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Lukashenka will likely hold on to the presidency in August, but it won’t be nearly as easy as in the past.

In Belarus, preparations are underway for the 2020 presidential elections. The situation seems increasingly volatile, with protests and demonstrations in all the major cities against Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the incumbent president. Although Lukashenka appears to have complete control over state media, the army, police, the militia, and the security services, he maintains that hostile forces are trying to create instability in Belarus, which could undermine independence and even statehood. He asks these forces not to push him to a crackdown.

Are there real prospects for change in Belarus? Why is there so much more popular activity in 2020, compared to 2015? And what is the likely outcome of the 9 August presidential elections?

Violating the Social Contract

There are several reasons why the 2020 election is Lukashenka’s biggest political test to date. The first and most obvious is the COVID-19 pandemic, and the president’s failure either to acknowledge it as a serious threat or to take action for the protection of the public. The number of cases in Belarus on 5 July – over 63,500 – is high, nearly double that of neighboring Poland, which has four times the population. The death toll, however, is absurdly small and obviously understated 423 (Poland has over 1,517, for example).

In theory, Lukashenka’s presidency rests on a form of social contract with the population, one that ensures a certain stability of life, peace with other states, and security of wages and pensions. In his heyday, Lukashenka was always known as Batka (little father), symbolizing this pact with the people. But he was unprepared for the pandemic and chose, like Donald J. Trump of the United States, to dismiss it initially as a “psychosis” that had brought the world economy to a halt. Lukashenka added that unemployment is the U.S. was a much bigger problem than COVID-19, citing one of Trump’s earlier statements. Arguably, Belarus could hardly afford to impose a complete lockdown given the fragility of its economic situation as a result of slumping oil and gas prices. But for many Belarusians, what Lukashenka was doing was abdicating presidential responsibility for the fate of his citizens.

As the health situation worsened, local authorities and informal groups took over the response from the government. Many were also shocked when the Victory Day 75th anniversary parade took place as scheduled, and thousands of troops marched in close formation before an equally tightly knit crowd in Minsk, with a parallel ceremony at the Brest Hero Fortress. Ironically, while the parade took place in Belarus, Russia cancelled its larger equivalent – though it held several rehearsals that likely caused more problems – and closed its borders both with China and Belarus in response to the spread of the virus. The loss of access to Russia was a serious problem for many Belarusians who work full- or part-time in Russia to earn much higher salaries.

Objecting to the IMF’s quarantine requirements, Lukashenka recently turned down an offer of a $940 million IMF loan to fight the pandemic. According to the president, one of the requests was for Belarus to adopt the same sort of anti-COVID measures adopted by Italy. Lukashenka scoffed at the request: “God forbid that we should repeat in Belarus what happened in Italy!” He maintained that Belarus would not dance to the tune of anyone. Lukashenka has a number of options for future loans, but even if he resorts to borrowing from China, or continues to accept money from Moscow, they will also come with conditions attached.

The Russian Factor

Russia presents a much broader and difficult problem for Lukashenka. For many years, he was able to subsidize the economy through cheap imports of oil and gas from Russia, which could then be resold at high profit to the European market. But Vladimir Putin is no longer willing to provide such largesse without more concessions and has, in the meantime, tried in different ways to draw the two countries closer together. Belarusian media are flooded with Russian programming, and polls have shown that Belarusians generally support Russia, particularly with regard to the conflict with Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, and the material backing of the rebellion in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. There is some evidence, however, that such support is no longer unequivocal and in some sectors is actually declining.

In every election to date, other than a brief period in 2010, Lukashenka has been able to count on the support of Russia; first through Boris Yeltsin, and after 2000, through Putin. It is less obvious that he has such backing in 2020, and the attitude in Moscow seems ambivalent. On 24 June, Lukashenka was in Moscow to attend the delayed parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Though he made a typically provocative comment that he was visiting “the capital of the homeland,” he remained a distant observer and declined to attend some of the ceremonies that followed, returning to Minsk without delay. He also referred to the closure of the Russia-Belarus border, at Moscow’s behest, as an act of “absolute stupidity.”

Still, it is likely that on the evening of 9 August, Putin will once again congratulate Lukashenka on yet another victory, and soon thereafter propose continued negotiations on deepening integration on the basis of the Law on the Creation of the Union State Russia-Belarus. That will probably again lead to flare ups over the creation of supranational bodies in the Union State, a single currency, and a single emission center in Moscow for the combined ruble.

