Belarusian authorities scheduled the presidential election for August 9 - a quiet holiday-vacation date, unpromising any great passions. But from the very beginning, things did not go according to plan.
Instead of raising pensions and salaries, traveling through fields and factories in the guise of a wise master, Alexander Lukashenko is forced to explain over and over again why the whole world has been quarantined and the Belarusian authorities are fighting their pandemic in a surprisingly liberal way - with a parade, a community workday, and football championship and open border.
In addition, the presidential election for the first time in 25 years coincided with a sharp economic downturn. International forecasts, which have recently been regularly deteriorating, predict a 4–5% drop in GDP by the end of the year. Moreover, in the Belarusian case, this was caused not only by the corona-crisis, but also by the oil dispute with Russia in the first quarter, and then by the depression on world oil markets, which collapsed the production and export of Belarusian oil products.
Due to the lack of reserves, the government cannot generously support business and the population, limiting itself to deferrals in paying certain taxes and renting real estate from the state, as well as paying a minimum wage to state employees in case of downtime.
Union Russia has so ceased to be a reliable source of support in the eyes of Minsk, that the Belarusian authorities have applied for loans to the IMF, European banks, and China - to everyone except Moscow.
And in this situation, Lukashenko needs to hold elections. They can be moved only by declaring a state of emergency, but such a decision would contrast too strongly with the Belarusian president’s approach to coronavirus. If the situation allows you to gather in churches for Easter and Victory Parade, could there be an emergency?
Partly because of these problems, protests have revived in the country. Charismatic video blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky goes to the provinces and gathers thousands of residents of the regions, who literally yesterday were apolitical, to participate in rallies for Lukashenko’s resignation under a slogan “Stop the cockroach.”
Tikhanovsky was the first Belarusian politician in a long time, against whose arrest people gathered for 15-days-protest not only in Minsk but also in other cities in different parts of the country. When, on a formal occasion, he was not allowed into the presidential race, he became the confidant of his wife, who submitted the documents the next day, and now travels around the country collecting signatures.
And the nomination of presidential candidates ended with an even more atypical event for Belarusian politics. Not the usual opposition members decided to run against Lukashenko, but two well-known representatives of the establishment - Valery Tsepkalo and Viktor Babariko.
Playing both sides
Tsepkalo worked as an ambassador to the United States and deputy foreign minister, and then he created and for many years led the High-Tech Park - the Belarusian Silicon Valley. Babariko is a philanthropist banker who has headed Belgazprombank, one of the largest in the country, for the past 20 years.
They come up with similar ideas - a comprehensive modernization of the state and liberalization of the economy, the president should not be a king, but a manager for a maximum of two terms. In foreign policy, both occupy neutral-pragmatic positions of "let’s be friends with everyone."
The version that the authorities themselves asked them to advance in order to make sparring partners convenient for Lukashenko is rather a conspiracy theology. The idea that the election organizers want to increase the turnout this way does not fit with the decision to call the elections on August 9, when everyone will be on vacation and in summer cottages.
In addition, until now, the Belarusian authorities, if they released sparring partners into the arena, are always emphasized by the weak, who instead of the authorities defeated the opposition. And here are people with solid money and background who can really attract a lot of supporters. They do not hesitate to criticize the authorities, albeit not very sharply.
Babariko is already declaring that he will join the supporters if they go to the square. And Tsepkalo is ironic that Lukashenko is well versed in how many pigs a sow gives birth to, but the country needs to leave this president on his farm and move on forward.
Ex-banker Babariko is gaining popularity especially quickly. Over a week, 9,000 people, record-breaking for an alternative candidate, signed up for his initiative group. This is slightly less than the 11,000 that Lukashenko managed to recruit into the group with all its administrative resources.
There is no representative sociology of ratings in the country, but in all polls on popular news sites with tens of thousands of votes, Babariko wins Lukashenko with more than 50%, which does not reach 10%.
If this goes on, the authorities might encounter unpleasant electoral scissors. Blogger Tikhanovsky beats Lukashenko from his yesterday’s supporters in regions that are disappointed with a decade of economic stagnation.
