Political parties pinned certain hopes on 2019, but most of them did not come true. The ruling elite did not dare to increase the role of parties in the national political system, and only insignificantly expanded the presence of pro-presidential parties in the parliament. Democratic parties and organizations were cut off from decision making, although they managed to involve new groups in politics and persistently and consistently defend interests of disadvantaged social groups and their associations.
Increased civil society’s support for most political organizations neither made them stronger structurally, nor elevated their political status. In fact, their lobbying successes and evasion of repression paved the way for other actors.
- Tightening of discriminatory conditions for the functioning of political parties;
- Increased public support and politicization of a large number of community activists; advocacy successes;
- Evolution of inter-party communication patterns;
- High reputational costs of the attempts to form coalitions.
2019 was the final year of the preparatory phase of the mobilization of supporters as part of parties’ strategies that they have been following since 2016. All areas of activity of political organizations last year turned to be in demand in the future and, to a large extent, paved the way for the events of 2020.
The promotion of “candidates of protest” under the leadership of Nikolai Statkevich and his alliance with Sergei Tikhanovsky created prerequisites for the 2020 “revolution of signatures”. Tell the Truth campaign, the center-rightists (United Civil Party), For Freedom movement and the organizing committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party) lobbied interests of discriminated social groups and mildly involved new groups in politics, which helped allay fear in society and increase its politicization. The United Civil Party (UCP) and Belarusian Christian Democracy (BCD) collaborated with bloggers during and after the parliamentary elections, which strengthened their communication and contributed to solidarity against repression.
The year 2019 saw political organizations’ successes in advocacy of interests of discriminated social groups and involving them in politics. Most parties and political civic organizations continued pursuing the agenda they formulated back in 2017.1
Tell the Truth traditionally focuses on lobbying interests of local communities in the provision of urban amenities, development of infrastructure and expansion of access to healthcare and education. Efforts are made by dozens of petition campaigns, including the largest pobory.by2 (“for education without extortions”), meetings with local authorities are being held, and tangible local successes are being achieved. The organization held a series of Development Forums and handed proposals to government agencies.3
The center-right coalition (UCP, For Freedom and BCD organizing committee) and MP Anna Kanopatskaya continued lobbying legislative amendments and support for socially disadvantaged groups, such as Mothers-328. The center-rightists also joined the lobbying of interests of local communities, and achieved some success in this field. For example, the Minsk authorities dropped the idea to erect new buildings in an overbuilt district and provided extra ambulance vehicles to a Pinsk outpatient clinic.
Alongside the center-rightists and Tell the Truth campaign, the Brest regional branch of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party is worth mentioning for its effective advocacy at the local level.
Political organizations contributed to nationwide media advocacy campaigns. Joint efforts of civil society and politicians produced a considerable, albeit still limited, cumulative effect. The law on military service deferments was not abolished, but did not take effect as previously scheduled and military service was included in the years of pensionable service.4
Experience gained by activists during petition pressure campaigns is important to meet the requirements of the law on elections, which sets a high threshold for nomination of presidential candidates. Protection of interests of social groups and participation in the 2019 parliamentary elections (which was more like an advocacy stage, rather than means of obtaining seats in the parliament) were the main tools that organizations used to expand their political presence, as they have virtually no other legal opportunities to act.
The authorities tightened the procedure for holding mass events by increasing fees of the police and paramedics who must be present there to the size that few can afford, which made it almost impossible for political organizations to operate in this format. The results of the local (2018) and parliamentary (2019) elections made it clear that the government is not going to recognize any independent political forces.
Although the government manifested its iron determination to clear the political field of political organizations, the latter used the election campaigns to enlist extra support.5 This gave observers the hope that democratic organizations will no longer possess the exclusivity of admission and excessively high requirements to ideological affinity and moral purity of their members, as new organizations applied a more inclusive approach: the pursuance of common goals is sufficient for cooperation. Unfortunately, some old-timers in the democratic opposition reject this approach and their political leaders resort to defamation in their struggle against emerging competitors.
During the parliamentary elections, the center-rightists and Tell the Truth entered into an alliance with local communities’ nominees to protect the rights of local residents (Olga Belyavtsova, Pavel Stanevsky), environmental groups (Tatiana Sivachenko, Andrei Bodilev), Mothers-328 (Tatiana Kanevskaya, Natalia Sharipo), bloggers (Nikolai Maslovsky, Olga Pauk), leaders of protests in Brest against the construction of the battery plant (Roman Kislyak, Sergei Petrukhin), educational reform activists (Sergei Olshevsky, Nadezhda Gatsak), etc.
Sergei Cherechen’s Belarusian Social Democratic Party joined efforts with the Youth Bloc, promoting seven candidates with an agenda and political PR methods that were completely new for the traditional opposition.
Nikolai Statkevich chose special tactics, nominating protest candidates to step up community outreach and prepare them for running for president. Thanks to the wide engagement of his supporters, N. Statkevich managed to campaign for protest across the company.
