Belarus: a most peculiar election (2)

On Sunday, Belarus goes to the polls, ending an election cycle that saw all the usual assumptions turned on their heads. In this, the second of a two part analysis, David R. Marples and Uladzimir Padhol look at the candidates and ask if a Lukashenka victory is anything other than a foregone conclusion.

David Marples Uladzimir Padhol
14 December 2010

In yesterday’s piece, we examined the role played by Russia and Europe in shaping the  early stages of the election campaign. Today, we turn to the candidates and set out possible scenarios. 

From an original field of 18, there were ten who managed to negotiate the twin pillars of registration: collecting the requisite 100,000 signatures, and - no less impressively - securing the approval of an Central Election Commission headed by the infamous Lidziya Yarmoshyna. Yarmoshyna remains a formidable figure in Belarus, and is still banned from European travel despite her limited role as an acolyte of the president. She may yet have played a crucial role in the elections, having ensured that the opposition once again failed to get its supporters onto local election commissions. Thanks to her efforts, they make up less than 5% of total members. 

In the initial round of collecting signatures for their nomination, the highest total was gathered by the chairman of the Liberal-Democratic Party, Syarhey Haidukevich, who also ran in 2006. Having reached this stage, however, he promptly withdrew from the contest. Another serious contender, the United Opposition candidate in 2006, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, began campaigning strongly and then decided to do likewise, citing his disillusionment with the conditions of the campaign and its weighting in favor of the president. 

The 2010 campaign has done considerably more to advance civil society than did the 1994 election at which Lukashenka was first elected. The elections have also opened up the possibility of an alternative candidate for the first time in 16 years

The ten candidates can be divided as follows: independent businesspersons; minor opposition figures; major opposition figures; and the president. The two independents are, frankly, peripheral, and have little chance of breaking 3% of the popular vote: they are Viktar Tsyareshchanka, 60, who heralds from rural Mahileu region like the president, and who is an economist; and Dzmitry Uss, 42, director of the Trivium company in Minsk. The other minor opposition figures, based on current standing in opinion polls and the media are Vitalii Rymasheuski, 35, candidate of the unregistered Christian Democratic Party; Ales Mikhalevich, 35, a former deputy chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front; Ryhor Kastusyou, the official candidate of the Popular Front; and Mikalay Statkevich, 54, a seasoned campaigner from the Social Democratic Party Naradnaya Hramada. These four are unlikely to attain more than 5% in a free and fair vote.

There are three major opposition figures. Yaraslau Ramanchuk, 44, is a dynamic young economist from Hrodna region, well-educated, a speaker of several languages, including English and, according to his own resume, of Polish ancestry. He was nominated by the United Civic Party, which is centre-rightist in orientation, because he was thought to have a better chance to win an election dominated by economic issues than the party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, a frequent target of official harassment and propaganda. Indeed, Ramanchuk has commented (in an interview I held with him in September) that he is targeting the 40% of voters who support neither the president nor the opposition. He claims that Lukashenka is tired and repeats the ‘same, clapped out ideas, over and over again.’ He, the president, has fallen out with Russia, is still on bad terms with the United States, and has no clue as to how to respond to the world financial crisis. As a result, he has lost core support, i.e. those who have relied on Lukashenka to secure their wages and pensions, and who had assumed that he would maintain good relations with Russia. Ramanchuk has focused on the size of the government debt—now around 50% of GDP—as well as rising inflation, and a struggling currency. As the only economist from the opposition, Ramanchuk believes he has a realistic chance of uniting middle forces and winning the election.

There are three major opposition figures: Yaraslau Ramanchuk, Andrei Sannikau and Uladzimir Nyaklayeu

The two other major opposition candidates have belatedly found common ground and frequently campaign together. Andrei Sannikau, 56, is a former deputy foreign minister, leader of the movement European Belarus, and a key figure with Charter-97, which runs one of the main opposition websites. His wife Iryna Khalip is a renowned journalist. Uladzimir Nyaklayeu, 64, is a poet, and founder of the Speak the Truth campaign. He is a former Chairman of the Union of Belarusian Writers and a former editor of the prominent literary newspaper of the Soviet period, Litaratura i mastatstva. He is perhaps the best known of all the opposition figures though hitherto he was not associated with any of the political parties or groups. Both these candidates have run strong campaigns, visited various parts of the country, and are well known abroad. In fact, Lukashenka, demonstrating his trepidation, has accused them of being pro-Russian candidates, particularly Neklyayeu, who has acknowledged receiving financial support from Russia and has advocated selling Belarusian transit pipelines to Russia. Neklyayeu’s father, was an ethnic Russian. 

