What Makes the 2015 Belarus Presidential Campaign So Different?
Each and every election in Belarus follows a straightforward pattern: limit the rights of the opposition, control the vote-counting process and, later, announce the predetermined winner.
However, the 2015 campaign will differ from previous ones in a number of ways.
The war in Ukraine has altered Belarusians societal outlook: people are leaning more towards Russia and reject outright the idea of political protests. This has notably changed the rhetoric of the opposition and the government, both of whom now have to operate with miniscule amounts of financing.
The recent nomination of a young woman as a moderate oppositional candidate indicates that at least part of the opposition has given up its regime change ambitions and is refocusing their efforts on a long-run image making campaign.
Ukraine Alters the Agenda
The Ukrainian crisis has had a deep effect on Belarusians' mindset. The Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), in its June 2015 poll, found that 90% of Belarusians "regularly" or "sometimes" watch Russian state TV. Approximately a 60% majority support Russia's actions in Ukraine and the pro-European minority has shrunken from 40-45% (before 2014) to 25-30% (currently).
the authorities resorted to this pro-independence rhetoric, largely because they fear growing popular sympathy towards Russia Read more
Under these conditions the traditionally pro-European opposition has had to focus less on foreign policy and to adjust its agenda to supporting national independence, as the public now sees any drifting towards the West as a threat to the country's future.
The authorities have also resorted to this pro-independence rhetoric, largely because they fear growing popular sympathy towards Russia. It is no accident that pro-Lukashenka pickets during this presidential campaign use the slogan: "For the Future of Independent Belarus". On the other hand, the government exploits the notion that the chaos they see in Ukraine could arrive at their doorstep if they support change over 'stability'.
First Reelection without Economic Safety Net
The recession in Russia has had a dual effect on Belarus: its exports to Russian market have seen a significant decline, while Moscow is unwilling to subsidise its ally's economy as it traditionally has. In 2015 Minsk received only $870m in Russian loans, which hardly enough to keep it afloat given the current state of Belarusian economy.
Lukashenka has always managed to raise voter incomes leading up to any elections, something which may even be considered a time-honoured tradition in Belarus at this point. Leading up to the previous presidential elections, average salaries climbed to $100 by 2001, $250 – in 2006 and $500 – in 2010, all of which are respectable figures regionally.
As the Belarusian ruble has devaluated fivefold, unemployment has grown and wages growth got frozen (the average salary in June 2015 was only $450) and the economy itself has unsurprisingly fallen into a recession.
Although this crisis has failed to increase the readiness of people to take to the streets in protest (see below), it has contributed to shifting the agenda of all parties with regards to the elections. Three key potential opposition candidates – Anatol' Liabedz'ka, Tatsiana Karatkevich and Siarhei Kalyakin – have built campaigns mainly around socio-economic problems. The authorities, on the other hand, are playing the "stability and peace" card, accusing foreign powers of creating these "temporary economic problems".
Forget About A Maidan
11 October 2015 may become the first election day without a traditional Ploshcha (the Belarusian equivalent of a Maidan protest) where thousands of people gather in Minsk's city squares and demand either a full ballot recount or Lukashenka's resignation.
Belarusian society's readiness to protest is not growing, but decreases as the economy slides Read more
As IISEPS' June poll has indicated, less than 10% of Belarusians consider protests "realistic and desirable". In March 2015 only 15.4% said they would consider protesting about the declining economic situation in the country, whereas 73% flat out reject engaging in protests. In March 2014 these figures were 23% and 68%, respectively, which means Belarusian society's readiness to protest is not growing, but decreases as the economy slides. The Ukrainian syndrome in the public's mind appears to be more powerful than any economic discontent that may be lingering about.
With the current situation being what it is, even the opposition candidates have rejected a return to the Ploshcha strategy. Two of them, Kaliakin and Karatkevich, put their opposition rather bluntly: they will not call people to the streets whatsoever. Liabedz'ka was more evasive in stating that he will not call for demonstrations but people have the right to them and he will not oppose protests if they should occur.
