Commission had registered almost everyone who expressed the will to become a candidate just to show how democratic the system has become. In 2015 the opposition was in such disrepair that the Commission again had to turn a blind eye to the lacking signatures so that at least one opposition candidate could stand against Lukashenko in order to legitimize his re-election in the eyes of the West.
The collection and verification of signatures is one of the tools used by the authorities to screen out any ‘inconvenient’ candidates and to help those who are considered ‘safe’. There are dozens of reasons why the signatures can be deemed invalid so the only thing the ‘inconvenient’ candidate can do is to collect way over 100 thousand so that even if some signatures are rejected he or she still has more than the required minimum. The larger the size of the initiative group, the more feasible the task.
To begin with, there is no doubt that at least two people will make it to the ballot. Candidate number one is obviously Aleksandr Lukashenko who’ll be looking for his sixth successive term in office. Candidate number two is Oleg Gaidukevich, the chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Despite its name, LDP has little to do with liberalism or democracy. It is basically the Belarusian version of Russia’s LDPR led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. It openly backs Lukashenko’s politics while its chairman (since 2019 Oleg Gaidukevich and before that his father Sergei Gaidukevich) are permanent spoilers at the presidential elections who always come third. Lukashenko’s initiative group has 11000 members while that of Gaidukevich has 4000. There’s no need to worry about these two, we’ll see their names on the ballots on August 8 no matter what.
In terms of the candidates from the traditional pro-Western opposition (Kovalkova, Gubarevich, and Kozlov), there’s no need to worry about them either. Their initiative groups have a few hundred members at best so there is no chance any of them will make it to the ballot.
Definitely, better chances have ‘safe’ opposition candidates like Andrey Dmitriev, Anna Konopatskaya, and Sergei Cherechen. The first of the three, Andrey Dmitriev, is the leader of ‘Tell the Truth’ – a peaceful and constructive opposition movement that supports dialog with the authorities. In 2015 Dmitriev was in charge of Tatiana Korotkevich’s campaign, the only opposition candidate at those elections, and now he decided to run himself. There are 2300 people in his initiative group so potentially, with a little help from the authorities or even without it, he could make it to the ballot too. Another classic spoiler.
The second ‘safe’ candidate is Anna Konopatskaya. She is one of only two opposition MPs from the previous parliament who, given the Belarusian realities, were rather appointed than elected. While an MP she was noted for her draft law “On the guarantees to the President of the Republic of Belarus who has ceased to exercise his powers, and his family members” which would essentially grant Lukashenko immunity from any prosecution. She is also famous for her controversial public statements and generally is less predictable than Dmitriev who is, therefore, a more preferable opposition candidate for the authorities. And given that Konopatskaya has only 1300 people in her initiative group, she is also less likely to become a candidate than Dmitriev.
The next on the list is Sergei Cherechen who is perhaps the shadiest of all the candidates. In November 2018 he came out of nowhere and took over the Belarusian Social Democratic Party “Hramada” from its long-term chairman Stanislav Shushkevich. Before that he was a member of the pro-governmental communist party, and before that he claims he was a prosperous businessman, although it is hard to prove with all the secrecy around him. His initiative group counts just over 1000 people but he already declared he’ll be paying 1 rouble ($0.5) for each signature so he does have some marginal chances as well.
All the above are professional Belarusian politicians, which means that they are all part of Lukashenko’s political landscape. The authorities know how to work with them and how to take advantage of their participation in the elections. If it was just them, this would be just another election with no real intrigue. What makes this election stand out is the emergence of three unexpected entrants.
The first is Sergei Tikhanovski who is the most popular alternative candidate according to the recent poll in one of Belarus’ biggest telegram channels in which over 50 thousand people cast their vote. Tikhanovski is a political YouTube blogger. He runs the channel “A Country to Live In” where he visits various Belarusian regions, talks to people about their day-to-day concerns, and how the authorities disregard their problems. In a way, Tikhanovski is a voice of the ‘ordinary people’ with no established political views, who are unhappy with the direction the country is going. Unlike the traditional opposition supporters, they don’t care much about Belarusian culture, democratic values, or the market reforms. What they want is justice and the growing economy which Lukashenko can no longer provide. Basically, the people who now support Tikhanovski are the same people who had been continuously supporting Lukashenko since he was first elected president in 1994. The fact that they turned their backs to him is a very worrying sign for the incumbent president.