Ironically, the leading opposition candidates both advocate improvement of relations with Russia as a critical component of their campaigns and cite worsening connections as one of the key defects of the Lukashenka presidency. Sannikau is disillusioned at what he perceives as the hypocritical and inconsistent policy of the EU on democracy in Belarus. The Russian component to his strategy was added much to the dismay of the leader of the Christian Conservative Party of the Popular Front, Zyanon Paznyak, who now lives outside Belarus. Paradoxically, Paznyak’s position in the election has been closer to that of Lukashenka, as both figures advocate a strong Belarus resisting pressure from Moscow. Evidently, however, the anti-Russian rhetoric does not seem to have struck a chord with the electorate. Unlike Ramanchuk, Sannikau and Nyaklayeu have not really elaborated a vision of a future Belarus under their leadership. They focus more on a return to democratic principles, close relations with the EU and Russia, and changes to the Constitution to prevent the abuse of presidential power. 


While few believe that the elections will result in anything other than a Lukashenka victory, this electoral cycle was unusual in that it accommodated demonstrations against Lukashenka. Photo: more than 2000 people gather on Oktyabrskaya Square. All rights reserved. Demotix/Kseniya Avimova

Lukashenka is running in his fourth presidential election campaign (he has also held and won three referenda, including one in 2004 that amended the Constitution to allow him to serve as president indefinitely). He has referred already to opposition candidates as “enemies of the people” (RIA Novosti, 16 Sept), a somewhat inauspicious start for a leader trying to convince the Europeans of his democratic leanings. His approach shared a number of features with earlier campaigns: 

  1. A refusal to take part in the electoral campaign at the street level. Lukashenka instead “remained in office to run the country quietly and efficiently.”
  2. Promises to the electorate in the form of pay rises and a 5% increase in the minimum wage, a considerable burden on an economy that grew by just 0.2% in 2009.
  3. A virtual monopoly of the airwaves (other than two 30-minute TV segments given to opposition candidates in the early December, and two similar spots on official radio). 
  4. Pressure on factories and enterprises, as well as announcements on public transport encouraging people to vote early. Evidently, passengers were also advised to vote for Lukashenka. In past elections about 30% of voting has taken place in early elections and voters are advised to vote for the incumbent president. During the television debate, Mikhalevich advised voters to stay away from polls until election day because of ballot stuffing.
  5. The convocation of the so-called All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, which this time took place on 6-7 December in Minsk, with 2,500 carefully selected delegates, including 273 workers, 250 farmers, 209 engineers, 505 from the social-cultural sector, 607 company managers, army officers, pensioners, students, and others. In 2006, presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin attempted to enter the Congress and was beaten up by militia. This year Nyaklayeu gathered more than 25,000 signatures but was also not permitted to attend. The Assembly has been described as a Soviet-style gathering that praises economic achievements and lays out plans for the next five-year plan. The Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented (6 Dec) that the budget for the assembly was far in excess of the monies allocated to candidates for their presidential campaigns and that those selected to attend received a gift set that included a watch and a microwave oven, and had all their travel and accommodation expenses paid for by the state. In short therefore, the Assembly cannot be separated from the election campaign. Its convocation followed the TV appearances by the opposition candidates, and highlighted exclusively the “achievements” and future goals of the Lukashenka presidency. 

The Television Debate

Prior to the appearance of the opposition candidates, Belarusian Television announced to viewers that they were about to hear nine identical campaign statements from nine candidates. The president as usual refused to take part in debates, relying on local introducers such as Yury Prakopau and Andrei Kryvasheyeu, two familiar pro-government propagandists. However, the organizers of the debate failed to provoke clashes between the nine candidates. Instead each read out a strong statement addressed directly to the president. 

No single candidate emerged from the television debate as a candidate who could defeat Lukashenka. Perhaps more significant was the failure of the contenders to use the occasion to unite publicly behind a single candidate.

Dzmitry Uss declared his goal to change the Electoral Code and acknowledged his lack of presidential ambitions. Neklyayeu, upon realizing that Lukashenka had declined to appear, presented a brief statement and then walked out of the studio. According to observers it was a powerful moment. Both Statkevich and Sannikau appealed to people to gather in October Square on the evening after the vote, without making it explicit as to why they should be doing so. No single candidate emerged from the debate as a potential candidate who could defeat Lukashenka, and perhaps more significant was the failure of the nine contenders to use the occasion to unite publicly behind a single candidate. However, the election campaign has been notable for a lack of unity of the opposition, beginning with the decision of Milinkevich to drop out of the campaign.

