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Lukashenka’s mistakes bring Belarus closer to democratisation

In power since 1994, the Belarusian president is facing his toughest challenge yet.

Yahor Azarkevich
6 July 2020
Aliaksandr Lukashenka
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Source: President.gov.by

This August, Aliaksandr Lukashenka will seek re-election as president of Belarus for the sixth time in a row. Although the campaign is only starting to take off, it has already proven to be the most interesting in the state’s recent history. Lukashenka is facing genuine resistance to his rule and, it seems, has made several mistakes in dealing with his opponents - bad election timing, counter-productive violence and stirring up another source of tension with Russia. The question is: could these mistakes help bring about a long-awaited democratisation in the country?

Lukashenka has not seen a strong competitor to his rule since winning a democratic election in 1994. Back during the years of post-Soviet collapse, the widely popular and charismatic leader attracted mass support, only later to capture power and claim the title of “last dictator in Europe”. The issue here is that while the state’s autocratic system has hindered electoral competition in Belarus, it is widely believed that Lukashenka would have won previous elections even if votes had been counted fairly. The conventional opposition has long discredited itself in their reluctant struggle against the regime, which usually consisted of promoting populist slogans and underdeveloped strategy.

Previous moments of major resistance to Lukashenka’s regime came in 2006 and 2010, when thousands of protesters took to streets with calls for democratic change. Those protests were met with a crackdown and detention of both civil participants and presidential candidates. (Indeed, popular candidates in Belarus have a habit of ending up in prison or exile, or both.) After rather vibrant campaigns in 2006 and 2010, Belarus saw an insipid election in 2015 - civil society was not willing to support “technical” opposition candidates, and hence remained unengaged. This year was supposed to be the same but for a last minute twist.

Lukashenka’s reluctant response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the consistent decline of people’s incomes and broader political stagnation has coincided with the emergence of popular (at last!) alternative candidates. As opinion polls are essentially banned in Belarus, it is difficult to assess the real support of the incumbent president or his rivals. However, multiple surveys by independent media put Lukashenka’s rating at around 3%. (This has led to a new nickname “Sasha 3%”, together with related memes, street art and merchandise.) The real levels of support for Lukashenka are likely much higher, as most of his supporters do not trust digital media and prefer to receive information from state TV - these voters are unlikely to have their voices represented in the independent surveys. But it is clear from leaked official polls that Lukashenka has lost the electoral majority.

The real campaign has not even started yet and the candidates have not been officially (not)registered, but they are already facing repressions - something previously unseen even in Belarus

Lukashenka’s prime rivals Viktar Babaryka, Valery Tsepkala and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, on the other hand, enjoy unprecedented support from the Belarusian public. Babaryka scores above 50% in the same independent surveys and has collected 435,000 signatures in his support with the help of the second largest initiative group (after Lukashenka). This is significantly more than the 100,000 signatures required for registering as a presidential candidate and more than any other democratic candidate has previously managed to collect. In fact, even Lukashenka himself collected less signatures in 1994 and 2001, until he started to present over one million every election since 2006 - a figure comparable to how many Vladimir Putin usually collects in Russia. Tsepkala and Tsikhanouskaya score from 10% to 20% in the surveys and have collected around 220,000 and 150,000 signatures, respectively. This is particularly striking given the small size of their initiative groups.

Not surprisingly, this situation has played on Lukashenka’s nerves. The real campaign has not even started yet and the candidates have not been officially (not)registered, but they are already facing repressions - something previously unseen even in Belarus. The initiative group of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, popular YouTube blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski - who initially planned to run for president - was denied registration. And Siarhei himself was imprisoned in connection with what Amnesty International considers a politically motivated case.

Viktar Babaryka, the former head of one the country’s largest banks, has also found himself in the middle of a criminal case concerning money laundering, tax evasion and bribery. He and his son Eduard (who is head of his father’s initiative group) are now in detention as the investigation continues. Babyrka’s team could not therefore submit all 435,000 signatures to the electoral committees as Viktar and Eduard themselves had to present some of them. Yet even out of the 361,654 signatures that reached the committees, around 200,000 were deemed invalid (again, something unseen in the recent history of Belarusian elections). This still leaves more than enough signatures for Babaryka to be registered as a candidate, but given that the number of signatures are not the sole requirement, this does not guarantee it. Vitally though, the invalidation of signatures stirs up public dissatisfaction, as people’s voices are essentially being ignored.

