The Belarusian awakening

David R. Marples,
Distinguished Professor,
University of Alberta,

The August 9, 2020 elections were the sixth for President Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who became president of Belarus in 1994. The previous election in 2015 had been largely boycotted by the opposition political parties and was the smoothest to date for the regime. Moreover, as earlier, each stage of the election was carefully stage-managed: from the gathering of 100,000 signatures to the vetting of candidates by the Central Election Commission headed by Lidziya Yarmoshyna.

Yet Lukashenka badly miscalculated. First, two candidates emerged from the  elite: Viktar Babaryka, former chair of Belgazprombank, and Viktar Tsapkala, former head of the Hi-Tech Park and former Belarusian Ambassador to the United States. Added to the mix was popular vlogger, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, whose YouTube site has around two million viewers.

Second, in early 2017, Lukashenka introduced a law to punish so-called “parasites” who worked less than six months per year. The result was angry, spontaneous protests in several Belarusian cities. The law was eventually shelved but the bond with the people was lost.

Third, the president dismissed Covid-19 as a psychosis, advising the population to go the countryside and ride tractors, drink vodka, and visit the sauna. As the virus took root, local governments prepared for mass hospitalization and use of ventilators. Lukashenka had relinquished his role as protector of his people.

Fourth, Belarus’ relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia had deteriorated. Frustrated with the lack of cooperation on issues such as a new Russian air base in Belarus, Russia imposed duties on oil and gas exports and ended its former subsidies.

Babaryka gathered most signatures and led in the polls. One online poll calculated Lukashenka’s support at only 3-6%, leading to the derisory slogan “Sasha 3%.” Tsikhanouski encouraged followers to bring slippers to his rallies to “crush the cockroach.”

The response from the authorities was swift. Large-scale arrests took place, including that of Tsikhanouski. Babaryka and his son Eduard were arrested and charged with tax evasion and money laundering. Tsapkalo fled to Russia All three major challengers were refused registration. Tsikhanouski’s wife Sviatlana offered to run in his stead and was accepted, ostensibly because she was a political neophyte.

On June 8, Tsikhanouskaya joined forces with Tsapkalo’s wife Veranika, and Babaryka’s campaign manager, Maryya Kalesnikova. The three campaigned together in a number of cities and in late July they addressed more than 60,000 people in Minsk’s Banagalore Square. The crowd, of all ages, sang songs and waved the white-red-white national flag that was used in 1991-95, but banned thereafter.

Tsikhanouskaya proved a charismatic challenger who became very popular. Her platform promised only the release of all political prisoners and new elections. Politically, she leaned neither to Russia nor Europe. But Belarus was changing. The formerly passive population was passionately interested in the campaign. And it was manifestly not supporting Lukashenka.

Nevertheless, on August 9, the Central Election Commission announced that Lukashenka had received 80% of the votes with Tsikhanouskaya at 10%. Russia promptly recognized the results; the Western Powers demurred. Mass protests followed. On the two Sundays following the election, over 200,000 flooded the streets of Minsk, with thousands more in smaller cities. The regime responded with violence, mass arrests, and brutality using OMON troops, KGB troops, and police forces both in and out of uniform, but all masked. At the prison on Akrestin Street, detainees were made to lie face downward on top of each other without access to food or water.

More protests followed, with women leading on Saturdays—generally they were treated less brutally than the men—and en masse on Sundays. At several factories, workers went on strike. The regime was severely weakened but did not fall. When Belarusian Television workers resign29ed, Lukashenka replaced them with Russians. Those on strike were threatened with job losses. University students were targeted, along with their families. Russia did not intervene directly, but in Sochi on September 14, Putin offered Lukashenka a $1.5 billion loan and promised further support.

The Belarusian Awakening remains undaunted but faces a difficult future. Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania, Tsapkala to Russia, and Kalesnikova is in a Minsk prison, having been abducted off the street. A Coordinating Council put in place by Tsikhanouskaya to find a way out of the impasse has seen all its Executive Committee members fleeing the country or arrested with the exception of the Nobel Prize winning author Svetlana Alexeevich, who has been guarded at her home by European diplomats.

Lukashenka’s future is in doubt, but he has vowed to remain. The final outcome is unclear, but nothing will ever be the same in Belarus.

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