Election in Belarus: Repressions, memes and $1 mln behind sofa

Fifteen wannabe presidential candidates are collecting the 100,000 signatures required for being registered as a contender in the upcoming presidential election. Its outcome will be known on the 9th of August, only three weeks after the Central Election Commission makes public the list of registered candidates. However, the repression spiral against potential candidates and their team members has already unfolded. So far the response of the regime is criminal charges, house-checks, fake evidence, and threats to pensioners.

$900K in summer cottage

On June 3, Belarus’ Interior Ministry posted a video of searching a summer house of Syarhei Tsikhanouski, a might-have-been election competitor of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. According to the official version, the popular political blogger possessed $900,000 and hid the money behind the couch. In the course of the house-check, Tsikhanouski was not present as he has been jailed since early May for allegedly breaching public order in the city of Hrodna.

In fact, Youtuber Tsikhanouski came to Hrodna to campaign for his wife Svyatlana as she bravely stood out as a potential candidate instead of her husband who was serving his sentence during the period of would-be candidates’ submitting documents to the Central Election Commission.

Syarhei Tsikhanouski, phot. Belsat.eu

Andrey Kabanau, spokesperson for Tsikhanouskaya’s team, states that this money is fake evidence used for discrediting the image of the vlogger on the state-run TV. It took not more than two weeks before Kabanau himself was detained.

In addition, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she had to suspend picketing in the bigger cities amid fear of provocations and pressure. Later, she also announced that her team had managed to collect 100,000 signatures.

Seniors as Schrödinger’s support of Lukashenka

Belarusian pensioners who have traditionally supported Lukashenka began to actively take part in campaigns of alternative candidates this year. As a response, some faced administrative charges and pressure from the KGB. As an example, 63-year-old Stanislava from Hrodna participated in a meeting with Syarhei Tsikhanouski and was later accused of hooliganism. Similarly, an 81-year old pensioner, who gave an interview to Tsikhanouski in Hrodna, came in sight of secret services. Later, a propagandistic reportage appeared on state TV where the KGB Chairman showed the case file of the woman. The elderly electorate is not anymore a homogenous group of Lukashenka supporters. This might explain why carrots were replaced by sticks in the awkward attempts to scare the elderly from voting against Lukashenka.

Seniors at pre-election pickets. Phot. Belsat.eu

‘Sasha 3%’

Electoral opinion polls without special accreditation were prohibited in 2002; since 2012, the institutions that conduct them without permission from the Academy of Sciences have been fined. However, until now, measuring candidates’ ratings were allowed in social media.

Considering the growing visibility of alternative candidates and different polls floating online, the authorities ordered to stop publishing ratings of candidates. However, some media were on time to measure wannabe candidates’ support. Only 6% of TUT.by’s readers voted for the incumbent leader, while social inquiry at the webpage of Nasha Niva and Onliner shows only 3%.

On the back of this, Belarusians has come up with a new joky slogan for Lukashenka – Sasha 3% (Sasha Three Per Cent). Belarusian media continue to publish surveys but replace the candidates’ names with synonyms or jokes. Just to illustrate, Lukashenka is named ‘cockroach’ or ‘tractor’. “Cockroach” follows the narrative suggested by Tsikhanouski who mentioned ‘squishing the cockroach with a slipper’ as a metaphor for drawing the line with Lukashenka’s being in power.

Minsk, 14 June 2020. Photo: Iryna Arakhouskaya / Belsat

‘Sasha 3%’ has already become a merch. Some businesses announced sales with 3% valid until the 9th of August. Marketing.by conducted a review of creative companies that used 3% and the date of the presidential election in their advertisement. One of them is T-shirts from symbal.by that became extremely popular over the last weeks and were confiscated from distributors with shop-search following. The T-shirts have the slogan ‘Псіхо3%’ (Psychosi3%) where the last letter of the word was replaced by Lukashenka’s rating among the readers of several media editions.

Athletes on the frontline

Activists of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM), which is directly involved in state propaganda, were mobilised to partake in the meeting of Lukashenka’s supporters. A group of them attacked a journalist of Radio Free Europe, bombarding him with questions about his salary. Later, they mistakenly chased after one of the coordinators of Lukashenka’s campaign with the same question.

Another group to stand on Lukashenka’s side in the information field is sportsmen. In the newspaper Hrodzenskaya Prauda, Ivan Tsikhan, an Olympic Prize winner in 2008 and 2016, expressed his criticism over ‘unqualified people’ who are currently seeking presidency. Vadzim Dzevyatouski, another Belarusian Olympic champion, praised Lukashenka on his Instagram and blamed ‘some people and forces’ who aim to ‘destabilise’ the country.

Marharyta Mikhneva, an Olympic Prize winner in rowing, said in the interview with Pressball: “Everyone thinks that it will be better with him. But they are profoundly mistaken. Just with Lukashenka we have what we need”.

While the repressions against Belarusians who dare to support alternative wannabe candidates continue, EU urges the authorities to stop harassing Belarusian citizens. Whether these warnings have an effect will be clear at least after the announcement of the election result in August. Meanwhile, the authorities continue to develop methods of negative political campaigning against the incumbent opponents and threaten Belarusians with shootings and dispersals.

Election-2020: Unexpected candidates spark Belarusian civil society

Alesia Rudnik, belsat.eu