Belarus After Elections: Three Years of Stability?

ABS/ECFR Event in London

On 23 October the European Council on Foreign Relations and the Anglo-Belarusian Society in London organised an event titled ‘Belarus After Elections: Three Years of Stability?’

The main speakers were Katia Glad from Chatham House and Yauheni Preiherman of the Liberal Club in Minsk who is also a regular contributor to Belarus Digest. Andrew Wilson, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, moderated the discussion.

The participants focused primarily on the post-election situation of Belarus. They also considered possible scenarios for future developments in the country and the role of the Belarusian opposition. Other topics covered were the current trends in politics and the economy as well as the possible role of the pro-government organisation Belaya Rus which officially won a majority in the recent elections.

 ‘Stable Instability’ of the Regime?

The participants noted that the opposition is not united and that there is a lack of a strong protest mood, and discussed recent trends in the economy. Other factors were alluded to, such as the high level of repression in Belarus, Moscow’s financial support, as well as the West’s unsuccessful policies which help official Minsk to remain in good shape. It is largely due to these factors that the Belarusian regime appears to many as a solid system with confident authorities.

Thus, the possibility for any major changes within the regime remains rather low, unless a shift within the elites takes place or there is some impulsive action from Moscow. One such scenario could be a sudden drop in oil prices which would make Moscow unable to continue supporting the Belarusian regime. Clearly, Russia remains the most important supporter of Minsk. While it is a member of the Customs Union of  Belarus, something which helps to preserve the stability of the Belarusian regime, it is well known that this is an organization that also receives significant financial support from and is directed by Moscow.

On the other hand, Belarusian society is clearly suffering from fatigue. People remained indifferent to the recent parliamentary elections because of widespread knowledge of the Parliament’s puppet role, but also unfairness when it comes to counting of the vote. But as both domestic and international political actors started to put more pressure on Minsk, the regime’s stability can be endangered. Some participants believed that the boycott campaign of the September elections proved that the electorate at large is unhappy about the Belarusian regime.

Economy against the Regime

The recent negative trends in the economy also play against Minsk and put its stability at risk. Russia’s entry into the WTO brought about some negative consequences for Belarus and will make Minsk seek further financial support from Moscow. The consequences include a high level of competitiveness from other countries’ goods and services which can inevitably become a threat to Belarusian companies.

Nonetheless, significant destabilisation of Minsk-Moscow relations seems highly unlikely. Moreover, due to Lukashenka’s aversion to any changes in the system he has built, the scenario of serious modernization also appears unlikely.  

The Opposition: a Single Candidate or a Better Strategy?

The participants agreed on the opposition’s weakness and inability to achieve its political goals. One of the speakers suggested that only a strong leader and well-organised structure could help the opposition to effectively communicate with Belarusian society. However, so far the opposition presents rather short-term thinking strategy and thus it cannot achieve its political goals.

A scenario of a single candidate is also difficult to implement because the regime is consolidated and will try to fragment the opposition.  Others thought that because the elections are neither free nor transparent, the opposition’s single candidate would not change the final result anyway.

Despite serious internal difficulties within the opposition, the recommendation for it was to work on preparation of the Belarusian people for one credible candidate in the future. The work at grassroots level should also play a significant role.

Moreover, one of the speakers argued that if the opposition won't change its behaviour and work with common people and elites, then it will not be relevant to the transformation process in Belarus. At the same time, the opposition and civil society should focus more on closer co-operation with the EU and reach a wider audience in Belarus.  

E-voting for a Single Candidate in Belarus?

The idea of e-voting to select a single opposition candidate in Belarus failed to spark much optimism among the participants at the event. Firstly, that would require significant financial resources to establish such a voting system, which makes it impossible to work over the next couple of years.  Moreover, the regime’s repression and control of the electoral process technically disables the possibility for application of e-voting in the near-term future.

The Russian opposition still operates in a much more liberal environment compared to Belarus. They were even able to have voting for their opposition leadership not only on the Internet, but also in a number of places offline. That would be difficult to imagine in Belarus.

The Need for Change

One of the arguments raised was related to the social contract in Belarus. In reality it means guaranteed stability in exchange for society’s passivity.

Because of the economic crisis, the domestic and unprecedented international pressure imposed on Lukashenka, protest moods may yet still grow in Belarus. In addition to traditional pressure, the ruling elites and the Belarusian electorate at large also demonstrate a demand for reforms of the system.

Since all the political actors stress the necessity of macroeconomic changes, these changes would mean a transformation of the system. The current regime remains very reluctant to make any changes. Time will show for how it will be able to oppose changes.  

The discussants analysed the phenomenon of Belaya Rus, a pro-government association which officially won the recent Parliamentary elections with 57% of all seats. According to some participants, transformation of Belaya Rus into a new political party could mean the end of the old politics because elites will be able to consolidate and better articulate their agenda. 

Others were sceptical and thought that Belaya Rus was just window dressing and will be not more important in the current parliament. Whatever role Belaya Rus will have, it is unlikely to contribute to the end of “stable instability” in Belarus.

Paula Borowska is an analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre. Originally from Bialystok, she studied at the University of Gdansk and the University of Bologna.

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