The presidential race in Belarus is at full speed. Assemblies of Belarusians, including those of the diaspora, are gaining more and more attention in Western media; so does the dispersals of peaceful protesters. Many compare the situation to the developments concerning the presidential election in the year of 2010. However, there are several unique features — new candidates, unexpected support of groups previously loyal to the regime as well as Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s losing momentum.
OSCE, EU, the US accepted only the 1994 election in Belarus. Western countries harshly criticised all the following elections. Falsifications and manipulations have allowed Lukashenka to stay in power for twenty-six years. Regular post-electoral crackdowns has been as a show of force aimed at threatening any potential dissidents.
Compared to protests in 2006 and 2010, demonstrations in Belarus this year started way earlier, even before the official registration of candidates. On the back of the growing popularity of alternative wannabe candidates during the collection of signatures, the authorities detained vlogger Syarhei Tsikhanouski and later, former banker Viktar Babaryka, to hurt their chances of more extensive support.
A response from Belarusians was immediate. Hundreds of citizens started to form human chains form in many cities and towns, demanding a free and fair election.
In 2006 and 2010, post-electoral protests resulted in crackdowns. Lukashenka relied on the system in ensuring his convincing victory, although there was every likelihood he would win those elections in a fair race. In 2010, four presidential candidates were imprisoned for ‘staging an unauthorised rally’ on the election day.
The 2020 campaign is game-changing since the wannabe candidates challenged the incumbent early before the registration. Compared to Lukashenka, contenders mobilised thousands of people not by fear but by their political agenda. Moreover, it adds to the chances of any registered candidate who opposes the current president. The widespread pressure on protesting citizens before the voting day decreases internal and external ratings of Lukashenka.
New faces in the opposition – Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, wife of famous Belarusian vlogger Syarhei Tsikhanouski; Viktar Babaryka, a former banker; Valery Tsapkala, an ex-diplomat and a founder of Belarus’ High Technology Park, gained popularity due to several factors. Potential candidates neither belong to any oppositional party nor positioned themselves as politicians before.
For many years, traditional oppositional leaders placed national identity in the focus of their political agendas, underestimating the value of the economic program. It did help Mikalai Statkevich or Alyaksandr Milinkevich unite certain groups of civil society; thousands of them were ready to partake in electoral protests in Minsk in 2006, 2010.
This time, the issue of national revival, including the Belarusian language promotion, is not a priority on the agenda of Lukashenka’s potential opponents. The discourses advanced by the ‘new generation’ candidates are economy, justice, independence.
However, unofficial national symbols and nationally oriented slogans have also become part of protests as they represent opposition to Lukashenka’s political narrative. Thus, protests and national historical attributes such as the white-red-white flag and motto Long Live Belarus are still the symbols of anti-Lukashenka campaigning. For the first time, they have united voters of all political stripes.
The campaign of 2020 is particularly unique due to unprecedented publicness and openness of former state-employed journalists, athletes, and even law enforcers.
As an example, former press secretary of governmental TV-channel ONT Tatsyana Kurbat commented on the state journalists’ duties that implied creating and reporting fake news. Natallya Kopatseva, a former journalist at state-run TC station Belarus 1, apologised for participating in state propaganda in the yoer of 2010. Artemis Akhpash, a former ONT anchorman, claimed that peoplle should not trust anything aired on state TV.
Discontent with the incumbent regime ias visible among Belarusian athletes and even military officers.
With more and more citizens who earlier served as Lukashenka’s main electorate are taking the side of opposition, and he apparently needs electoral support even in circumstances of a well-functioning oppressive regime. As propaganda reports on TV are not popular among protesting Belarusians anymore, discrediting opponents is not enough.
Thus, Lukashenka took an alternative measure: he promised to conduct a referendum on the battery plant in Brest, where the residents have been protested against its construction and operation for the last few years. Additionally, Lukashenka attempts to depict himself as a guarantee of the country’s sovereignty in conditions of potential Moscow’s threat, writes Andrew Higgins for NYT. At the same time, on June 24, Lukashenka attended the Victory parade, where he called Moscow ‘the capital of Motherland’.
Before independent media in Belarus were forbidden from conducting social polls on potential candidates’ ratings, Lukashenka received 3-6% among the readers of news portals TUT.by or Nasha Niva. His decreasing popularity, limited resources of the repressive apparatus to detain more than a few thousand protesters around the country, as well as a risk of security forces not following the president’s orders is so far a result of Lukashenka’s resorting to force and violence. His biggest mistake during the election campaign 2020 – crackdowns before the voting day – might turn into Belarusians’ chance to strengthen the nation.
Alesia Rudnik, belsat.eu