Screen Shot 2020-07-05 at 20.55.59.png
Viktar Babaryka gives an interview to Anastasia Barentseva | Source: YouTube

Valery Tsepkala has submitted 160,000 signatures, but more than half of them have been deemed invalid too. Unlike Babaryka, this leaves Tsepkala virtually no chance of registration - appealing decisions of the electoral committees is notoriously fruitless. Further, Belarusian law enforcement has initiated an inspection of Tsepkala’s affairs after accusations emerged of financial irregularities over a high-profile IT incubator in Minsk.

In addition to the pressure put on potential presidential candidates, more than 600 citizens - including political activists, bloggers, members of the initiative groups and participants of legal pickets - have received administrative arrests or fines, or have become subjects in criminal prosecutions. According to Viasna human rights centre, there are currently 22 political prisoners in Belarus - one of the highest numbers in the state’s history.

Whereas an active government response to the rise of civil society is indeed unusual, perhaps more so is its effect. After a suspected provocation at a legal picket in the city of Hrodna put blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski in custody, the queues of people willing to give their signatures in support of his wife Sviatlana have only risen. When an investigation into Babaryka’s former bank emerged, the banker’s support rating spiked to around 70%. (Babaryka has become one of the most popular people in the country - at least according to number of Google searches.) The further detention of Babaryka and his son gave rise to “chains of solidarity” actions - perhaps the largest acts of public protests in Belarus since 2010. Overall, the more the government has suppressed resistance, the more it has backfired.

Detention of Siarhei Tsikhanouski in Hrodna, May 2020

This pattern in Belarus does not look surprising in view of a recent article by Daniel Treisman, “Democracy by mistake: How the Errors of Autocrats Trigger Transitions to Freer Government”. As the title suggests, the study aims to explain how mistakes helped democracies to emerge. Treisman considered all democratisation processes since 1800, and concluded that only one third of them occurred due to deliberate choice. Two thirds, he claims, were the outcome of mistaken strategies which autocratic leaders adopted in their attempts to maintain power.

Lukashenka has clearly been making mistakes. The first and most fundamental is what Treisman calls “election mishandling”. The incumbent president decided to run a presidential election right at the moment when his approval rating dropped to a supposedly all-time low in light of the largely unpopular response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, Lukashenka could have run this election in 2019, but instead chose to proceed with a traditionally more calm and insignificant parliamentary election. Should Lukashenka have run for president last year, he would likely have found himself in less stressful circumstances. Unfortunate election mishandling, according to Treisman, is one of the most common mistakes that brings democratisation - this factor accounted for around 22% of the cases studied.

The second mistake was “enforcing counterproductive violence” - the reason for another 22% of regime changes. Lukashenka personally initiated the arrest of Siarhei Tsikhanouski, after which police found $900,000 in cash behind the sofa at his home - yet suspiciously only during the third house search (which happened at night). Many Belarusians do not believe this money really belonged to Tsikhanouski or his family. The case against Viktar Babaryka fostered public disagreement too, as his supporters started a petition asking for his immediate release. Furthermore, the investigation process involved a highly controversial confiscation of valuable pieces of art from his former bank’s collection - paintings of Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine and other prominent painters connected to Belarus. The total value of the collection is believed to be around $20 million. As in Tsikhanouski’s case, Amnesty International considers the arrest of Babaryka politically motivated.

But while prominent bloggers have also been arrested, what’s important is that not only civic activists and politicians are among those detained. Random passers-by at protests have been fined and subject to administrative arrest. For example, one case that caught the public eye involved an oncology surgeon in Minsk receiving a fine for “participating in mass protests” while merely chatting with a friend. Many people have been detained while queuing for a shop that sells clothes and products with national Belarusian symbols, Symbal.by. These events prompted many famous figures, unusually including state TV hosts, to speak out against police brutality and political repression. Some of them have faced sanctions at work or lost their jobs completely.

