Belarus’ presidential elections, due to take place on Sunday, are once more likely to be largely interpreted in the west through the prism of the country’s poor human rights record, as well as its infamous status as the 'last dictatorship of Europe’.
Such readings, coupled with the lack of competition and fairness characterising such elections, mask a greater appreciation of the genuine, real-life concerns of ordinary Belarusian voters, not articulated in the Belarusian political system, nor likely appreciated by observers outside of Belarus.
Instead, we should turn to the major social, economic and political concerns, as well as aspirations, of Belarusian voters. Hence, there’s another question we should ask, one goes beyond western coverage of how life in Belarus will change after the election: what do people think about what’s happening in their country? What problems matter to them?
‘Window of opportunity’
With conditions of socio-economic crisis setting in, Belarus’ 2015 presidential elections are far from typical. For the first time in his career, Aleksandr Lukashenka is not only not giving a pre-election speech to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly on the achievements of his last electoral programme, but isn’t even hosting the assembly.
The situation in Russia, the Belarusian regime’s main sponsor, has also affected the country’s economic stability, limiting the scope for financing populist programmes.
Downtown Minsk. Thomas Depenbusch / Flickr. Some rights reserved.If in 2010, Belarusian citizens were promised higher salaries (up to $1,000), then in 2015, neither that amount, nor any other numbers indicating economic progress have featured in the regime’s election campaign.
Instead, we have the slogan of ‘For the future of independent Belarus!’, claims to maintain peace on Belarusian soil in contrast to the ‘chaos’ nearby, and an admission that ‘we didn’t do everything we came up with’. Lukashenka’s election programme has also featured rather different instruments of economic regulation (export and investment) than those we might associate with the long-term advocate of a pseudo-Soviet model of economic development.
We might be forgiven for assuming that this could open a ‘window of opportunity’ for a change of president. (After all, he’s been there for 20 years.) The situation in Belarus, however, will develop along less obvious lines.
The external political situation (the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis), rather than the domestic economic crisis, has defined Lukashenka’s presidential campaign. These events have allowed Lukashenka to position himself as a peacemaker figure, playing the role of the unbiased mediator in Ukraine.
Indeed, Lukashenka’s policy of economic and political balance between Russia and the west has continued to develop. With the west, in particular, there has been an unprecedented ‘renaissance’ in relations, including numerous conversations about the probable removal of sanctions, as well as the photographs of Lukashenka’s son with Barack Obama.
What is an ordinary resident of Belarus worried about?
First off, one has to admit that, naturally, Belarusian society’s moods are far from homogenous. There are serious differences between the active residents of Minsk (and other big cities) and residents of smaller urban areas, between public service employees and people in new high-paid jobs (particularly IT), between those ready to get involved in protests and those who aren’t.
However, it’s still worth trying to characterise a few general tendencies typical of the majority of Belarusian society.
For instance, the current economic crisis is an important factor in the life of Belarus today. Sociological surveys from September 2015 conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research (IISPR) indicate that somewhere around 43% of people asked said that their standards of living had dropped in the past three months.
Moreover, most of the respondents stated that the country’s economy was in crisis. Less than a quarter of respondents (20%) expressed hope for positive change, with 36% of people believing that the situation was just going to get worse.
The everyday life of your average Belarusian citizen can be seen as the product of survival strategies, with a particular focus on one’s immediate family and friends. Things to be valued in this situation include material wealth, comfortable everyday life, the opportunity to guarantee a better future for one’s children, a summer holiday, as well as weekend shopping trips to Poland and Lithuania.
As a rule, people are not interested in politics in Belarus (and often consciously so). For a start, an interest in politics can lead to unpleasant consequences (if you’re employed by the state, you can lose your job, and attract the attention of the KGB). Second, most people see political participation as leading nowhere (as confirmed by the post-election protests). The situation inside the Belarusian opposition, with its many internal splits (of their own making and the regime’s), only fosters this kind of attitude further.
After events in Ukraine began though, depoliticised Belarusian citizens—thanks to their geogpraphical proximity and intense media coverage—found themselves following the situation closely. Russian-language news from either Belarus (or more neutral sources) or official Russian state media became the main sources of information.