Current Standings and Opinion Polls

The popularity of Lukashenka has nonetheless fallen considerably since 2006, partly as a result of an economic downturn (especially notable in 2008), and partly because of the rift with Russia. Polls suggest that his standing of 44%, as reported by Independent Institute for Social-Economic and Political Research (IISEPI) in September, has dropped to 31.4% according to the SOCIUM poll, conducted 11-22 October. Though it is only conjecture, the public campaigns of the opposition contenders as well as their TV appearances are not likely to have lowered their overall support, particularly as the TV speeches evidently went well—rather than attack each other’s policies according to the established format, they maintained a quiet discipline and focused on the problems of the Lukashenka presidency.  

Current standings of the opposition candidates 

Nyaklyayeu, 11.2%

Sannikau, 9.8%

Ramanchuk, 6.0%

Kastyusou, 3.5%

Statkevich, 3.1%

Mikhalevich, 2.8%

Tereshchenka, 2.5%

Undecided: 29.7%

(source: Ukrainian poll)

More recently two more polls have been cited from the same companies. The first is from IISEPI and raises Lukashenka’s standing from 44 to 48.2%, with Nyaklayeu at 16.8%, Sannikau, 8.6%, Mikhalevich 6.4%, Ramanchuk 6.1%, and Statkevich 5.8%. The second SOCIUM poll has Lukashenka ahead with 33.3%, Nyaklayeu at 15.1%, Sannikau 10.6%, and Ramanchuk 8.2%. EKOOM reported at this same time that the president’s rating was about 70% and that of the oppositional candidates less than 1% (belmy.by, 8 Dec). The Ukrainian poll is presumably the most objective of the three, although the same agency ran into some difficulties, allegedly for underreporting the standing of candidate Serhii Tigipko in the recent Ukrainian election. IISEPI has a solid reputation and there is no reason to suggest its figures inflate the position of the president. 

There is currently no serious challenge to Lukashenka, though the possible merging of the Nyaklayeu and Sannikau campaigns behind the leading candidate of the two in the first round could provide more serious opposition in a second round. 

Several comments can be made on these polling results. First, no opposition figure is in a position to offer a serious challenge to Lukashenka, though the possible merging of the Nyaklayeu and Sannikau campaigns behind the leading candidate of the two in the first round could provide more serious opposition to the president if the contest were to go to a second round. Second, the combined totals of the opposition candidates more or less match those in support of the president, who seems unlikely to win legitimately in the first round. Logically therefore there is an opportunity for the opposition candidates to unite behind a leader if the contest should go beyond the first round What one would need to determine is whether there is a possibility for Lukashenka to gain additional votes in a second round. Third, the undecided vote could be decisive, provided that there is a high turnout. However, all these suppositions are likely to be rendered null and void because the authorities will declare the president’s victory in the first round.

Possible Scenarios

Most opposition candidates, but especially Neklyayeu, have invited supporters to gather in October Square at 8pm on 19 December in what could be the beginning of a mass protest to condemn the expected falsification of elections results. However, the results will not be announced until early January, so the sojourn, in cold temperatures, would need to be a lengthy one. Moreover, the authorities have advance warning of the proposed gathering and can take steps to thwart or limit it. A falsified vote, according to the opposition, would be a first-round victory for Lukashenka, and very low returns for figures such as Nyaklayeu and Sannikau (officially Milinkevich’s support was 6% last election, a similarly implausible return). Given the collapse of the Orange presidency in Ukraine earlier this year, and the general decline of popular movements to restore or establish democracy generally in the post-Soviet states, the likelihood is that a gathering in the square would be unlikely to change much. A more probable catalyst would be continuing hostility between Belarus and Russia. 

Most opposition candidates, but especially Neklyayeu, have invited supporters to gather in October Square at 8pm on 19 December in what could be the beginning of a mass protest to condemn the expected falsification of elections results.

The EKOOM company, which is part of the presidential administration, anticipates only one outcome: a decisive first-round success for the incumbent president While EKOOM’s reports cannot be taken seriously as an indicator of current popularity levels, the significance of its findings relates to the administration’s plans for the official announcement of results. It wishes to convince the EU in particular that Lukashenka is likely to win a similar total on 19 December. However, such a result would place the Europeans in a quandary, as it does not reflect Lukashenka’s much lower standing according to independent pollsters. For the president, there is a need to win outright and convincingly in the first round. As the oppositionists have noted, a second round between Lukashenka and an opposition figure—most likely Nyaklayeu or Sannikau—would prove embarrassing for the president. The contender would legitimately have access to official media for the campaign period, and his proposed policies could be compared directly with those of the president. As long as there are nine contenders, the president can stand apart from the fundamentals of the election and treat it as a sort of sideshow. 

