Belarusian Opposition: From Politics to Advocacy

Taciana Karatkevich

In the coming days Taciana Karatkevich, a political activist who was little-known until recently, is likely to officially become the main opposition coalition’s candidate in the 2015 presidential election.

Her nomination coincided with the departure of Uladzimir Niakliajeu, one of the most popular pro-democracy politicians and a former presidential candidate from the ranks of the opposition. Niakliajeu explained his decision to leave as a result of the opposition's inability to decide on a single candidate.

Niakliajeu’s departure alongside Karatkevich’s lack of political skills and ambitions reflect the transformation of the opposition in Belarus into little more than an advocacy group. Karatkevich’s nomination sends a signal to Lukashenka’s regime and Belarusian society that the opposition has rejected a revolutionary path forward.

The Most Popular Pro-democratic Politician Leaves the Opposition

On 7 April, the Tell the Truth campaign, by most estimates the main oppositional structure in Belarus, voted for Taciana Karatkevich’s nomination and on 8 April its leader Uladzimir Niakliajeu left the organisation and all the opposition altogether. He explained his departure as being a result of the opposition's inability to agree on holding the Congress of Democratic Forces to choose a single candidate to run.

Usually, no one would notice the withdrawal of an opposition politician, but Niakliajeu is another story. He has the highest supporting rating among all opposition politicians (7.6%), according to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies. Thanks to his poetry, he has gained recognition even among Lukashenka’s supporters, if only for his literary talents.

Niakliajeu announced his disappointment with the opposition, which was in talks for over two years in an effort to choose single candidate.That Niakliajeu lost control over his own Tell the Truth campaign is also telling. Anatol Liabedzka, Chairman of the United Civic Party, stated that during a meeting of opposition leaders on 7 April, Niakliajeu’s proposal to hold the Congress of Democratic Forces failed -- after Niakliajeu’s own organisation blocked it.

Taciana Karatkevich: the New Face of the Opposition

Taciana Karatkevich, age 37, rises as a new star of the Belarusian opposition. Her nomination as the candidate from the “People’s Referendum”, a mainstream opposition coalition that brings together the Tell the Truth campaign, the Movement for Freedom, the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front and several smaller organisations, will be made in the near future. Many in the opposition believe that their candidate's gender will persuade the Belarusian authorities to perceive her as a lesser threat from opposition.

Like other ex-Soviet republics, Belarus is a rather sexist country, and Lukashenka will have serious problems trying to repress Karatkevich. Should he beat a woman, he himself would be deprived of his masculinity, or so the thinking goes. Moreover, femininity is accorded a different role in society and is less associated with bloody revolutions like Maidan.

In any event, Karatkevich is the first woman candidate in the history of Belarus to ballot for presidential office, not despite her gender, but because of it. Karatkevich has some other advantages as well. She has worked as a psychologist and lecturer at the state institutions for eleven years. She is perceived as a team player.

However, Karatkevich’s candidacy also has some marked weaknesses. First, she seems to lacks any real leadership experience. Karatkevich is viewed by some as overly dependent on Andrei Dzmitryjeu, the new leader of the Tell the Truth campaign, as she had previously worked under him. Dzmitryjeu pushed hard for her nomination, as many have said in private, precisely because of this relationship.

Secondly, she lacks charisma and has not demonstrated any real presence in front of crowds or cameras. When Belarusian journalist Sviatlana Kalinkina asked Karatkevich a year ago what she would do if she was offered to become the opposition's main presidential candidate, she said that she hoped not to receive such an offer.

Third, the percieved Karatkevich’s dependence on Dzmitryjeu is unlikely to create the necessary grounds for the opposition to unify around her candidacy. Even the Movement for Freedom, a member of the People's Referendum coalition, announced on 2 April that it would not get involved in the election campaign this year, and would instead focus on election observations and civic activities.

From Opposition to Advocacy Group

Changes in the opposition reflect a paradigm shift. If in the past the opposition fought and struggled for power, and despite the fact that some felt it was an act, now Belarus's pro-democratic forces have been transformed into an advocacy group. This can be a reason (or a consequence) of the fact that Belarusians currently have no appetite for revolution. The opposition simply wants to promote its interests and articulate its agenda, without provoking political repression from the authorities.

In this context, charismatic, ambitious and, in many ways, unpredictable leaders like Niakliajeu will more likely hurt the opposition rather than help. Or at least this is what some in the opposition think.

opposition activists see themselves as being closer to civil society than to opposition politics

But there are some who do not share this vision. The former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkevich, who remains in jail since the last presidential election, is trying to start his presidential campaign directly from his cell (although it is clear that the authorities will not allow him to register.) In fact, Statkevich is about to have another trial in the near future. By all appearances, it looks as if the authorities are trying to force him to ask Lukashenka for a pardon.

The majority of opposition activists who are currently in exile view the upcoming election with contempt and call for a boycott. Their calls, however, do not affect the political dynamic in Belarus. More and more opposition activists see themselves as being closer to civil society than to opposition politics. The Movement for Freedom, which was Milinkevich’s political project, has failed to participate in any presidential campaign, but remains very active in the public domain.

Opposition groups have few people who are willing or able to campaign and fear that the remaining pro-democratic forces would not survive a repeat of the 2010 post-election crackdown. One opposition leader told Belarus Digest that the opposition's offices have never been as empty as they are now. People are simply not joining the opposition anymore.

The same individual said that "the purpose of this presidential campaign is just not to go to prison, to keep the teams together and develop our political skills." It is for this reason that the opposition is hedging its bets on a technical candidate, not an ambitious one who would make a ruckus.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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