The Surprises of 2020 Election Campaign

Analysis of the main candidates, the politicization of society and the prospects of the protests

On May 27, 2020, Press Club Belarus, Our Opinion – the website of the Belarusian expert community, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), and Belarus in Focus weekly analytical monitoring held an online meeting of the Expert and Analytical Club to discuss the start of the 2020 presidential election campaign.

The Surprises of 2020 Election Campaign

The main speakers were:

  • Artyom Shraibman - political analyst; 
  • Ryhor Astapenia - Chatham House, Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy Fellow; Research Director at the Center for New Ideas; 
  • Franak Viaсorka - Vice President of Digital Communication Network; 
  • Vitaly Shkliarov – political scientist, political strategist; 
  • Maxim Rust – the contributing editor of New Eastern Europe Magazine.  

Representatives of the diplomatic corps and journalists also participated in the meeting of the Expert and Analytical Club. Yury Drakakhrust, Volha Abramava, Ekaterina Pierson, Olga Dryndova, Serge Chaly, and other analysts were also present.  

The discussion was moderated by Valeria Kostyugova (Our opinion) and Anton Ruliou (Belarus in Focus/Press Club Belarus).    

Some prominent quotes from the discussion

“Tsepkalo is a very amusing candidate; however, he is unprepared, he will not be able to attract anyone other than IT people and hipsters” (Franak Viaсorka)

“Earlier the opposition candidates talked about the hypothetical run-off, now Babaryka may have the impression that he is being robbed of victory” (Ryhor Astapenia)

“For many people in Russia Babaryka, like other candidates, would be a lesser evil in comparison to Lukashenka” (Artyom Shraibman)

“Babaryka is now an unpolished diamond that must be turned into a polished one by August 9th” (Serge Chaly)

“It was Lukashenka who mobilized those who are now collecting signatures for Babaryka and Tsikhanouski” (Franak Viaсorka)

“Each of the candidates drags the authorities to the field where they are not comfortable with their rhetoric...  they expose the bugs in the code” (Vitaly Shkliarov)

“It turned out that most of the issues we like to discuss in the interviews with Paval Sieviaryniec, Tatsiana Karatkevich or Mikalai Statkevich don’t interest the people” (Artyom Shraibman)

The politicization of society and coronavirus

Artyom Shraibman notes the unprecedented politicization of the Belarusian society at least since 2010. In his opinion, the COVID-19 pandemic became the immediate trigger for this. Although the Belarusian society has low support for tough measures such as quarantine, Lukashenka’s rhetoric including his out-of-touch suggestions and a rather disdainful attitude towards doctors, patients, businesses, and all those who have lost their jobs became a trigger for both the population and the candidates. Franak Viaсorka supported Shraibman’s opinion and said, “It was Lukashenka who mobilized those who are now collecting signatures for Babaryka and Tsikhanouski.”   

According to Serge Chaly, the epidemic has shown that the entire power system does not work to enforce decisions from above but to filter the information coming from below. “Lukashenka self-isolated from the country,” Chaly said. Although the authorities could use the coronavirus for their benefit as the authorities in Poland did. Maxim Rust said, “Coronavirus is like a fig leaf that can cover up problems: for example, it can be used to forbid street gatherings”. In his opinion, it was simply impossible to conduct a decent street campaign at the Polish presidential elections under quarantine, so the incumbent president was the only one who could campaign at all.   

Ryhor Astapenia, however, believes that the analysts overestimate the factor of the epidemic and highlights other reasons for the politicization of society. Just as before 2010, there were no strong repressions during the last years, and because of that, the people felt themselves in a certain safety. At the same time, people feel hopeless. “Nothing has changed in 10 years, Lukashenka has nothing to say”, Astapenia said. Technologization of politics also affected: thanks to the chat rooms of the households and offices, it became possible to form an initiative group by gathering a large number of people (albeit inexperienced) quickly.

Valeria Kostyugova noted that due to quarantine and a shutdown of the labor migration, a large number of people who were not there in the last election got stuck in the country: now they cannot solve their economic problems outside the country. Also, in a short time, the authorities radicalized a wide variety of population groups such as teachers, parents, and doctors. According to Ms. Kostyugova, the authorities may think that Lukashenka will look victorious defeating strong opponents such as Babaryka and Tsepkalo; however, the authorities underestimate the risks. 

Favorites: Babaryka and Tsepkalo

The coronavirus and the related policies of the authorities is a topic on which both Viktar Babaryka and Valery Tsepkalo criticize the authorities without any hesitation. Artyom Shraibman said, “This topic is a painful one and represents a popular message within their target audiences’. The target audiences of both candidates are the same – first of all, the so-called creative class, people with higher education and income. However, their target audiences are not limited by the creative class only.

