Several criminal cases have been initiated against the two rivals of the current head of state – ex-Chairman of the Board of Belgazprombank Viktar Babarika and popular YouTube vlogger Siarhey Tsikhanouski. Human rights organizations have already recognized them as political prisoners. Investigative actions are being carried out by the Ministry of Internal Affairs against another presidential candidate – former Belarusian Ambassador to the United States, founder of the Belarusian High-Tech Park, Presidential Aide Valer Tsapkala.
In addition, hundreds of activists have been fined and sentenced to arrests for participating in peaceful and legal pickets to collect signatures for presidential candidates. Among others, the leader of the Movement For Freedom (MFF) Yuri Hubarevich was sentenced to 15 days in jail for holding such a picket to collect signatures for his nomination as a presidential candidate: the court considered the picket an unsanctioned rally, which allegedly did not involve collecting signatures. As a result, the politician announced his withdrawal from the election campaign.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka regularly threatens to take tougher measures against opponents, especially in the case of mass protests on August 9 – the election day. The authoritarian regime is moving from a social contract with the majority of the population to the widespread use of various security structures. The reason is the failure to take appropriate measures during the coronavirus epidemic and the economic crisis. The result is an increase in protest sentiments and a significant downgrade of the head of state’s rating. The authorities have even banned web polls on the rating of Belarusian politicians.
Ratings and protests
Even official data testify to the drop in Lukashenka’s rating. According to the Belarusian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology, only 24% of Minsk residents trust the head of state and only 11% trust the Central Election Commission.
The protest sentiments made new faces in Belarusian politics the leaders of rankings, including the above-mentioned Viktar Babarika and Valer Tsapkala, as well as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of vlogger Siarhey Tsikhanouski. She decided to run for presidency after the Central Election Commission refused to register her husband. Meanwhile, most citizens oppose Lukashenka rather than support specifically one of his opponents. In the long queues during street pickets to collect signatures, people signed virtually “for anyone, but not for Lukashenka”.
A record breaking picket by the number of participants took place in the centre of Minsk on the last but one day of collecting signatures, June 18. It was organized by the Centre-Right opposition candidates Yuri Hubarevich of the Movement For Freedom (MFF), Mikalay Kazlou of the United Civil Party (UCP), and Volha Kavalkova, a member of the Belarusian Christian Democracy (BCD) party. Their joint symbolic picket to collect signatures became an action of solidarity with those who were repressed. The arrest of the candidate and banker Viktar Babarika also contributed to the mass nature of this action.
The authorities have formed precinct election commissions, which count voter turnout and votes, in a predictable manner. Of the several thousand representatives of alternative candidates for the presidency and opposition organizations, only a few were included in the commissions. The registration as candidates of Lukashenka’s top-ranked opponents is currently doubtful. On the other hand, experts notice the spoiler candidates, including ex-MP of the House of Representatives Hanna Kanapatskaya, the leader of one of the Social Democratic parties Siarhey Cherachan, and the head of the ‘Tell the Truth’ organization Andrey Dzmitriyeu. In this context, the strategies of boycott and active observation of the election (turnout and vote count) are gaining popularity in opposition circles.
Moscow’s interest and forecasts
Russia can take advantage of the situation. Kremlin may not be necessarily trying to overthrow Aliaksandr Lukashenka, but it puts pressure on him to force him to sign additional integration agreements, according to which Belarus would lose much of its sovereignty. In turn, Lukashenka is partly building his campaign on the Russian threat to Belarus’ independence, which is allegedly being promoted through alternative candidates. It should be noted that they arouse suspicion on the part of the traditional opposition electorate, as well.
Thus, the most probable scenario of further developments in Belarus during the presidential election campaign is the forcible retention of power by Lukashenka and the cleansing of the public and political field. The task for the classical Belarusian opposition in these conditions is not to succumb to demoralization, to overcome the problem of low resource support, and to more actively offer the society valuable programmes of change. At the same time, continued street protests cannot be ruled out, starting from the election day on August 9.
The determination and scale of the protest will largely depend on whether the borders of Belarus will be opened by the election day as a result of the abolition of anti-coronavirus quarantine. In this case, hundreds of thousands of dissatisfied citizens will go abroad to work or recreate – and the protest wave may subside. The most influential factor, however, is whether Lukashenka and Putin will reach an economic and political agreement.