Sensing He May Be In Trouble, Lukashenka Tries To Blunt Election Challenges In Belarus

By Tony Wesolowsky

It’s not who’s on the ballot that sparked a fresh wave of protests as an August 9 presidential election draws closer in Belarus – it’s who is not.

Citizens hungry for change took to the streets shortly after the Central Election Commission (CEC) announced on July 14 that a total of five candidates had qualified -- including incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been president since 1994 and is seeking a sixth term.

Left off were Viktar Babaryka, a former bank manager now in jail on embezzlement charges, and Valer Tsapkala, a former ambassador to the United States and a founder of a successful high-tech park in Minsk.

The elections come as Lukashenka faces growing public discontent, in part due to his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. With just 9.5 million people, Belarus has registered more than 65,000 cases – while neighboring Ukraine, for example, has fewer cases in a population more than four times larger. Lukashenka ignored calls for lockdowns and dismissed the virus in March as a “mass psychosis,” earning him ridicule and ire at home and abroad.

As ill-equipped doctors scrambled to contain the virus, the economy, already struggling largely without subsidized Russian energy amid a standoff with the Kremlin over closer integration, began to sink even further.

A popular vlogger, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, tapped into public discontent, traveling the country to urge receptive audiences to take up their bedtime slippers to squash "the cockroach," the epithet the straight-talking 41-year-old tagged Lukashenka with.

The unenviable nickname “Sasha 3 Percent,” a reference to Lukashenka’s alleged approval rating in informal polling by independent media, began to pop up on walls, T-shirts, and elsewhere across Belarus – an unusually open expression of mockery in the tightly controlled country.

The barring of Babaryka and Tsapkala is the clearest proof yet that Lukashenka knows he’s in trouble, according to Ryhor Astapenia, a fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“In a way, by not registering Babaryka and Tsapkala, he showed that actually his rating is indeed low, so he doesn’t want to compete with them,” Astapenia told a virtual roundtable about Belarus on July 15.

Lukashenka appears far from ready to back down or give in to the demands of protesters. Police cracked down hard on protesters angered by the election commission’s moves, detaining more than 300 people on the streets of Minsk and other cities on July 14, including two RFE/RL reporters and at least 12 other journalists.

Before the July 14 protests, the Belarusian rights NGO Vyasna (Spring) had reported that more than 700 people had been detained by police in Belarus since the presidential election process began in May.

Activists on social media seem to have been singled out -- most notably Tsikhanouski, who was jailed on charges of “disobeying the police” after his attempt to challenge Lukashenka in the election was rejected by the authorities. His wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, is one of the five candidates registered for the ballot, however.

Amid the crackdown, Lukashenka can hope for little help from Russia but may avoid tougher action by the West, according to Astapenia.

“On the one hand, the Kremlin has ended its support for Belarus because Belarus rejected the Kremlin’s proposals to integrate deeper," the analyst said. "On the other hand, the West is reluctant to sanction Belarus for violations of human rights.”

But for Belarus’s hounded opposition, the feeling is that Lukashenka has never been as vulnerable as he is now. Since 1994, it has been “absolutely clear that the electoral majority was on the side of the current government. This year the situation has changed dramatically. Now it is absolutely clear that there is no longer any majority for those in power,” Maria Kalesnikava, the head of Babaryka’s thwarted campaign, told Current Time on July 15.

Kalesnikava said her team, which is still operating, would urge Belarusians to turn out in the election and vote against Lukashenka. The aim is to force Lukashenka into a runoff, which must be held if no candidate wins more than half the votes cast, and to decrease the chances for manipulation of the results.

“The only way to show that the majority is on the other side is to come to the polls [and ensure] a high turnout, which makes falsifications impossible," Kalesnikava told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

Hanna Kanapatskaya, the candidate from the opposition United Civil Party, was one of two opposition members to win parliament seats in 2016. She was barred from subsequent elections in 2019 but cleared all the hurdles to get on the presidential ballot.

Although not targeted so far in the current crackdown, Kanapatskaya told Current Time she has “been in opposition” for more than 25 years and been jailed and “subjected to pressure and repression” as a result.

Some observers say that Kanapatskaya and the other three challengers were registered in a bid by Lukashenka’s government to lend a veneer of plurality to the election while minimizing the threat.

Kanapatskaya contended that she is the “only opposition pro-European” candidate and the only one who is not “associated with Russian puppeteers.”

Andrey Dzmitryyeu, another approved candidate and leader of the civic campaign Speak The Truth, said that no single candidate could be designated the most serious challenger to Lukashenka. He suggested that voters have a chance to unseat the incumbent despite his advantages and despite the rejection of the two top rivals.

"In fact, the main competitor for Lukashenka today is the majority of Belarusians, who want to elect a new president," said Dzmitryyeu.

The campaigns of registered candidate Tsikhanouskaya and the barred hopefuls Babaryka and Tsapkala issued a joint statement and five-point plan on July 16, urging Belarusians to vote and vowing to cooperate on fighting electoral fraud.
They also called for an "honest repeat election" to be held after August 9.

More than any campaign in the past, the current election has witnessed Belarusians getting involved, said Astapenia, including many younger people.

“People are more involved in the campaign. They’ve joined the initiative groups [to get would-be candidates on the ballot]. They crowd fund to support the victims of political repression,” he said.

At the same time, Astapenia said, Lukashenka’s lack of a “positive agenda” has left Belarusians looking for alternatives.

“These new people resonate better with Belarusian society,” he said. “At the end of the day, Viktar Babaryka collected nearly half a million signatures without significant financial resources or actually without any real preparations. It would be a massive political success in any European country.”

That is due in part to changes in the media landscape. Opponents are able to get around a state-media blackout and get their messages out on social media and other channels, while Lukashenka has few tools other than repression to get the result he wants.

And the discontent that has been evident in the weeks ahead of the vote will not disappear in the months and years after it, analysts say.

“Political repression remains and will remain the main mechanism for suppressing the popular vote,” Astapenia said. “This suppression will secure Lukashenka’s so-called election victory, but these factors are not going away after August 9.”