The Opposition's Empty Piggy Bank
Not only has the incumbent had to run this campaign with a shortage of financing, but the opposition has been hurting for money as well. The amendments introduced into the Electoral Code in 2013 deprived candidates of receiving the budgetary minimum ($28,000 in 2010) that they had previously received for campaigning. This money was substituted with an "electoral fund" (with a $100,000 ceiling) for which a candidate is permitted to open an account at a state-owned bank. Every Belarusian citizen or entity can donate to these candidates as they please.
anonymous donations are for political campaigns are forbidden in Belarus Read more
The system itself looks quite liberal and even capitalistic in a way, but given Belarus' reality, it has one profound defect – anonymous donations are forbidden. In other words, the government can track every citizen or company who decides to support the opposition financially. In addition to political apathy and a general malaise with any election, this new mechanism of governmental screening will hardly motivate many individuals, especially the wealthy, to donate to the opposition.
It has always been an open secret that the opposition in Belarus heavily relies on foreign funding, but this year even this brook ran dry. Opposition leaders complain in private that this year much of the Western money they are accustomed to seeing has been diverted to Ukraine-related projects. According to unofficial data, some European foundations were ready to support Belarusian opposition this time only if it managed to unite behind a single candidate – something which never happened.
First Woman Candidate Running for President
Tatsiana Karatkevich, 38, is the first female politician to have a shot at running as a presidential candidate. She has received the support of the largest opposition coalition in Belarus, the People's Referendum (comprised of Belarus People's Front, Social-Democratic Party, the For Freedom movement and Tell the Truth campaign).
Karatkevich has adopted a decidedly mild political approach, using the slogan "For Peaceful Change" (in contrast to what happened in Ukraine), she travels around the country a lot where she spends more time listening to people's problems than proposing them some kind of political programme or manifesto (unlike the leftist Siarhei Kalyakin or liberal-conservative Anatol' Liabedz'ka).
However, Belarusian society remains rather patriarchal, with only 16% believe nominating woman as the head of state to be a good idea (IISEPS, March 2015). More people would prefer a politically mature male candidate with some experience in management to a relatively young woman with a background in psychology and social activism.
Karatkevich's head of staff Andrey Dmitrieu openly admits that this campaign is not about winning the election, but about training and re-branding the opposition. In other words, the political forces behind Karatkevich have given up on their long-held regime change ambitions at the moment and view this campaign as a kind of training course and, more broadly, a PR campaign.
All in all, the 2015 campaign will most likely proceed in an atmosphere of total apathy and passivity. With essentially everyone – be it government, society or the opposition – fearing a potential Ukrainian scenario unfolding, and having to work with little money, they are trying not to stir up any social unrest while achieving either their tactical goals or simply surviving.
Belarus in US Congress: Economic Interests or Concerns about Human Rights?
On July 17, 2015, Representative Steve Pearce of New Mexico proposed a bill imposing sanctions on JSC Belaruskali, one of the world’s largest potash miners.
Titled "Belarus Democracy and Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2015", the bill emphasises human rights violations in Belarus and warns that the October 2015 election is unlikely to be free.
The call for sanctions is coming at the time when the relations between Belarus and the USA have marginally improved in the light of the Ukrainian crisis.
The aim of US sanctions has always been to promote democracy and punish human rights violators in Belarus. Yet Pearce and many other supporters of sanctions in the US Congress seem to be more interested in trade protectionism than in promoting democracy in Belarus. Such uneasy coexistence of economic and humanitarian concerns risks undermining the credibility of the US commitment to human rights in Eastern Europe.
Who is Afraid of Belaruskali?
The recent surge in attention of a number of New Mexico’s congressmen to Belarus resulted from Belaruskali’s importance to the global potash market. New Mexico is a state where several potash miners operate, including Intrepid Potash and Intercontinental Potash Corporation. Contributions from potash companies pay for political campaigns of Republican and Democratic congressmen alike.
In June, two senators from New Mexico requested an investigation of “whether JSC Belaruskali is evading trade sanctions.” Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich wrote to the US Treasury that the Belarusian firm “threatens law-abiding U.S. potash companies.”
