Belarus, the country dubbed ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’, is heading to polls on Sunday to ‘elect’ their next president. The elections are not free or fair by any definition, but the unabashedly and publicly authoritarian president Alaksandr Łukašenka has faced larger protests and backlash than ever before.
Since 1994, shortly after the Belarusian independence in 1991, Belarusian President Alaksandr Łukašenka has governed the country with a firm hand. The former kolkhoz director proudly claims to have been the only representative of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet—country’s supreme decision-making body elected in the tumultuous years of the fall of the Soviet Union —to vote against the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He came to power in a protest vote against the established forces of the still very young democracy. Łukašenka presented himself as a fighter against corruption, who voiced severe allegations of corrupted wrongdoing against many government officials and political opponents.
Perhaps the most critical case was levelled against his 1994 election opponent and then-Prime Minister Viačasłaŭ Kiebič, who was at that time widely expected to secure the presidency. Soon after taking over, Łukašenka started to weaken the parliament, centralise power, and reïntroduce old Soviet national symbolism. One prominent example of this is replacing the traditional white-red-white flag of Belarus with the current flag from the soviet era.
Łukašenka’s attacks on the state did not, however, remain unopposed. In 1996, only two years after his inauguration, the president faced an impeachment petition by members of parliament on charges of violating the constitution. As a response, a controversial and by the West as illegitimate regarded constitutional referendum was called by the president, which significantly strengthened his position. Łukašenka went on to replace the elected parliament with a body consisting exclusively of MPs loyal to him, who then voted to extend his presidency for two further years without reëlection. Since the events in the mid-nineties, Belarus has never again seen elections recognised as free and fair by international observers.
The next significant challenge to his authoritarian style of leadership occured in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential election. In an event that came to be known as Płošča 2010 (Square 2010), tens of thousands of Belarusians assembled to protest against electoral fraud. It ended in an unprecedented crackdown at Niezaležnaści (Independence) square in Minsk in front of the House of Government. The crackdown was to have a very demoralising impact on the democratic opposition in the country.
But this year, encouraged by the precarious economical situation in the country, the lax handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by the president and general weariness with stagnation and the president’s 26 year-long rule, their hope for change has returned, and the opposition rallies got more diverse and numberful than ever before.
In March 2020, opposition blogger Siarhiej Cichanoŭski labelled the growing movement ‘slipper revolution’, after comparing the president to a cockroach in a popular children’s poem called ‘The Mighty Cockroach’. Soon after expressing his intent to challenge Łukašenka in August’s presidential elections, Cichanoŭski was detained after an alleged assault on a police officer. Charges on being a foreign agent followed suit, after the security services claimed to have unearthed $900,000 in cash during a subsequent search of his home. Cichanoŭski’s wife, Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja, soon after entered the presidential race in place of her husband, with the goal to get all political prisoners released and eventually achieving a free and fair election, thereby continuing her husband’s work.
‘We have a Constitution not for a woman. And our society is not mature enough to vote for a woman. Because according to the Constitution we have a president with strong power. To us the President is not like in Lithuania. There, the president was Dalia Grybauskaitė, she came, smiled, sat and went. [The Lithuanian president] is not responsible for anything, because there they have a parliamentary republic. We do not. The president will be a man, I am absolutely confident in this.’Alaksandr Łukašenka, 29 May 2020
Soon it became clear this year’s ‘election’ would become different than the previous ones. Long queues to sign candidate registration letters for several alternative candidates to incumbent president Alaksandr Łukašenka arose. Since ‘unauthorised’ opinion polling is banned in Belarus, independent websites started conducting internet polls on the possible candidates, indicating a clear lead for ex-banker Viktar Babaryka, followed by ex-diplomat and entrepreneur Valery Capkała. After the results of five such internet polls had been released, the Belarusian authorities clarified their ban on opinion polling includes such internet polls, and demanded the websites to stop conducting them.
Soon after, the repressions especially against the stronger challengers began. Babaryka faced investigations related to his former employer, the BelGazpromBank, with friends and former colleagues being detained. On the last day of the signature collection period, it had become clear Babaryka established a new signature record with 430,000 signatures. When visiting the CEC office to hand in his signatures, he did not return. Belarusian authorities had brought him to a KGB prison, denying even access to his lawyers, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are no viruses. You didn’t notice them flying around, right? Nor did I.Alaksandr Łukašenka, 28 March 2020
The Babaryka campaign, however, was prepared. The next day, a pre-recorded video message by Babaryka was published, in which he called to continue the work, go vote, and most importantly, start to collect signatures for a constitutional referendum in order to return to the 1994 constitution. The constitution in place before Łukašenka sought power, assigned a weaker role for the president, installed term limits, featured a stronger parliament, and included traditional white-red-white national symbolism. The number of signatures required for the referendum is 400,000, a number of the same magnitude as the number of signatures Babaryka received for his candidacy. Belarusians all across the world, inside and outside the country, held solidarity pickets. The peaceful human chains reminded some—including a Lithuanian MEP representing the centre-right EPP group in European Parliament—of the Baltic way during the singing revolution that eventually led to the independence of the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia from the Soviet Union.