At the same time, Tikhanovski has no programme, he avoids giving interviews, and generally makes an impression of a rather dodgy character. That said, the authorities decided not to press their luck and screen him out at the earliest stage. When the registration of the initiative groups started, over a hundred of his supporters were arrested for taking part in public meetings with Tikhanovski. Public gatherings are illegal in Belarus as long as you don’t submit the special application in advance along with paying the enormous bill for police and paramedics services. Tikhanovski was arrested as well and was not allowed to see the solicitor until it was too late to register. At the last minute, his wife registered instead but since the core of his supporters was in custody she was unable to register a proper initiative group (the candidates were given just one week to do so). Her group includes just 250 people which is way too little to make it to the next stage. No doubt though Tikhanovski will be one of the main troublemakers during the campaign.
The second unexpected candidate is Valery Tsepkalo, a member of Lukashenko’s team since 1994 who fell out with the regime in 2016. Tsepkalo is a former Belarusian ambassador to the US and creator of the IT Park in Minsk which is currently the only prospering sector of the country’s economy. In 2016 he had a conflict with the prosecutor general which resulted in Tsepkalo’s removal from his position of head of the IT park and generally from the system. He’s been keeping a low profile since then so his announcement has definitely come as a surprise sparking some talk of whether we are dealing with a possible elite rebellion or he is just another spoiler candidate. Also, his first interviews left a very mixed impression. Probably that’s the reason that despite the initial enthusiasm about him, his initiative group has attracted only 880 members – a bit too little to pose a real threat. The fact that despite his strong background Tsepkalo has attracted so few people to his group is also likely to do with the fact that the day after he announced his intention to run in the election, another person with an even stronger background had arrived.
This someone is Viktor Babariko. For 20 years Babariko has been CEO of the Belarusian branch of Gazprombank (he resigned the day he announced his campaign). But despite this clear connection with Putin’s regime, he has very good publicity among Belarusian civil society. Unlike Tsepkalo, Babariko is a prominent public figure who is very well known in the country for his support of various civil initiatives, crowdfunding, and arts patronage. At the moment he is very cautious in his interviews, to the point that to the question – whose is Crimea? – he says – Greek. But in general, Babariko’s message is that he is a liberal moderniser with vast managerial experience, someone who’ll be able to pull the country out of the current deadlock.
It is too early to say how good of a politician he is and how well he can run a campaign. But if he does everything right he has the strongest potential of any opposition candidate since 1994. In just one week more than 10 thousand people joined his initiative group which, again, is way more than any alternative candidate since Lukashenko took office. Another good sign for him is that his campaign is run by his son who is the creator of Belarus’ most popular crowdfunding platform which means that he has the necessary experience working on public campaigns.
Apart from the emergence of Viktor Babariko, another reason why this campaign might be the most interesting in the 25 years of president Lukashenko’s rule is that Lukashenko’s position today is weaker than ever. In 1994 he won 80% of the votes in what was the only free and fair presidential election in the country’s history. In 1996, using his popular mandate, he established his authoritarian regime. Since then all elections have been severely rigged with Lukashenko always receiving 80% no matter what. The truth is, however, that even without falsifications Lukashenko would still most likely win the elections of 2001, 2006, and 2010 as the economy back then was growing and he was by far the most popular politician in the country (realistically he could count on 40-50% of the votes). It all changed in 2011 when the country’s Russian-energy-subsidies-based economic model collapsed and Lukashenko’s popularity plummeted. Since then Belarus has been in a permanent state of stagnation.
In 2015 Lukashenko largely won because of the war in Ukraine when he proved himself a peacekeeper and distanced Belarus from the conflict. But since then the situation in Belarus has only gotten worse. In 2016 Lukashenko’s popularity for the first time has dropped below 30%. It was also when independent sociology was de facto banned in the country. In 2017 he introduced an innovative ‘social parasite’ tax which essentially fined people for being unemployed and caused massive protests all over the country, especially in provincial towns, which had previously been Lukashenko’s stronghold. The way Lukashenko addresses the current pandemic (pretends the problem doesn’t exist and blames the victims for not being fit enough) has once again enraged the entire Belarusian society. On top of that, a huge financial crisis has been looming in Belarus even before the pandemic. Now the situation has only gotten worse with some economists already talking about a possible default. The final nail in the coffin would be if Russia decides to support another candidate over Lukashenko, which hasn’t happened before but cannot be ruled out given the current state of relations between Moscow and Minsk.
All these problems along with a strong opposition candidate put Belarus in a new situation. The biggest strength Lukashenko still has is the loyalty of his apparatus which for years has been fixing the elections for him. Fixing was easy in times when Lukashenko was a clear winner anyway. But will it do the same in the situation when the clear winner is someone else? In 1994 the apparatus of the seemingly unbeatable Belarus’ prime minister Vyacheslav Kebich switched its loyalty overnight when it appeared that Kebich is losing to Lukashenko. Could the same happen to the seemingly unbeatable Lukashenko? We’ll find out in less than three months.