In March 2014, Belaruskali split from the state-owned petroleum and chemical conglomerate Belneftekhim, under US sanctions since 2007 for its ties to the Belarusian President. The split allowed it to start exporting potash to the US following a 7-year hiatus.
In March 2015, Belaruskali agreed to sell its potash to China for the first half of the year at a below market price. The contract disadvantages North America’s exporting cartel Canpotex, which had been holding out for higher prices.
The agreement also devalued the shares of Intrepid Potash, one of top campaign contributors for Representative Steve Pearce, who proposed the July 17 bill. According to the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, Intrepid Potash also donated money to campaigns of Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, who requested an investigation against Belaruskali last month.
Motivated by Christian Activism?
Representative Steve Pearce’s approach to Belarus mixes economic considerations with missionary zeal. The Congressman travelled to Belarus in May 2015 to talk about God, freedom and democracy. Capitol Ministries, a DC-based evangelical group that “provides Bible studies, evangelism and discipleship to political leaders,” sponsored the trip.
Pearce "talked about how biblical concepts of truth, honesty, fairness, trust and hope—the underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution—can benefit the country that was once a part of the Soviet Union.” He also emphasised the importance of the country’s position between the West and the East. The congressman's move against Belaruskali, however, suggests that instrumentalises human rights rhetoric to protect the economic interests of his US constituents.
The religious tinge of US foreign policy goes back to the presidency of George Bush, Jr., who signed Belarus Democracy Act in 2004. A year earlier, Bush claimed that “liberty is both the plan of Heaven for humanity, and the best hope of progress here on earth.” Critical of human rights in Belarus, the Bush administration overlooked no less egregious abuses in oil-rich Azerbaijan.
Defending Human Rights
With some changes, Representative Christopher Smith, a Republican congressman from New Jersey, reintroduced Belarus Democracy Act in 2003. As a chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on human rights, Smith also sponsored the subsequent reauthorisation acts.
Smith has been an uncompromising critic of Lukashenka and other human rights violators for a long time. In 2011, following a meeting with former Belarusian presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich, the Representative went as far as to ask the Obama administration to seek the indictment of the Belarusian President by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Such activism earned Smith the ire of China, Cuba, Russia, and Belarus. In 2013, he was denied a visa to travel to Moscow. In his rhetoric, Smith often brings up God-given rights; his conception of human rights was criticised for excluding gays.
Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, has also maintained a long interest in Belarus’s politics. Pallone introduced a bill focused on Belarus as early as in 1996. The bill called on the US government to “press the Government of President Lukashenka to abide by the provisions of the Helsinki Accords and the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and guarantee freedom of the press, allow for the flowering of Belarusan [sic] culture.”
A representative of the Belarusan-American Association (BAZA) told Belarus Digest that Pallone frequently “provides statements in conjunction with March 25 celebrations, at the specific request of his Belarusian-American constituents.” The association has interacted with Members of the U.S. Congress and their staffs to draw their attention to Belarusian politics since the 1950s.
Members of the organisation's DC Chapter noted two factors driving attention to Belarus in the US Congress: constituent interests and/or “a cause that is important to that particular Member of Congress.” Notably, interest in Belarus is bipartisan. The US Congress has passed Belarus Democracy Act and its subsequent reauthorisation acts unanimously.
US Congressmen also occasionally visit Minsk, meeting with both governmental officials and families of political prisoners. Such visits frequently end with renewed calls for sanctions. For example, Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, returned from a trip to Minsk in 2011 to introduce a resolution calling for the expansion of sanctions.
Belarus and other countries criticised for their human rights violations often question US motives and accuse Washington of double standards. Belneftekhim has traditionally maintained that sanctions were an attempt at unfair competition.
Though genuine concern over human rights is behind many initiatives in the US Congress, economic interests do seem to feed the interest in sanctions, as the bill proposed by Pearce in July demonstrates. Economics may play an even greater role in determining which authoritarian states are able to avoid congressional scrutiny.
Because economic sanctions are bound to generate domestic winners and losers, congressional support for sanctions may never be motivated by concerns about human rights alone, even for such small economies as Belarus. In the long run, the use of human rights rhetoric in pursuit of other interests undermines the credibility of the US commitment to democracy and human rights.