The outcome of the latest presidential election in Belarus was known before the date was set. Unlike the 2010 presidential election, or the elections that preceded them, the vast majority of the opposition had more or less reached a consensus rather early on after the election was announced for Autumn 2015.
Essentially, the key players agreed that they would neither participate in the election, nor would they contest the results with street protests. And here is where Lukashenka and the opposition’s concerns, almost incidentally, coincide: should there be any social upheaval, no matter how small, it could possibly be used by the Kremlin to supplant Minsk’s leadership and subvert the country’s sovereignty.
Lukashenka has been on the diplomatic offensive with the west for some time now and it is starting to pay dividends at last. Indeed, months and months of mid-level meetings between EU and Belarusian diplomats, and contact with the U.S., coupled with the release of several more high profile political prisoners in September and Lukashenka’s role as mediator in the Ukraine conflict, have softened the west’s position on Belarus.
The significance of this election is precisely that Lukashenka, while slightly repositioning himself and his regime, has little to offer in the way of vision or reform that could offer Belarus a way out of its long-standing economic predicament. While the opposition’s decision to avoid direct conflict with the regime on the streets of Minsk is much more in line with the Belarusian public’s own general sentiments, the absence of any politics whatsoever may prove equally catastrophic as the country struggles to establish its own identity and forge ahead as a nation.
The unlikely consensus
Even by Belarusian standards, this election was carried out in particularly bad faith. Reports of university administrators ‘suggesting’ their students vote early, food and alcohol being offered at polling stations at discount prices, and persistent rumours of the results being falsified throughout the country all demonstrate the authorities’ traditional disdain for free and fair elections.
The presidential race itself, which consisted of two ‘technical candidates’ from pro-government parties and one relatively obscure member of the opposition, Tatsiana Karatkevich, who ran against Lukashenka, speaks volumes about the very nature of Belarusian politics. Farcical, yet superficially necessary. Exit polls had Lukashenka handily winning 80.3% of the vote and his closest competitor, Karatkevich, garnering only 5.6% of the public’s support. With an officially reported 87% turnout, the long-reigning president will return to office once more, much to the relief of much of the Belarusian public – and the west.
Karatkevich’s decision to run has been harshly criticised by some members of the opposition who say that her participation only lends credibility to the elections. Mikalai Statkevich, a former 2010 presidential candidate and political prisoner that spent nearly five years of a six year-term in prison and was released only last August, even suggested that Karatkevich is a plant from the Belarusian security services. While this view is not held by many others (at least publicly), this and other criticism like it from the opposition demonstrates their continued disunity.
Tatsiana Karatkevich. (c) Ramil Sitdikov / VisualRIAN.Although by no means competitive, free or fair, the dynamics surrounding this election require closer examination. Take, for example, the broader opposition’s decision to boycott this election. This boycott stems largely from a fear of providing the Kremlin and its agents in Belarus a pretence to manipulate any potential protest in order to replace Lukashenka with someone more agreeable to Moscow, a shift in power that could potentially eliminate the last vestiges of the nation’s sovereignty.
Both the Belarusian public and the opposition have very carefully watched how events have unfolded in neighbouring Ukraine over the past 22 months, and while their motivations differ for not upsetting the political system, their mutual fear of seeing their own country descend into chaos has indirectly unified them insofar as both wish to preserve Belarus as a whole.
Interestingly, it would appear that the EU is of much the same opinion. The legitimacy of the outcome of the elections does not appear to be of much interest to the EU this time around as Brussels’ alleged pre-determined plans to put its sanctions against Belarus temporarily on hold would seem to indicate. It simply wants a stable partner with whom it can cooperate.
Belarus and Russia’s already rocky relations cooled even further following the annexation of Crimea. Lukashenka has been seeking out new foreign sources for potential loans and investment well before Maidan began, seeing Russia’s increasing miserly loans and ever harsher demands on Minsk as more and more untenable.
The events in Ukraine pushed his efforts to diversify Belarus’s lenders and trading partners into overdrive, including a number of personal trips to non-traditional trade partners like Pakistan, China, India, and the United Arab Emirates.
Minsk. Andry Fridman / Flickr. Some rights reserved.So far, Lukashenka’s efforts over the past few years have shown little in the way of tangible economic gains in terms of diversification. According to Belarus’s Central Bank, of the roughly $16.7 billion of foreign direct investment the country received in 2014, Russia accounted for $9.82 billion of it – with the next largest investor being popular offshore destination Cyprus, which also reportedly ‘invested’ $2.17 billion in Belarus in 2014. Austria, who invested only $603.5 million, ranks third.
Belarus’s own slumping economy is perhaps the public’s and authorities’ most pressing concern. Minsk is asking for a $3 billion loan from the Moscow-led Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development. This is money Minsk needs as it tries to find a way to prop up the economy and deal with the $4 billion in foreign debt that it has to make payment on by the end of the year.
With Russia expecting to see its economy shrink for the first time since 2009, combined with the revenues lost from lower oil prices and the additional pressure being exerted on the budget from its weakened economy and activities in Ukraine, it is unlikely that Moscow will be as generous as it has been in the past.
It is even more unlikely that it will let Belarus, whom is officially the other half of a single economic and political entity under their 1999 Union State agreement, make promises which it does not intend to fulfill. The renewed push to establish a Russian-controlled air force base on Belarusian soil, which Lukashenka has some successfully fended off for years, is just one example by which Russia can officially hold out on providing loans and economic favours if it does not receive something substantial in return.
A curious opening
Lukashenka’s victory and the absence of a major protest following the vote may help to ease some of the tension in the air – be it with the authorities, the west, or even the opposition. At the same time, it all but ensures that any semblance of authentic democratisation in Belarus will be put on indefinite hold as nobody, be it the opposition or the west, has the political will to push for real change.
It is hard to foresee a scenario in which the persecuted and marginalised opposition will continue to exist anywhere but on the periphery of Belarusian society as the rapprochement between Brussels and Minsk continues to make measured gains and the economy continues to struggle.
And yet, despite Lukashenka retaining his grasp on power, the apparent newly emerging unspoken social contract (leave us be and we will leave you be) between civil society/the opposition and the authorities may provide the former with new opportunities.
As most of the more active elements of civil society have already refocused their efforts on non-political bread-and-butter issues, and the authorities are looking to quietly build goodwill with the west, civil society may well be able to begin organizing and building up recognition in local communities, something they have sorely lacked in the past. The future of the opposition may well lie with them.
Still, prospects for meaningful reform, be they democratic or economic, are grim. Lukashenka’s election campaign message, much like that of his previous campaigns, focused on maintaining ‘stability’, a term much akin to stagnation in much of the former Soviet Union. Lukashenka offered up no meaningful path forward on how to go about liberalising the beleaguered economy, attract substantial amounts of badly needed foreign investment or make the Belarusian economy more competitive.
The small openings that suspended sanctions will create, even if they are eventually completely lifted, cannot compensate for the Belarusian economy's pervasive structural faults.
With the EU’s attention becoming increasingly dedicated to its own pressing domestic issues, its soft engagement with Minsk seems destined to continue to focus on areas where both parties can cooperate without creating waves politically. Paradoxically, Lukashenka’s recent diplomatic and political victories may actually help draw Belarus out of isolation – to the benefit of all.
Standfirst image: Dinamo stadium, Minsk. Marco Fieber / Flickr. Some rights reserved.