The political atmosphere in the run-up to presidential elections

Between elections and elections

On November 27th, 2019, Press Club Belarus, the website of the expert community of Belarus “Our Opinion” and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) held a regular meeting of the Expert and Analytical Club on the topic  The political atmosphere in the run-up to presidential elections”.

The main speakers were the representatives of the expert community :

  • Andrei Kazakevich, holds a PhD degree in political science, Director of the Institute of Political Studies “Political Sphere”;
  • Aliaksandr Klaskouski, Head of the Analytical Projects at BelaPAN;
  • Valeria Kostyugova, editor of the website of the expert community  “Our Opinion”;
  • Pauliuk Bykouski, media expert.

The discussion was also attended by the representatives of the political forces, journalists, activists and the representatives of the expert community: Vital Rymasheuski (co-chairman of the Belarusian  Christian Democracy ), Andrei Dzmitryeu ( co-chairman of  Tell the truth movement ), Viktoryja Tabolich (head of the national headquarters of the For Freedom movement  ), Illia Dabratvor, Valer Karbalevich, Siarhei Chaly, Kiryl Haroshka and others.            

The discussion was moderated by Vadim Mojeiko (BISS) and Anton Ruliou (Belarus in Focus, Press Club Belarus).     

Participants discussed the following questions: 1) How does the absence of the voters in the polls affect the political weight of the opposition within the system? 2) What can a single candidate from the opposition do – if he appears? 3) Will the internal dialogue between the authorities and the opposition and between the authorities and the civil society continue? How will communication within the country change? 4) Will the Parliament need the competencies of the diplomats who were ‘elected’ to the Parliament? Will the parliament have opportunities for international activities in the West? 5) Will the EU- and the US have leverage over on the political atmosphere in Belarus? 6) What else can be managed to change?

The main results of the 2019 parliamentary elections: boycott, electoral insurrections in the regions, emigration

Valeria Kostyugova noted, that at the parliamentary elections, the opposition as always coped with accomplishing its minimum objective: the elections were not recognized by the OSCE. However, there are serious doubts about whether the opposition would be ever able to accomplish anything more than that in the future. According to her opinion, a de-facto boycott of the parliamentary elections was implemented, as the independent observers noted a low turnout of 30%: “This is as low as it gets”. However, no political force called for the boycott, and the boycott didn’t benefit anybody. 

Pauliuk Bykousky described the same phenomenon simply as absenteeism but said that "in the rural districts, never imprinted by the observers’ feet the turnout was often more than 90%. This will be the way to compensate for problems with the voters’ turnout in other areas.” 

Valeria Kostyugova noted the appearance of the non-political class on the elections – this class includes the new social groups, whose rights are infringed. She also made a claim that the list of voters was massaged by almost a million people based on the data of the labour market, migration, etc.   These people are not in the country and they will not return to the presidential election. These are active people, a potential electorate of the opposition. Pauliuk Bykouski also noted the cases, when the authorities wanted to remove certain secondary pro-governmental candidates, and these candidates didn’t want to withdraw from the elections: "It is still not the deconsolidation of the regime, but the process is interesting ."         

Andrei Kazakevich drew attention to the small, but the growing influence of the pro-governmental parties and the fact that the leadership of Belaya Rus ended up in the Parliament for the first time ever.

Andrei Dzmitryeu made emphasis on the voters in the regions. Although they consider  Belarusian independence important, they’re much more worried about personal economic problems, low water quality and the inaccessibility of the medical care. According to him, the Belarusians perceive permanent rather than temporary emigration as a solution to these problems.  The positive experience of their friends who already left plays a role. As a result, the people “save money not for their death but for them or for their children to leave the country".

Viktoryja Tabolich agreed that instead of the traditionally oppositional Minsk, now the regions are more hostile to the authorities for economic reasons. This is a challenge for the opposition, as they have to go there to their electorate.

According to Valery Karbalevich, the parliamentary elections have demonstrated that the Belarusian society doesn’t request democracy, and the authorities use this factor. For example, the moral pressure was applied not to the members of the commission who falsified the elections but to the student who published the video of the curator calling on students to vote early.

Belarus-EU Relations: “The authorities celebrate victory over weak Europeans”

Andrei Kazakevich outlined the model of the corridor, which the Belarusian government formed in the relations with the West over the last few years of normalization. This corridor includes the absence of violence and mass repressions. According to him, the state authorities will stick to this corridor, and they will use brutal force only in case of a direct threat to their power. Siarhei Chaly didn’t agree with this model. According to his opinion, the authorities will not keep appearances as Aliaksandr Lukashenka considers the West to be defeated after his visit to Austria, and this is supported by the president’s thesis on the importance of business climate and not democracy or dictatorship. Siarhei Chaly called the way the parliamentary elections were held ‘a slap in the West’s face, even from the point of view of basic human morality’.  Valery Karbalevich agreed with him and reminded about the visit of the Nordic foreign ministers to Belarus immediately after the elections: “The authorities celebrate victory over those European weaklings’.

Andrei Kazakevich replied that ‘even it was a slap in the face, it was not a strong one’  and the authorities tested the western reaction on the parliamentary elections. According to him, the authorities will pay attention to the West as a lot of resources were invested in the normalization, a lot of information and expert work was carried out, and the authorities won’t waste it for no reason.  However, this does not mean that all the recommendations of the West will be followed. 

Vital Rymasheuski and Andrei Dzmitryeu assured that the parliamentary elections heavily spoiled the relations of Belarus with the West. Andrei Dzmitryeu noted that ‘the whole Minsk process is built on trust and the belief that Minsk moves in a certain direction, however cautiously’. This trust was undermined by the broken promises of the continuation of this movement, the way the elections were organized, and the lack of the representation of the alternative political forces in the Parliament.

