This weekend, Belarus heads to the polls in what is expected to be a blow-out victory for the incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko, delivering him his sixth consecutive term. While the outcome of the vote seems all but certain – given government repression and particularly efforts to block the candidacy of challengers to Lukashenko – the run-up to the election has proved tumultuous as Belarusians take to the streets to denounce Lukashenko’s two-and-a-half decades of rule and especially his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Sunday, voters in Belarus will have a choice between President Lukashenko and an unlikely challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of imprisoned blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who had sought to run for the presidency before being jailed earlier this year. Belarus also arrested former banker Viktor Babariko, another contender for the presidency, and barred opposition politician Valery Tsepkalo from running. Tsepkalo fled to Russia last month.
Past elections have been resounding victories for President Lukashenko, whose government has “openly rigged” every election after the 1994 contest, according to Freedom House, a democracy monitor. The 2015 poll, for example, saw President Lukashenko take over 84 percent of the vote.
This year’s election is not likely to be much different. But the opposition appears to have consolidated around Tikhanovskaya, and the protests that began in June of this year have continued. While the arrest of presidential contenders ahead of the vote helped spur the demonstrations, Belarusian citizens have been denouncing the government’s handling of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Belarus’ economy has grown at only an anemic pace in recent years – and suffered a recession from 2015 to 2016, and the COVID-19 looks set to force a contraction of almost 6 percent of GDP in 2020, the International Monetary Fund projects. President Lukashenko dismissed the virus as a “psychosis,” despite apparently contracting it himself, and rejected the sort of lockdown measures that were implemented elsewhere in Europe, including in neighboring Russia.
To date, Belarus has over 68,000 cases of COVID-19, according to pandemic monitors.
Though the upcoming election is not likely to yield any surprise results, what makes the elections so crucial for Belarus, as well as the country’s neighbors, is how the government manages the fallout from the vote, which if seriously rigged could plausibly further fuel public discontent. Public unrest in late 2013 and early 2014 in neighboring Ukraine, followed by a government crackdown, ultimately led to the downfall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose ouster that February set in motion events leading to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the start of a Russian-backed insurgency in Eastern Ukraine.
When trouble emerges, President Lukashenko has typically blamed unnamed foreign actors as involved in stoking unrest in Belarus. Usually he has complained of Western interference, but in recent years he has also found himself at odds with ally Russia. The two countries are close military partners and nominally form a Union State, long an amorphous post-Soviet integration project that has received increasing amounts of attention in Moscow.
But while Moscow is interested in deepening their ties, such as by incorporating Belarus directly into the Russian Federation, Minsk has been far less enthusiastic. President Lukashenko has repeatedly criticized the idea of allowing another Russian military air base to be established in his country, and he has dragged his feet on Union State talks. In a move seen as retaliation for Belarus’ stubbornness on the Union State, Russia earlier this year discontinued the export of oil to Belarus, after the two failed to reach an agreement on pricing. Russia has long subsidized the energy exported to Belarus, which re-exports westward to EU states.
In late July, the Belarusian government arrested close to three dozen Russians, who are believed to be members of the Wagner Group, a private military company tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend of President Vladimir Putin. President Lukashenko insinuated the mercenaries had been sent to Belarus by Russia to stir up trouble. About a week after the arrest, President Lukashenko furthermore claimed another unit had been detected in southern Belarus.
Russian officials denied that the Wagner personnel were there to operate on Belarusian soil, saying that they were only in Belarus so as to transit to a third country in South America, which was not otherwise specified. As Belarus did not impose any COVID-19 restrictions, its airspace remains open to airline travel. Some of the Wagner personnel were dressed in military attire, which would indicate they made little effort to conceal their identities. Nor is it likely they would have entered Belarus without Minsk’s knowledge.
Even so, President Lukashenko claims his government has averted a foreign-backed coup through the arrest of presidential contenders and the Wagner mercenaries. This week, the Belarusian Air Force drilled once more on landing combat aircraft on the M1 highway in order to simulate the loss of access to air base facilities, such as what would occur after an attack. The government moreover announced that it would begin military training exercises in Vitebsk Region, bordering Russia, on August 11, two days after the election.
This weekend will see an election with an almost guaranteed result, but the stakes remain high, and much depends on how the government handles any unrest after Sunday. President Lukashenko maintained his grip on power by offering stability – a social contract of sorts in which the government delivers economic growth in exchange for political subservience. The government was already struggling to make good on the economic end of the bargain, and, especially in light of the pandemic, its tools are even more diminished, leaving few good options to defuse the situation and raising the prospect that the government might resort further to repression to contain demonstrations.
For President Lukashenko, then, the challenge isn’t winning the vote but surviving the outcome in the days and weeks that follow.