Since the Union State was created in 1999 after a summit between Lukashenka and Yeltsin, it has remained hitherto mostly a paper organization and Belarus has managed to avoid further attempts at closer integration. But in contrast to recent years, the financial situation of the Belarusian leader is now much weaker, and Moscow has attained the wherewithal to dictate more political conditions, linking them with economic benefits.

The Struggling Economy

In the view of economist Yaraslau Ramanchuk, Lukashenka’s attack on Belgazprombank –  formerly run by Viktar Babaryka, one of the main opposition candidates – may have serious consequences for the economy and undermine the country’s investment image. Ramanchuk, a former presidential candidate in the 2010 elections, called Lukashenka’s move “a very serious game – toward self-isolation, lowering living standards, and involving Belarus in certain global trade chains.” (That final point likely refers to the need to appeal to Russia or China since Western investors will be wary of a state that represses its own banks.) Ramanchuk compared the country to Sherwood Forest in medieval times, “putting up barbed wire and claiming that we have our own rules. No one plays that way. We will never attract foreign investment; we will not have modern technology, and there will be a degradation of the economy.” He added that if one removes the “oil emirate status” that the country enjoyed in the past – receiving cheap oil and gas from Russia, then refining and reselling them at high profits to Central and Western Europe – GDP would fall below levels in the 2010s.

Another issue is the president’s disregard for private property, which he sees as a hostile entity, His sentiments have been exacerbated by Babaryka’s election campaign, with the owners of private capital even more perceived as potential enemies. On 19 June, the president railed against greedy commercial bankers, obsessed with achieving their bonuses, while setting tough conditions for loans. At the same meeting, the president warned bankers that they were not in business to finance political campaigns. He contrasted these banks with more reliable ones, such as Sberbank, that were assisting with measures to boost the economy, including selling domestic equipment to Russia, and thus working “in the interests of the state.” Thus, there are good banks and bad banks, and the good ones are on the side of the authorities.

Above all, Belarusians are starting to suffer economically. Belarusian GDP is forecast to decline by 7 percent over the course of this year. The retirement age for men and women has been raised by three years to 63 and 58 respectively, starting in 2022. In 2019, 117 state-owned factories closed down, with the loss of 48,000 jobs. Belsat cites official data of $510 for the average monthly salary – $80 less than in 2014 – and the figure is much lower outside Minsk. About 500,000 are unemployed according to official figures, around 11 percent of the population of working age – the real totals may be higher.

The Alternatives

Another factor in 2020 is that the main opposition candidates are different in background from those of the past. While Andrei Sannikau in 2010 was a former deputy foreign minister, the opposition forces were led mostly by familiar political party candidates, well-known to the president, and often linked to Belarusian nationalistic forces that have supported the use of the Belarusian language, the state flag used from 1991 to 1995, and a pro-European and conversely anti-Moscow position.

Lukashenka main opponent these days – at least in terms of opinion polls and the collection of signatures (with over 450,000) – remains Babaryka, the former head of BelGazprom Bank, who at the time of writing, is in prison, along with his son, Eduard. Babaryka was well-prepared for his arrest – a criminal case involving tax evasion that could result in a lengthy sentence – and had a video interview ready to release for that eventuality. Valery Tsapkala is an establishment figure, former Belarusian ambassador to the United States and until 2017 head of the Hi-Tech Park incubator. He holds a doctorate in International Law. At present, he remains free to campaign. None of these figures has a history with the official opposition, and two of them once represented the establishment, suggesting that the main threat to the incumbent president comes from the administrative elite.

Additionally, there is also the factor of social media. A popular YouTube vlogger, Syarhey Tsikhanouski refers to Lukashenka as “the cockroach” (a sly reference to the mustachioed Lukashenka because in Russian/Belarusian, roaches’ antennae are referred to as moustaches). He has initiated a “slipper revolution” to display symbolically the device usually deployed to crush insects. Tsikhanouski, a popular and irrepressible figure, was arrested on 18 June, and his wife Sviatlana took his place as the prospective candidate. He has had few problems, even while under arrest, of bringing crowds to the streets. Lukashenka has exhibited marked irritation at such insults, and on a recent visit to Brest, he confronted some of the young protesters directly.