At the same time, the analysts also note some significant differences between Babaryka and Tsepkalo. In particular, Ryhor Astapenia notes that Babaryka acted honestly and in style, leaving the elites by himself by quitting Belgazprombank before the election. On the contrary, Tsepkalo was fired from the position of the head of Belarus Hi-Tech Park and is associated with some murky deals, such as for example the purchase of his house. “He has long been the beneficiary of this system, and it is unlikely that the protest electorate will vote for him” Astapenia noted.    

Ryhor Astapenia thinks that Tsepkalo looks very unprepared for the presidential campaign, he is radicalizing and begins to resemble Lukashenka by making some insulting remarks against the latter because “he has nothing to say,” his reasoning about Singapore and modernization don’t resonate with the public. Franak Viaсorka agrees with him, “Tsepkalo is a very amusing candidate; however, he is unprepared, he will not be able to attract anyone other than IT people and hipsters”.

Viaсorka stresses that Babaryka had raised his political capital in advance by giving vivid interviews. According to the data, TUT.BY brings 38% of the internet traffic to Babaryka, and 15% of the traffic comes from Belgazprombank’s website. Astapenia also draws attention to the fact that even after his dismissal from Belgazprombank, the bank’s OK16 cultural hub was used as Babaryka’s headquarters, which raises questions about Babaryka’s connections with the Gazprom-owned bank. Artyom Shraibman, however, notes that “For many people in Russia Babaryka, like other candidates, would be a lesser evil in comparison to Lukashenka”. Because of that, some people in Moscow can support Babaryka not because he is their agent of influence.  

A feeling of widespread support can radicalize Babaryka. Ryhor Astapenya said:  “Earlier the opposition candidates talked about the hypothetical run-off, now Babaryka may have the impression that he is being robbed of victory”. He noted that Babaryka’s rhetoric is similar to Ales Mikhalevich’s rhetoric in 2010, “and how did Mikhalevich finish?”, he asked. Artyom Shraibman also sees some analogies with the political actors from the past and believes that the hypothetical Babaryka’s political party could recruit  many members, but then become the next Movement For Freedom. According to Serge Chaly, Babaryka’s thesis “I don’t go to war” is a continuation of the ‘peaceful changes’ approach from Tatsiana Karatkevich’s 2015 campaign.    

Chaly believes that Tsepkalo plays an important role and “reveals Lukashenka’s shameless bragging”, taking away the only positive message from Lukashenka – the laurels of the creator of the Hi-Tech Park. Chaly gives generous praise to Babaryka, “Babaryka is now an unpolished diamond that must be turned into a polished one by August 9th”. However, to do this, Chaly thinks that his team needs experts who Babaryka’s team has not yet addressed, as he considers himself to be the smartest one, which is why there is a risk of screwing up and doing stupid things. Franak Viaсorka agrees with Chaly and believes that Babaryka’s campaign communication is so chaotic and impulsive that sooner or later they will screw up. 

Vitaly Shkliarov thinks that the best strategy for both candidates would be to drag the authorities to the field where they are uncomfortable with their rhetoric. In his view, Tsepkalo could send signals of change and generation change to the West, and Babaryka could send signals of Russia. This would force Belarusian authorities to make mistakes and “expose the bugs in the code”. 

Volha Abramava is sure that many of the retired and current members of the establishment support Babaryka and urges him to join forces with Tsepkalo. And Yury Drakakhrust considers the removal of Oleg Gaidukevich from the election campaign a signal that at least one of them – Babaryka or Tsepkalo – will be admitted to the ballot.   

Elephant in the room: Tsikhanouski

[NB: The discussion took place two days before the arrest of Siarhei Tsikhanouski]

Yury Drakakhrust considers the registration of Svetlana Tsikhanouskaja to be a miscalculation on the part of the regime, which allowed holding de facto mass pickets in support of her husband. Ryhor Astapenia calls the situation "the strangest campaign that has ever happened."    

Artyom Shraibman assesses the people who attended the anti ‘parasite law’ protests in 2017 to be the main target audience of Tsikhanouski. However, he notes that these people are not only talking about the socio-economic problems; they are also interested in politics, they are also concerned about the irremovability of the regime and the lawlessness of the officials. This is a “passionate anti-Lukashenka electorate with no ideology”. Tsikhanouski tries not to split his potential voters, so his rhetoric deliberately comes down to a confrontation with Lukashenka. Ryhor Astapenia believes that if Tsikhanouskaja is not registered, it is Andrei Dzmitryeu, who now looks like the “anti-leader of all online polls” but has been preparing for the elections for a long time, can try to attract this electorate.     

Sergei Chaly recalls that the popularity of the video bloggers has been evident since 2017 when a person with a camera became a gathering point for protesters, “and Tsikhanouski just did it more technologically.” Franak Viaсorka agrees that Tsikhanouski created a good infrastructure of a video blog in advance, but notes that he appeared in media only on April 5-6th, and before that he was only an idol for YouTube subscribers. As noted by Franak, the promotion of Tsikhanouski was helped by DW, Naviny.by, and Nasha Niva, but also some news aggregators, such as Yandex.News. Valeria Kostyugova pointed to the fact that Tsikhanouski’s activities were positively covered by the albeit independent but Russian TV channel Dozhd, and also to the fact that Tsikhanouski took an active part in the 2019 parliamentary campaign and managed to double his YouTube channel’s audience during the campaign.    