The regime may be continuously hitting the “boiling point” for unrest, but never exceeding it

Babaryka’s case has also potentially driven Lukashenka into making a third error - “major foreign policy failure” - which accounts for 17% of democratisations by mistake according to Treisman. For 20 years, Babaryka headed Belgazprombank - over 99% of its stock belongs to Russian energy giant Gazprom and its associated bank, Gazprombank. Immediately after opening an investigation into the administration of Belgazprombank, the Belarusian government appointed its own acting chairman of the board, former Belarusian central bank head Nadzieya Yermakova. While there is a debate on whether this action is legal, both Gazprom and Gazprombank have made their position clear: the actions of Belarusian officials are unlawful as only shareholders can appoint the head of Belgazprombank. Hence the latter “intend to seek protection of their rights and lawful interests through all legal remedies available”.

Whether this confusion around Russian assets will escalate Lukashenka’s relations with Vladimir Putin remains unclear. The presidents met each other at the Victory parade in Moscow in the end of June, but reportedly this meeting was cold and Lukashenka left for Minsk straight after the parade. Most recently, Putin and Lukashenka have opened a WWII monument together near the Russian town Rzhev. Again, however, even the official reports claim that they did not talk long.

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Vladimir Putin and Aliaksandr Lukashenka, June 2020 | Source: Kremlin.ru

Overall, Russia has seemed to distance itself from the Belarusian election and has not publicly supported Lukashenka (nor any other candidate). At the same time, Lukashenka and his officials keep speaking of Russian involvement in the ongoing election and unnamed Russian “puppeteers” behind Viktar Babaryka. It is unlikely that this rhetoric can improve already less-than-perfect relations between Belarus and its largest partner. With the European Union presumably on the path of imposing new sanctions against Lukashenka amid the worsening repressions, it may leave the Belarusian president deprived of the foreign economic support needed to sustain his rule.

These assumptions do not necessarily suggest that Lukashenka’s regime is on the verge of collapse. First of all, the mistakes he has made so far have only triggered a proportion - no matter how significant - of the population. It is unclear whether they have had any effect on the elites. (Only 10% of non-consitutional exits of autocrats occur as a result of a popular uprising, a prominent study suggests.) Which is crucial as by far the most common way of regime change is coup d’état - almost two thirds of authoritarian failures occur due to elites becoming disloyal.

In Belarus, there is not yet evidence that would hint on any sort of elite breakdown, especially as Lukashenka has recently refreshed his cabinet of ministers. Market-liberal prime minister Siarhei Rumas has been replaced by military-oriented Raman Halouchanka, and overall, more representatives of the security and military services - the so-called siloviki - have entered the cabinet. Uladzimir Makei, the foreign minister who has been widely regarded as one of the most liberal and pro-western members of Lukashenka’s cabinet, has recently shown his support for the actions of the incumbent government. “The regime is strong,” he claimed in his latest interview. Hence even in theory, this situation leaves little gap for the transformation of the Belarusian political structure from the inside.

As for foreign policy mistakes, they may end up without any significant consequences at all. Neither Russia, nor the EU have yet imposed any formal sanctions on Belarus and even if they do so, Lukashenka has long been developing friendship with wealthy actors such as China and Arab states of the Persian Gulf (particularly the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia). In case Belarus’ usual partners decide to turn on the incumbent president, these countries might become alternative sources of international support and investment to the Belarusian economy.

Most crucially, mistakes are not about their quantity, but quality. As Daniel Treisman finds, most regimes needed just one mistake to fail - making two, three or four was in general a significantly rarer occurrence. And so far Lukashenka has been handling this aspect well, spreading out likely points of public unrest over time. Siarhei Tsikhanouski’s arrest occurred in one media cycle, Viktar Babaryka was detained during another, and Tsepkala’s registration signatures were declined during a third. Although Lukashenka keeps making mistakes, they seem to happen gradually, and as a result public dissatisfaction is spread out. The regime may be continuously hitting the “boiling point” for unrest, but never exceeding it.

Nevertheless, mishandling the repressive apparatus seems to pose the most prominent threat to Lukashenka’s power. It becomes increasingly clear that the means used to deter peaceful resistance are counterproductive and only cause more distress among the public. More people are becoming politically active: they disapprove of the arrests of potential presidential candidates and the pressure on those willing to legally contribute to electoral campaigns. More people feel personally involved as their signatures are rejected, as they, their friends and family members get fined or detained for what doesn’t appear unlawful to them. More people want their voices to be genuinely heard in a free and fair ballot. Unusually and hence surprisingly, civil society does not seem to weaken however hard it is being hit.

It is definitely too early to write Lukashenka off as Belarus’ president, but his usually deft political strategy has never brought him as close to a defeat as this time.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

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Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

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