Some past candidates – such as Aliaksandr Kazulin and Mikalai Statkevich in 2006, and Statkevich, Sannikau, and Uladzimir Niaklaiev in 2010 – were prepared to mount public protests against manipulated election results and suffer terms of imprisonment or hard labor. These processes are being repeated but at a much earlier stage in the campaign. At the time of writing, one of the leaders of the Christian Democratic Party, Pavel Seviarynets, was being held in a cell in Akrestsina for 75 days. Amnesty International has called for his release because of his reported harsh treatment.

The Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front has preferred to boycott what it calls “fake elections.” The party’s exiled leader, Zianon Pazniak, has denounced Babaryka’s campaign to create a new constitution that would replace the original 1994 version, arguing that this would undermine the primacy of the Belarusian language and prepare the country for integration with Russia. In this respect, Pazniak comments, Babaryka is worse than Lukashenka.

It is unlikely that the leading opposition figures will be allowed to campaign without harassment, as we have already seen. On 29 June, the election commission in the city of Homiel announced that all signatures for Babaryka and Valery Tsepkala had been declared invalid. Similarly, in the Frunze district of Minsk, the same pattern occurred with 16 percent of names from the respective lists found to be unacceptable.

The campaign to gather signatures under the difficult conditions of the pandemic – for an election being held at the height of summer, when most residents tend to be at their dachas – has, nevertheless, taken on a mass form. Large crowds, mainly of young people under 40, gather regularly, to collect signatures and to protest arbitrary arrests. The fear factor, so prevalent in 2011-15, seems to have been overcome among all age groups and even in small towns in the provinces rather than just in the capital Minsk.

How Popular Is He Really?

One of Lukashenka’s responses has been to change the government, removing Prime Minister Siarhei Rumas in early June and replacing him with Raman Holovchenka, chairman of the State Military-Industrial Committee. The president has also moved to arrest protesters and to crack down on public gatherings, most notably on 18 June, the final day for picketing for the collection of signatures for presidential candidates. Yet to date, the actions of the militia do not seem to have deterred the demonstrators.

What drives people to the streets in the face of such dangers? It would be a misstatement to maintain that Belarusians want democracy. They want change. Several candidates are independently wealthy – part of the establishment but alienated from it, illustrating a split in the administrative elite; to put it simply, between reformers and revanchists. And after 26 years of Lukashenka, the reformers believe they have a chance of bringing change.

The president’s popularity has sunk significantly. Opposition polls put him in fourth position behind Babaryka, Tsikhanouska, and Tsapkala, with between 3 and 6 percent of the popular vote, thus earning him the derogatory epithet “Sasha 3%” among the opposition. Online polls were subsequently banned, but the results are well-known and publicized widely. A more realistic figure is around 24 percent, which would denote an inconclusive first round, requiring a second-round runoff. Any result that provides Lukashenka with another healthy mandate – what he once termed “an elegant victory” – with a first-round victory of around 80 percent of the vote would be regarded justifiably with suspicion and likely result in further demonstrations against his presidency.  Either way, matters are unlikely to be finalized on 9 August.

The Options at Hand

We should be frank. Lukashenka has a few weapons in the shape of the army, police, security services, and – not least – control over the voting process. If any one of the former turns against him, changes could come quickly. If one wants to be cynical, we could say that the three main choices other than the incumbent are an oligarch, a technocrat, and a populist (running by proxy). The state could take diverse directions, and not necessarily democratic ones. It is probable that Lukashenka may still succeed in 2020, but prospects beyond that seem less certain. He has shown several times that he is averse to reforms, that privatization in his view signifies loss of personal control, and that for all the rhetoric linking his country’s fate with that of his person, the only certain motive is the retention of power.

Moreover, a harsher crackdown would lose Lukashenka some recently gained advantages: support from the EU, Western investment, and not least his power base, the people who backed his most recent quest for the office he has held since 1994. It would push him closer to Russia, but not from a position of strength – rather, as a weak neighbor with fragile control over his electorate. None of his choices are good, but his selected option seems to be to withstand the prevailing tide and struggle on for a few more years. Thus, the year 2020 will not end the Lukashenka presidency, but it will mark a notable decline in his power and influence. He has lost the respect and belief that his electorate once had in him.

David R. Marples is Distinguished University Professor at University of Alberta and author of many books, most recently Understanding Ukraine and Belarus (2020). Uladzimir Padhol holds a Candidate of Philosophy degree from Belarusian State University and is a frequent writer for nongovernmental Belarusian media.