Irrelevant approaches

Valeria Kostyugova also noted that the approach of the promotion of peaceful changes and dialogue has completely gone bankrupt: the parliamentary elections and especially the coronavirus have shown that there is nothing to expect from the authorities. The old opposition with its ideological views is not in demand. Artyom Shraibman says, “There is no request for a specific narrow vision of the future – be it Christian Democratic, or national democratic, pro-Russian or anti-Russian – all these agendas have faded... Now the people entered the arena, with their own spokesmen for their own interests... And It turned out that most of the issues we like to discuss in the interviews with Paval Sieviaryniec, Tatsiana Karatkevich, or Mikalai Statkevich don’t interest the people”. Under these conditions, Shraibman considers the main mobilizing factor of the campaign to be “either hope for a better future, or deep grassroots hatred of Lukashenka”.

Lukashenka: no message

Vitaly Shkliarov notes the end of Lukashenka’s era, his legitimacy, and the social contract – the overall decline of his stability rhetoric. Despite this, he believes that a rebellion of the elites is unlikely: there are few members of the elites, everything is controlled, and the risks of redistribution scare everyone. 

Artyom Shraibman notes that “Lukashenka gave an obvious reason to criticize him for the fact that he ceased to cope with the relations with Russia.” Ryhor Astapenia also emphasizes, “Lukashenka needs to figure out what to say to voters”. Ryhor Astapenia believes that if the authorities do not have any plan, then that they only have to dry up the elections, and it will be December 19th again in the end.   

Serge Chaly already sees the same logic as in 2010 (or even in 1994) from the authorities – “one against the whole pack, and he is going to win,” as Lukashenka is inconvenient with a single opponent who personifies the alternative. 

Mass protests on August 9th?

Vitaly Shkliarov points to the fact that first the applicants need to register as candidates, and then switch to strident rhetoric, and most importantly, everyone needs to unite around the one candidate that will be registered. 

However, Franak Viaсorka notes that the electorates of Babaryka and Tsikhanouski are difficult to combine as they are too different. Babaryka attracts younger and old educated people, Tsikhanouski attracts those angry at life. Besides, "the authorities are interested in pushing them against each other." Franak sees the consolidation possible around mass protests on August 9th (Ploshcha), but he thinks that Babaryka doesn’t have the stomach to call for protests.

Sergei Chaly thinks that there was a denial of the rhetoric of the past protest happening every time before every protest after the presidential elections in the last years. So, in 2010, it was a denial of 2006: “We will be more determined than Milinkevich”. In 2015 people denied 2010: not “Ploshcha will decide everything”, but “safety is more important”. Chaly sees the continuation of this series in Babaryka’s synthesis of 2020: “I’m not fighting the war, but if there are protests I’ll show up.” However, Chaly notes, “The victory will only take place in the first round of the elections, or never.”

Answering Olga Dryndova’s question about the EU’s possible reaction in the event of mass repressions, Artyom Shraibman identified the presence of the political prisoners as a red line, and the crossing of this line by the authorities will cause a “qualitatively different reaction from the usual statements.” However, even in this case, it is unlikely that there will be 2011-like sanctions - there is the inertia of the last 5 years, and “no one wants to push Belarus closer to Russia.” However, Artyom believes that the authorities also adopted a recipe for safe repressions: disperse the protesters, detain them and then let them go, in such a manner solving the problem and not creating a new one.    

However, Shraibman sees Ploshcha as the only real option for change in these elections. However, he does not expect mass protests (“the electorate of Babaryka is not ready for this”), moreover, the authorities will intimidate them in advance, especially if they are threatened with protests across the regions as per Tsikhanouski’s scenario. Franak Viaсorka agrees with him, “The best scenario for Lukashenka is to arrest people in large numbers before the elections, close the city center, block Internet streams, and release the detained in a few weeks.” 

However, Viacorka also had some optimism in regards to protests: he believes that the mobilized electorate can fray Lukashenka’s nerves, and not necessarily on the election day, “It could be the next months... but the dispersal of the protests won’t end the story”.

P.S. Some quotes from Zoom chat on the protest symbols

19:06:54 From Artyom Shraibman: By the way, if Babaryka calls for protests, I wonder what flag will he use))

19:08:10 From Serge Chaly: Just like Karatkevich – both of them

19:08:20 From Vadzim Suhak: Or three

19:09:08 From Yury Drakakhrust: All of them: both Belarusian flags, EU flag, and a Russian flag

19:09:22 From Artyom Shraibman: And yet the protesters will show up with their slippers

***

Video of the discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddvVfpl-ETc 

Originally published in Russian at Our Opinion

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