On August 9, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will seek his sixth term in office. He has ruled over the country for a quarter-century, relying on a mix of repression, information control, and Russian subsidies. Past elections were foregone conclusions. But this one is different: the coronavirus epidemic has exposed Lukashenka’s incompetence and animated Belarusian civil society. No matter how the votes are counted, it will be remembered as an important moment in Belarus’s political history.
Belarus is one of the few countries in the world that took no precautions against the coronavirus. Lukashenka kept the borders open, did not require masks or social distancing, and organized the May 9 victory parade and numerous sporting events. He recommended the sauna and vodka as treatments, blamed mounting fatalities on unhealthy lifestyles, and suppressed information about the epidemic’s spread. His actions resemble the Soviet regime’s negligent response to Chernobyl in 1986, which came to symbolize that regime’s corruption, cruelty, and lack of accountability, contributing to its eventual disintegration.
Quietly but surely, Belarusian civil society has organized in the face of inaction by the authorities. Some workplaces voluntarily shifted operations online; crowdfunding campaigns provided medical workers with protective equipment; and local restaurants served free meals to hospitals. The coronavirus seems to have done more for Belarus’s weakened civil society than any Western aid or training. The solidarity and connections it generated are likely to expand into the political sphere.
The quarantines in Russia and Europe have trapped Belarusians who work abroad inside the country, making them more attentive to domestic politics. The absence of reliable information about the virus in state media also motivated people to search elsewhere on the Internet. The information they found reflects poorly on the regime: even Moscow adopted stricter measures to contain the spread, cancelling the May Victory Day parade, closing the border with Belarus, and imposing localized shutdowns. Polls show that the majority of Belarusians support more restrictive measures against the pandemic and are not satisfied with the official response.
Lukashenka’s inaction against the coronavirus may have been motivated by fears of economic downturn. Belarus’s exports are down by 19%, compared to the previous year; negotiations with Russia over gas prices have failed; the Belarusian ruble has plunged; and the entire world is nearing a recession. Lukashenka faces this election with no carrots in hand, unable even to offer the traditional pre-election handouts to pensioners and state employees.
The political opposition is also more formidable than in the past. A month ago, Lukashenka’s main rival was Viktor Babariko, the former head of Belgazprombank, one of the largest banks in Belarus. He secured a record 500,000 signatures in support of his candidacy. Another challenger, Valery Tsepkalo, served as an ambassador to the US and founded Belarus’s Hi-Tech park. Babariko and Tsepkalo were regime insiders, part of a network of technocrats, nomenklatura, and business elites. Their defection revealed cracks in the foundation of Lukashenka’s personalistic regime. Notably, their campaigns focused on the stagnant economy rather than on democratic freedoms or Belarus’s problematic dependence on Russia, themes that had alienated ordinary voters from opposition candidates in the past. Another prominent candidate, Sergey Tikhanovsky, founded a popular YouTube channel chronicling the struggles of ordinary Belarusians and the authorities’ incompetence. All three candidates criticized the regime’s inaction and misinformation during the pandemic.
Babariko and Tikhanovsky have been jailed on trumped up charges, and Tsepkalo has fled the country. Yet, oddly, the opposition is undaunted: Lukashenka’s main rival is now Tikhanovsky’s wife, Svetlana, who registered to run as her husband’s stand-in after his arrest. Repression has united these three campaigns into one: Svetlana was joined by the wife of Valery Tsepkalo, Veronika, and Maria Kolesnikova, Babariko’s campaign manager. Lukashenka faces a team of three women -- bad optics for a president notorious for misogyny.
Belarus’s civil society has matured despite 26 years of stifling rule under Lukashenka. But it is also clear that the regime will try to stay in power at any cost. Over a thousand protesters and opposition supporters and 43 journalists have been arrested and fined since the beginning of the presidential campaign in May. Lukashenka has even hinted ominously that thousands were shot for protesting against the regime in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Instead of meeting with the voters, he has been visiting military and police units. In late July, he claimed to have foiled a foreign-backed plot against his rule, arresting 33 Russian mercenaries. The arrest is used as pretext to tighten security measures ahead of the election and portray the opposition as conspiring with Russia to destabilize Belarus.
If the votes are “counted” and people come out to protest another rigged election, the regime will not hesitate to use force. The result may be the change no one wanted – a transition to a more repressive form of authoritarianism. The crackdown will likely lead to another round of sanctions from the EU, further isolating “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Putin’s government has refrained from commenting on the election so far, but will take necessary steps to ensure its smaller neighbor remains economically dependent and within its sphere of influence.
Like epidemics, revolutions are hard to anticipate: the most predictable are the least likely to occur. Only one thing is certain: most Belarusians are disillusioned, and a growing number are unwilling to be silenced. No amount of repression will be able to fix this in the long run.