Presidential campaign 2020: harsh control and a constitutional reform in limbo

Aliaksandr Klaskouski believes that the authorities have all the tools to carry out the presidential campaign in a comfortable manner (‘4 or 5 candidates, 2 or 3 of them allegedly oppositional’), and the situation doesn’t allow them to experiment: they have a low support, the economic situation is bad, and there are serious issues in relations with Russia. The opposition has few chances to impose its own scenario. The collection of 100 thousand signatures required for the registration of the candidate looks difficult, even for a united opposition (and its choice of a single candidate is in limbo).

Andrei Kazakevich agrees that the authorities have all the tools to manage the campaign and identify the candidates. He reminded that the Belarusian model was always built in the easiest way possible which differs it from the Russian or Kazakh model. The previous parliamentary elections showed that the authorities can sometimes play a game of system variation or amplification. However, 2018 local elections and 2019 parliamentary elections demonstrated a tendency towards simplification, and the same tendency will apply to the presidential elections. Because of this Kazakevich doesn’t think that there will be a constitutional reform in the next 2-4 years, as this reform will add complexity to the system (parliament, fractions, mixed voting system). The so-called power vertical is not ready for this, and there are only talks instead of preparation.

Valery Karbalevich agreed that the issue of the constitutional reform is in limbo as Lukashenka walked back on his words on the constitutional reform during his speech at the voting station: instead of talks about his successor he expressed his willingness to run for president in 2025.

Siarhei Chaly expects ‘the elections to go much harsher than in 2015’ as plenty of careers can be built on fighting threats ‘such as cardboard bloggers from outside of Belarus and others who receive money from some dark sources, possibly from Russia’. He offers to follow whether the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party Aleh Hajdukievich participates in the elections (then leader of the party Siarhei Hajdukievich didn’t start in 2010 elections) and the statements of the Foreign minister Makei or somebody else in a similar position (in 2010 then president’s chief of staff Makei warned about possible provocations, de-facto making common cause with the security apparatus). 

Single candidate: “The choice is petty”

Viktoryja Tabolich confirmed that For Freedom movement stands for holding primaries and the selection of a single candidate, and that there is a risk of not gathering the required 100 thousand signatures without such candidate. The active members of the opposition want a single candidate, and if their request will be ignored then ‘there will be stones thrown at the opposition leadership since it is not even able to do this’. Vital Rymasheuski believes that a single candidate is needed to counter the provocations of the security forces and the repetition of 2010 violent scenario: “The single candidate will have an influence as the people will listen to him”. Both Tabolich and Rymasheuski agreed that a single candidate doesn’t necessarily have to represent the Centre-Rightists coalition (which they both represent and which organizes primaries).

Andrei Dzmitryeu stressed that Tell the Truth is not going to participate in the negotiations on a single candidate, and in any case will nominate its own candidate, being confident in its ability to gather the number of signatures needed: "We have collected 30 thousand signatures using our volunteers and in case we have resources we will gather 100 thousand signatures”.

Other participants were skeptical about the idea of a single candidate. Illia Dabratvor doesn’t believe that a single candidate will be elected and in any case, the opposition lacks a strong person ‘even as known to the public as Aliaksandr Milinkievich in 2006’. Pauliuk Bykouski confirms that the choice is petty and that the weak single candidate will only aggravate the opposition’s situation: “The opposition won’t be able to get an unknown person known in 3-4 months”. Aliaksandr Klaskouski also doesn’t believe that the presence of a single candidate will change much – as a maximum, it will allow it to compete decently and have a personified alternative for the future.

Social networks: the role of bloggers and pro-government politicians

Vital Rymasheuski drew attention to the phenomenon of bloggers, who have not only taken out the people to the streets but also created strong media products such as the "The Stepfather" movie. Illia Dabratvor disagreed with him and claimed that ‘the role of the bloggers is overrated and miserable’ as 10 thousand dollars can outbid all their influence. Pauliuk Bykouski is also skeptical about the bloggers, as the views their materials generate are not higher than those of other communication channels.  However, he drew attention to the fact that the pro-government politicians created accounts in social networks and are now facing the necessity to explain things to a critically minded audience.

‘Ploshcha’ (The Square) 2020: spontaneous, not crowded, chances of provocations playing into the hands of Moscow

None of the politicians who were present at the meeting plan to call people to protest, but all the participants agreed that the protests will be organized either spontaneously or with the help of other political forces.  Nobody expects protests to be massive.

According to Aliaksandr Klaskouski, Lukashenka will try to prevent the possibility of Ploshcha in advance, because this time he would like to win without brutality.  

However, Vital Rymasheuski said that Ploshcha is inevitable as ‘the level of hatred of the Belarusians to the authorities is like never before’, and the protests will be organized, most probably, by the bloggers and the independent protest groups. He sees preventing 2010 scenario as the main task for the opposition since ‘pragmatic, self-centered and pro-Russian’ security forces can support the tough scenario not paying any attention to Belarus’ relations with the West.

Ilia Dabratvor thinks that Ploshcha will be organized and sponsored by Moscow – and questions the need ‘to go there to change Lukashenka for the Russian Governor-General’.

Andrei Dzmitryeu also considers Ploshcha to be ‘a very dangerous move’ and its consequences to be even more important than the election result, as it will influence whether Belarus’ process of normalization with the West continues or Belarus faces a 2010-like setback. He expects spontaneous protests – the only question being whether they’re numerous or not – but the number of protesters is not important for the possible provocations, and there are no mechanisms to counteract them.

AuthorVadim Mojeiko, original article published at Our Opinion

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