A number of political organizations used the parliamentary elections to promote their agenda and recognizability. European Belarus was among them. It arranged a large number of pickets to collect signatures for the nomination of candidates.
Pro-presidential political organizations were not as publicly active as during the previous parliamentary elections, but notably increased the number of activists involved.6
The all-time high number of democratic nominees for parliament7 contributed to the politicization of society. In response, the authorities denied their registration, tightened conditions for campaigning, did not admit observers, and arrested activists.
Political bloggers quickly became enormously popular. The Country For Life blog doubled the number of its subscribers during the parliamentary elections, including by posting interviews with independent candidates. The audience of other political blogs also increased considerably, even without NEXTA.
For the first time, bloggers proved to be a real political force when they nominated their own candidates – Nikolai Maslovsky, Alexander Kabanov, Roman Kislyak, Yuri Gantsevich and others – supporting each other and reaching agreements with experienced political organizations and their leaders. The UCP gave them an opportunity to stand for election without collecting signatures for their nomination.
Leaders of political organizations, such as Nikolai Statkevich, Anatoly Lebedko and the UCP (including UCP-TV), Vitaly Rymashevsky, Andrei Dmitriev, Anna Kanyus and Ivan Maslovsky (Brest), Olga Belyavtsova, Tatiana Lasitsa, and Nikolai Lysenkov, took advantage of the growing interest in politics and elections by developing their own means of communication–blogs and social media accounts.
Joint pickets of candidates are worth noting. One of them took place on the Liberty Square of Minsk.8 Seven democratic and six pro-presidential candidates arranged their pickets there at once. Sergei Tikhanovsky and Nikolai Maslovsky provided a live coverage. Another picket was held in Gomel.
In order to quench the high politicization of society at the final stages of the election campaign, the authorities induced a 37.6% turnout at the early voting stage and 30% in door-to-door polls in some constituencies, kicked out observers from polling stations, detained activists and then candidates at the final stages.9 The campaign finale with numerous detentions, a completely sterile parliament and fishy turnout and voting statistics were severely criticized by international partners of Belarus (except Russia, the CIS and China).
As a result, the government had to abandon plans to revitalize international activities of the parliament and reorient the 7th House of Representatives back to inter-parliamentary cooperation with the CIS members, having no opportunity to engage competences of the appointed MPs with a diplomatic background.10 Nevertheless, the government was satisfied with the elections, since it continues to be backed by loyal bureaucrats and associated businesses, while unreliable elements are kept out.
Although democrats were not admitted to the parliament, the campaign was quite successful for the democratic community as well, as the ‘candidates of protest’ got prepared for the 2020 presidential campaign, politicization of society increased, and so did its awareness of technologies applied by the powers that be to rig elections. The democrats gained some experience in collecting signatures, pre-election campaigning, intercommunication and surviving a crackdown. Political leaders who participated in the parliamentary campaign considered it a defeat, though, and, therefore, the events of 2020 came as a total surprise to them.
Street actions and internal development
As the costs of the conventional forms of political actions were raised to barely affordable levels, democratic organizations had to switch from mass actions to petitioning and pressure through public assemblies. Nevertheless, the year saw several relatively large actions, including a joint rally of political organizations and bloggers in Grodno, the rally of the center-rightists in Minsk timed to the 101st anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic, the reburial of the remains of Konstanty Kalinowski in Vilnius with the massive and visually expressive participation of Belarusians, and actions of protest against integration with Russia.
The latter took place during Lukashenko’s talks with the Kremlin on integration roadmaps. It was organized by civil society activists, in particular Fresh Wind movement, which called on making live chains along city streets. Members of political organizations joined the initiative, and then their leaders organized several protests, which ended with detentions.
Street actions and the election campaign revealed internal problems in democratic organizations and the predominance of competition over solidarity in their interaction with each other. Attempts to coordinate activities constantly lead to conflicts between leaders of democratic organizations and large losses of time when it comes to making decisions. Mutual jealousy and accusations of failure damage the reputation of political leaders, whereas independent political engagement in one chosen direction increases the chance for success of democratic organizations.
In 2019, political organizations had to compete with the authorities, civil society organizations and with each other. It was a defeat in all three segments. The authorities narrowed opportunities for public actions by setting prohibitive security and ambulance costs, and making the campaigning and vote count monitoring as hard as possible.
Although political parties have to fight an uphill battle all the time, they remained under the illusion that the regime needs them. They saw the main threat to their campaigns in the admittance of opposition candidates to the House of Representatives.
Civil society organizations scarified parties for the participation in the elections instead of boycotting them, as well as for the failure to obtain at least a few seats in the parliament. In fact, if political organizations refused to run, they would become virtually equal to civil society organizations both in their powerlessness and alienation from the political system. The former thus lose to the latter in terms of funding and advocacy capacity.
Political leaders undermined themselves by throwing mutual accusations and attempting to build alliances and coalitions, which only poured oil on flames and damaged their reputations even more.
Significant changes in community outreach techniques, increased support from society and palpable successes in advocacy neither made the parties stronger, nor elevated their political status.