As a result, public opinion seems to have settled on the idea that the situation in Belarus isn't so bad. The refugee crisis in Europe, and its coverage in Russian-language news, has only strengthened the authorities' emphasis on the important of Belarus' 'neutrality'.
In the lead up to the elections, then, Aleksandr Lukashenka has managed to find an additional source of legitimacy, which might be expressed as 'you can do whatever you want, as long as there isn't war'.
'You can do whatever you want, as long as there isn't a war'
External political circumstances tend to quash people's concern over the everyday. In fact, the situation in Ukraine gives rise to the feeling that the current Belarusian authorities are still 'more reliable' than the administrations of Petro Poroshenko, Vladimir Putin or even neighbouring European states. So, when faced with the question of 'what are the most important problems affecting who you vote for?' in September, most people cited 'peace and stability'.
As sociologists point out, in previous years, 'peace and stability' didn't even feature on the list of electoral preferences in Belarus. For instance, in 2006 and 2010, the most important questions for people were 'general quality of life', 'rising prices', 'employment and unemployment', and the opposition's call for civic and political rights did not find sufficient support with their electorate.
But just as peace and stability are defining issues for the Belarusian electorate, so are socio-economic problems. Respondents in the September poll expressed concern for quality of life (37%) and rising prices (30%). This most likely explains why the programme of Tatyana Korotkevich, who positions herself as an opposition candidate, is dominated by how to respond to immediate economic questions, rather than political rhetoric.
This kind of approach finds support with the population as a whole, with 17.9% of respondents suggesting they were ready to vote for the uncharismatic, young and largely unknown Korotkevich.
That said, Korotkevich's relative popularity can hardly challenge Lukashenka, whose rating goes to 45.7% and above. Both independent and state survey teams talk of how Lukashenka enjoys high level of trust from the populace. Indeed, Lukashenka seems to have carte-blanche from his voters, who in 2011 were far more likely to believe the president was responsible for the worsening economic situation in Belarus than now.
Elections 2015: there's no way out
Of course, when dealing with an undemocratic and closed regime, survey data can lead to mistakes in interpreting events. No one could have predicted what happened after Belarus' 2010 elections.
Despite the high indicators of trust in the president, 30,000 citizens came out on the streets of Minsk to protest. As a result, 700 people were detained, including four presidential candidates, and civil society was purged. Even now, you can't exclude potential unknown factors that could lead to unforeseen consequences in 2015.
As a popular song of the time put it: 'there's no way out'. Whatever happens after the elections, the elections will be a victory for Lukashenka—despite the economic crisis. And this will, to a certain extent, reflect the will of the people. In a country without elections, where there are strict limits to the public sphere and media operations, such an expression of will can't be seen as 'free'. Only an election without the participation of the 'candidate' who has dominated the public sphere for 20 years could be considered free.
This is why there's 'no way out' for Belarusian citizens. It seems Lukashenka's 'guarantee of stability', which speaks to the majority of people's moods concerning the instability in Ukraine and the 'end of Europe', is going to last for another five-year term. The Belarusian opposition will have to deal with the split which emerged during the campaign between the 'old, moral' generation (Vladimir Neklyaev, Anatoly Lebedko and Mikola Statkevich) and the 'new, amoral' generation (Tatyana Korotkevich).
Moreover, people who vote for Karatkevich won't even find out how many votes she'll receive in reality. Despite all the announcements on the liberalisation of the electoral process, election day will see falsifications (the so-called 'parade of spines', whereby election commission officials crowd around the vote counts) rather than a real vote count. The international community, meanwhile, will note the string of electoral violations but, on the whole, will recognise the results and, most likely, move towards removing sanctions on Belarusian officials and companies.
Belarusian citizens will continue to develop new ways of adapting to the political and economic situation on 'peaceful Belarusian soil'. That is, if the Belarusian regime doesn't make another move in the direction of its 'big brother', and it doesn't find itself caught up in Russia's foreign policy.
But that will be quite a different story, and one which will be crowned with popular – albeit rather sad – loyalty to Aleksandr Lukashenka. The good news for Belarusians, though, is that Lukashenka's balancing act between Russia and the west continues to pay off.
Standfirst image: Minsk. Aliaksandr Palanetski / Flickr. Some rights reserved.