Opposition Reshaping: Where Will it Lead?

Leaders of the centre-right coalition shake hands in the Europarliament

Following the full-scale fragmentation after the 2015 presidential election campaign, the Belarusian opposition is starting to unite.

Tatsiana Karatkevich, currently quite popular in polls, is rounding up her supporters to enter the 2016 parliamentary elections. Centre-right parties have formed a coalition. Street protests leader Mikola Statkevich is trying to gather other opposition groups around the idea of a new congress that is supposed to lay down a new united strategy.

However, mistrust among leaders, a lack of human resources, political apathy among the population and the evident strength of the Belarusian authoritarian regime still undermine the prospect of success for the opposition in the foreseeable future.

Karatkevich: most popular, yet ostracised by the opposition

The Tell the Truth campaign represents the "moderate" camp of the opposition. It is headed by two young politicians – Tatsiana Karatkevich, a presidential candidate in the October 2015-elections, and political strategist Andrey Dmitrieu.

Karatkevich, through the use of a mild political style, gained considerable support during the elections. A poll by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) conducted in October after the presidential elections placed her second after Lukashenka in terms of popularity, with 22% of votes. Among all Belarusians (including those who abstained from voting in the elections) she enjoyed a 16% approval rating. The deeper IISEPS analysis showed that Karatkevich attracts the support of many people from moderate groups of society who had refrained from supporting the opposition beforehand.

Immediately after the elections Karatkevich and Dmitrieu announced that they were preparing for the 2016 parliamentary elections campaign. They called upon all like-minded people to sign up to their candidate nomination list titled "TaK. For Peaceful Changes" ("tak" – is the Belarusian word for "yes", and is also the acronym of the first letters of Tatsiana Karatkevich's name).

Their political activity so far has included a series of meetings with the heads of Belarusian parliamentary committees, where Dmitrieu and Karatkevich discussed and lobbied their "peaceful changes" plan. They also took a number of trips to the regions, evidently, to mobilise their local activists. They have become more and more active in the media, publishing statements on urgent topics like the ruble devaluation and showing up at various public fora (like those of entrepreneurs or economists) to announce their reform agenda.

Other opposition leaders have distanced themselves from this movement. Many view Karatkevich and Dmitrieu as loyal to the regime, or sometimes as a KGB project.

Centre-right coalition

For long enough the Belarusian opposition has failed to unite on an ideological basis. In December 2015 leaders of the United Civil Party, Belarusian Christian Democracy and the For Freedom movement established a centre-right coalition. A fourth party, the Belarusian People's Front, has said it is ready to coordinate its actions with the coalition but does not want to fully join it.

It is worth noting that the unification was supervised by European Parliament bloc the European People's Party (EPP). The EPP had earlier recognised these opposition structures as partners. At first glance, such foreign backing gives the coalition a dubious image of an artificially created Brussels' project. On the other hand, having an influential curator in the European Parliament implies a certain degree of trust in the West. This may serve as a stabiliser for the coalition, because failure to stay united may irritate important Western partners.

The coalition has announced that it will take part in the parliamentary campaign, launch a united election observation programme, promote a European trajectory and market reforms and fight for free elections. So far, the leaders of the coalition have visited several regions of Belarus to introduce their ideas to local officials and private entrepreneurs at markets.

A street leader summons the opposition congress

Former No1 political prisoner Mikola Statkevich, known for his uncompromising stand and bravery during four and a half years in custody, became an icon for certain opposition fractions. This background together with his personal charisma has made him a leader for those activists and movements who view street protests as, ultimately, the only feasible regime change tactic.

Statkevich organised six unauthorised rallies in the centre of Minsk before and after last year's presidential elections. Currently he is organising an opposition congress. The idea is to gather activists from all over Belarus to determine a united strategy for the opposition and to put forward democratisation requirements to the authorities. When they are ignored, as anticipated, Statkevich proposes to prepare street protests.

In 2005 the congress format enabled the opposition to field united presidential candidate Aliaksandr Milinkevich. Since then all attempts to use the congress as a uniting strategy have failed. That is why this time the Statkevich proposal was met with very limited enthusiasm.

Statkevich has managed to get support from some well-known figures: two former presidential candidates – poet Uladzimir Nekliaeu and political exile Andrei Sannikau, trade-union leader Henadz' Fedynich, co-chair of the right-wing Young Front Zmicier Daschkevich and several other activists. However, except for Sannikau who controls popular opposition website Charter'97, the others lack serious structures behind them.

Statkevich reached out to the rest of the opposition for support of his idea, with the exception of Tell the Truth and the leftist Just World party, whom he has called "KGBists" and "communists" respectively. The others, including the centre-right coalition, are still considering Statkevich's proposal and have promised to respond soon.

Still no window to succeed

The ad hoc coordination of efforts between the Statkevich camp and the centre-right coalition seems possible: they share a common agenda, electorate and, to a certain degree, political tactics. However, personal mistrust among the leaders will most likely stand in the way of a considerable unification.

As for the Tell the Truth campaign, it seem neither able nor willing to cooperate with the rest of the opposition. It is trying to gain the support of a so-called "new majority", median electorate that supports neither the government nor the traditional opposition. Affiliation with the latter can only be a problem in this regard.

The moderate Tell the Truth campaign can hope to be granted some seats in parliament on the wave of the Belarusian-European thaw in relations, but this scenario also remains unlikely. Lukashenka will choose other concessions, like cosmetic changes in election or media law, rather than sacrificing the political sterility of his parliament.

Artyom Shraibman is a political correspondent and editor working for a major Belarusian informational portal TUT.BY in Minsk.

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