With the Central Electoral Commission’s (CEC) candidate registration announcement approaching back in late June, Valery Capkała, another prominent candidate, also started to face criminal investigations for not more closely specified ‘illegal activities’. On 14 July, the CEC then announced its final blow: signature record holder Viktar Babaryka would not be admitted to the Presidential race due to alleged tax fraud and ‘foreign campaign aid’, the second main challenger Valery Capkała would not be admitted due to more than half of his 160,000 signatures not being recognised by the CEC. Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja, however, has been registered, alongside incumbent president Alaksandr Łukašenka, businessman Siarhiej Čeračeń, one of two former opposition MPs in the 6th convocation of the Belarusian parliament (all other convocations ‘elected’ since 2000 saw 0 opposition MPs) Hanna Kanapackaja, and Tell The Truth campaign chair Andrej Dźmitryjeŭ.
However, it did not take the opposition long to consolidate their forces. The Babaryka campaign quickly released a statement, in which it called voters to participate in the election regardless of the decision to exclude Babaryka from the race, to sign up as election observers, and vote for any candidate that seems ‘worthy’. On 16 July, the three opposition campaigns with the broadest support (Babaryka, Capkała, Cichanoŭskaja)—represented by Babaryka’s campaign manager Maryja Kaleśnikava, Valery Capkała’s wife and campaign manager Vieranika Capkała, and registered candidate Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja—announced to have agreed on five principles:
- Call on their supporters to participate in the election
- Independent and fair trials for all prisoners after the election of a new president
- Immediate preparation for snap presidential elections that are free and fair and open to all candidates
- Call for participation in initiatives for free and fair elections
- Call for participation as election observers
The picture of the three women posing spread to the media channels, ‘❤️✊✌️’ became the common campaign’s symbol. Soon also Babaryka’s demand to initiate a constitutional referendum to return to the constitution in place before Łukašenka assumed office became a central campaign promise. The initially severely underestimated Cichanoŭskaja campaign took off, record crowds of supporters assembled at the campaign’s pickets, with the climax reached in the capital Miensk, where reportedly 63k people assembled in support of the campaign.
The repressions from the authorities against the now-united opposition campaign, however, continued. Valery Capkała was forced to flee the country with his children after receiving a threat his children could be taken away. Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja sent her children abroad for the same reason. Vieranika Capkała’s sister and Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja’s campaign manager were detained for ‘interrogations’, the latter even twice, and still in custody.
The CEC soon limited the number of observers per polling station to five on election day and three for early voting citing COVID-19 concerns, with the limited observer slots reserved almost exclusively for members of pro-Łukašenka organisations. As well allegedly due to COVID-19, the CEC announced that voting booths would not be fully covered by curtains, citing concerns too many people would otherwise ‘touch’ them. The proposal by the opposition to at least allow observations via live cameras from the polling booths has been rejected by the CEC.
Even more dramatism to the electoral campaign was added on 29 July, when Belarusian state-owned media announced that 32 Russian citizens arrested near Miensk are militants from Russian private military company ‘Wagner’, whose goal was ‘destabilising the situation in the country during the electoral campaign’. The Security Council Chair added that even more Wagner militants were sent to Belarus. Russia demanded Belarussian officials to clarify the situation, while Ukrainian president Zelenskyi asked Łukašenka to transfer the arrested militants to Ukraine for trial, as some of them allegedly participated in the Donbass war conflict.
Belarusians will participate on Sunday in elections that are not free and fair. The authoritarian Alaksandr Łukašenka holds the reins of the country, yet his supremacy has progressively been challenged by the ever-growing opposition. Independent opinion polling is banned in the country, but, with large probability, Łukašenka’s support figures are much, much lower than the official government figures and the tampered election results show. Despite the visible repression and violations towards opposition candidates, the alternatives to Łukašenka look stronger than in years.
Follow the latest developments of the ‘election’ day in our live blog.
This article was contributed to by Antons Gusevs and edited by Julius Lehtinen.