Lukashenka needs to win outright and convincingly in the first round. A second round between Lukashenka and an opposition figure—most likely Nyaklayeu or Sannikau—would prove embarrassing for the president. The contender would legitimately have access to official media, and his proposed policies could be compared directly with those of the president

It is the façade of democratic procedure that has led figures like Paznyak, and belatedly Nyaklayeu, to call for a general boycott of the elections. Paznyak argues that participation only works in favor of the president, who thereby gains a modicum of legitimacy, particularly when so many take part in the process. Yet the relative openness of the campaign compared to past ones has arguably changed the nature of political life in Belarus. The 2010 campaign has done considerably more to advance civil society than did the 1994 election at which Lukashenka was first elected. Candidates have been free to talk to voters on the streets of cities with minimal interference, often with the banned white-red-white national flag in the background. Nyaklayeu and Sannikau have spoken to gatherings of 1,000-2,000 people. Sannikau’s team was the first to install a team of pickets in the southeastern city of Homel’. Thus, the elections have opened up to voters for the first time in 16 years the possibility of an alternative candidate and some have provided alternative strategies for the future. 

The reason for such a development is less the democratization of society—in many respects there has been more repression over the past two years than at any time since the late 1990s—and more the president’s need to maintain support in the capitals of Europe and precisely because he is no longer sure how the rift with Russia will end.

To satisfy the aspirations of the EU, Lukashenka would have to lower the margin of his victory to a reasonable, conceivable level, something in the range of 50-60%. Such a result would then allow Lukashenka to finance his public spending commitments

On the other hand, to satisfy the aspirations of the EU for a campaign that can be perceived—for the most part—as democratic if he wins in the first round, Lukashenka would have to lower the margin of his victory to a reasonable, conceivable level, something in the range of 50-60%. Such a result would then allow Lukashenka to receive the much-needed $3.9 billion, continuing his fatalistic policy of borrowing money to finance public spending. Further, Belarus could then enter a new stage in its relationship with the EU without a change of regime. Yet such a total would be very difficult, if not impossible psychologically for Lukashenka to announce, as it would suggest a dramatic drop in his popular standing from the 2006 elections. These scenarios incidentally all posit that the official results will be fabricated. Few analysts of Belarus think otherwise. The president of Belarus is a very skilful campaigner and there is little doubt that he will win the election on 19 December. However, more recent events make that result more certain.

A secret volte-face in Moscow

On 9 December, a surprise and secret meeting was held in Moscow between Presidents Medvedev and Lukashenka, shortly after the meeting of the Interstate Council of the Eurasian Economic Community. Medvedev announced that customs duties would not be imposed on exported Russian oil to Belarus, provided that the Belarusians ratified all the principles of the Common Economic Space with Russia and Kazakhstan, which Lukashenka agreed to do by 1 January. The two sides also agreed that gas prices would rise to the previously agreed level rather than the anticipated $250. The following day Lukashenka announced that Belarus had resolved its existing difficulties with Russia. The apparent rapprochement came two days after Lukashenka had announced at the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly that “We cannot break up with Russia” and that Belarus’ relations with Russia would always be closer than with any third party. This volte-face was not complete, but the signs are clear. The Russian leadership has opted to back Lukashenka once again, but with certain conditions attached. 

The election has therefore taken on a familiar look: a sweeping Lukashenka victory to be followed by an angry but abortive protest in the square, as the opposition once again faces ignominy—perhaps just desserts for its failure to unite—and the prospect of yet another term in office for Lukashenka. However, Russia has gained important leverage over Lukashenka. By agreeing to join a unified economic space, he has ipso facto accepted the long-term Russian strategy that foresees a common currency, i.e. the Russian ruble. Belarus has entered Russian economic space, thanks to Lukashenka’s sudden agreement to mend fences. Russian observers still may not give their full assent that the election was free and fair, but the Kremlin considers the Belarusian president its preferred candidate under the new conditions. This situation will ensure that he is elected but it also means that he can be more easily replaced in the future. If Paris is worth a mass, Minsk is worth a Russian ruble: but whereas Henri IV gave up his religion, Lukashenka is relinquishing a large chunk of sovereignty and has taken a definite step eastward.

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