And liberals from business and nomenclature give hope for changes in the urban middle class, which in recent months Lukashenko has angered with his attitude to the pandemic. This is not to say that these people were once for the president, they just lacked a competent alternative on the horizon.
The nomination of candidates from the establishment is similar to the tip of the iceberg - this is a manifestation of a more important phenomenon. A considerable stratum of people has appeared in the Belarusian ruling and business elite who are not seriously satisfied with the course of Lukashenko.
Systemic liberals, supporters of soft reforms are in every authoritarian regime. And while the regime itself is on the rise - economic, foreign policy or electoral - they usually leave with them dissatisfaction with the excesses of the party. But when economic crises have been happening for years, hopes for evolution are shattered by the veto of system guards and the country's leader, and he no longer offers a positive agenda for the future, the situation in the minds of the system dissidents changes.
Probably a pandemic became the trigger for the campaign of Tsepkalo and Babariko in politics. It showed as clearly as possible that in a critical situation Lukashenko’s personal views completely determine what is happening in the country. The President decided that quarantine and restrictions, in general, are not needed, which means that they will not exist.
The decision-making mechanism turned out to be so leaky that it was not influenced by WHO advice, nor ridicule in the world press, nor the behavior of all neighbors, nor even the opinion of its own Minister of Health. For many people, including the nomenclature, this caused a shock and responded with Chornobyl notes.
And because of Lukashenko’s personnel policy of recent years, a completely unique situation has developed. We can say with confidence that the views of Belarusian Prime Minister Sergei Rumas, almost the entire economic bloc of the government, the leadership of the National Bank, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are closer to the positions of Tsepkalo and Babariko than Lukashenko.
This does not mean that the regime is close to a split, although such moments are almost always unpredictable. Rather, we are witnessing a ferment in the minds of Belarusian elites, which for the first time in many years has spilled into the public sphere.
Despite the fact that Lukashenko’s system has been undergoing the most serious test since the mid-90s, it’s too early to expect its early collapse - the scale of the problems is different.
The country has about $ 7 billion of foreign exchange reserves. It is likely that some international financing will be able to be obtained, which means that default and economic catastrophe will not happen this year.
In theory, the main political risk for the current Belarusian government is a split in the elites, but so far there have been no public demarches from current officials. This is still too dangerous a step for them, but these people have no experience of horizontal unification.
In addition, without a crisis of loyalty among the security forces, such demarches are not particularly effective. There are no signs so far that the dissident virus has crept into the ranks of the top law enforcement or military.
Babariko and Tsepkalo can be easily removed from the race by finding clerical errors in their signature sheets at the registration stage or by announcing 3-4% of their support at the election. Both options, especially in the case of the already popular Babariko, carry their own risks.
If the competitors get a ridiculous percentage of the results of the elections, then no one knows how many dissatisfied supporters would behave. But so far, none of these risks seem truly threatening.
Nevertheless, it is already clear that this presidential campaign will change Belarusian politics. If Tsepkalo and Babariko did not rely on naked idealism and a sense of their own mission, then they went to the polls with a longer-term expectation. One of the possible goals is to create political capital for the future, to stake out the positions of leaders of the moderate reform forces at the time of the weakening of the system.
An unwritten tradition has developed over the first ten years of Lukashenko’s rule: if a high-ranking official leaves the ranks of the elites and joins the opposition, he will end up in prison. It worked like a vaccine against betrayal. So it happened with former ministers Mykhailo Marynich and Vasiliy Leonov, former Belarus State University rector Alexander Kozulin, former Foreign Minister Andrei Sannikov.
But more vegetarian times came. For five years now, there are no political prisoners recognized in the West. Authorities rely on administrative arrests to punish opponents, including even leaders of unresolved protests.
If Tsepkalo and Babariko manage not to sit down after the election, this will be an important precedent. Other dissenting businessmen and officials who feel that their ambitions and desire to speak outweigh the risks can also go into politics.
This will lift the moratorium on public policy for a new type of people. On the one hand, unlike Lukashenko, they did not manage to annoy the discontented part of society. On the other hand, in contrast to the usual opposition, they have a clear set of competencies and achievements.
If Belarusian authorities are not shaken today, the 2020 elections will almost certainly become the starting point for the country's political field after Lukashenko.