What to Expect from the 2015 Presidential Elections in Belarus?
The year 2015 will herald a new presidential election in Belarus, certainly by the fall, and perhaps as early as March. It will be the fifth presidential election since the introduction of a national Constitution in 1994, and will mark Alexander Lukashenka’s 21st year in power.
Perceived Weaknesses of Lukashenka
Traditionally, elections are times when there are opportunities for the opposition to attract public attention, to use short spans on national TV and radio, and to make appearances at public venues. On paper at least for several reasons opposition leaders appear to have greater opportunities for support than in the past. They can be listed as follows, and not necessarily in order of significance.
First, as the president indicated in his meeting with journalists on 29 January, he is growing old—in fact he seems to have aged much faster physically than his equally seasoned counterparts such as Anatol Liabedzka of the United Civic Party or the still jailed Mikalai Statkevich of the Social Democrats. That fact seems to lead the president to talk about the possibility of retiring from office.
the usual escape route of foreign loans from Russia, or aid from the International Monetary Fund is no longer available Read more
Second, the country appears somewhat directionless. The president has no plan for the future, no clearly laid out scheme for economic reforms, or vision of where his state lies in the European and Eurasian geostrategic picture. The question would seem critically important in view of the events taking place in neighbouring Ukraine, which have polarised much of the continent.
Third and related to the above is the increasingly gloomy economic picture brought about in part by the sharp decline of the currency and falling world oil prices. Though the president has not devalued the ruble officially, it has reached unprecedentedly low levels against the dollar and Euro. He has suggested refinancing the country’s growing debt. But the usual escape route of foreign loans from Russia, or aid from the International Monetary Fund is no longer available, forcing the president to seek new partners who are unlikely to offer very favourable terms. China at the head.
Fourth, the opposition has had opportunities to learn from past mistakes. In 2001 campaigns to come up with a unified candidate took place too late to have a major impact (2001). In 2006, they were diluted by divisions that resulted in two competing candidates (Alekssandr Kazulin and Aleksandr Milinkevich in 2000). And, if one wishes to go back further, this also happened in 1994. In the 2010 campaign the plethora of candidates stymied any real possibilities of convincing the electorate that valid alternatives existed.
today the rift between President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka seems even wider Read more
Fifth, in 2010 at least three of the candidates made direct overtures for Russian support for their campaigns, and attained some success until a rapprochement between Lukashenka and President Dmitry Medvedev a little over a week before the vote tool place in Belarus ended these hopes. Such moves presupposed that Russia was getting weary of Lukashenka. And today the rift between President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka seems even wider. Some Russian leaders have expressed open frustration with the apparent lack of support from Minsk for Russia’s response to Ukraine’s Euromaidan.
Despite these obstacles, which might daunt a president in a more democratic environment, Lukashenka is actually more popular today than he was in 2010. The ostensible dilemmas for the incumbent president are actually beneficial in terms of his reelection—admittedly, one is not speaking here of an open election on an equal platform. At the same time they weaken his rivals, who have struggled to find viable policies on which to mount a concerted and united campaign.
Let us take the five above “problems” in turn.
First, Lukashenka’s age and time in office is translated in official parlance into valuable experience. Who else, he asks, could be entrusted with office at such a critical time in the state’s short history? Of course, he might step aside, but only if he is critically ill or suffering from dementia? Besides, he adds, it is even necessary to raise the pensionable age because of the fall in numbers of the working age population. Moreover, to resign at a difficult time would lead, he states, to accusations of cowardice. Therefore Lukashenka must stay and fight on. What else could be expected?
Second, the directionlessness is actually advantageous. What could be more dangerous at the current time than a radical reform platform that would likely entail wage cuts, closure of unprofitable factories, and opening national industries to foreign control? Why must Belarus commit itself to the Eurasian Economic Union or European Union when it can remain on decent terms with both entities, its membership of the former merely token compliance to the wishes of Putin? Hasn’t the policy of vacillation and flip-flops worked so far? Who can tell where Lukashenka will move next?
Lukashenka even suggests that Belarusians themselves are to blame for the crisis Read more
Third, the country’s economic plight can be blamed on world events and problems. It is simple to argue that they are external to Belarus. Though to some extent this attitude is partially offset by the recent firing of Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich and other officials, it remains in place. Lukashenka evades responsibility. He even suggests that Belarusians themselves are to blame for the crisis by abandoning their own currency and attempting to purchase dollars, a cowardly action deserving of scorn and condemnation.
Fourth, the opposition is neither united nor rejuvenated, despite repeated attempts to come up with a formula for unity. One reason for this is the thoroughness with which the state repressed opposition leaders—less directly after the 2010 presidential elections, which solicited international attention, than in 2011 and 2012 when it took extreme steps to ensure the eradication of its “enemies,” particularly among the young.
Fifth, there is no Russian route available today for the opposition, a time when a state-fostered national sentiment has come to the fore. Belarusians are unclear whether in the Donbas conflict they support the Ukrainian side or the Russian, but they are much more certain when it comes to the survival of their own country. The 23 years of the Republic of Belarus have come to mean something, however national identity might be defined. And like Ukraine’s Leonid Kravchuk in 1991, to some extent, the president has purloined the opposition’s insistence on the national integrity of Belarus, albeit alongside nebulous statements about the “sacredness” of the Russian people and their “oneness” with Belarusians.
Another Five Years?
The claim that under Lukashenka, Belarus has attained a form of national integrity is false, but it has had some impact. At its height it has persuaded even some western observers to identify the nation directly with Lukashenka. It is a tunnel vision that overlooks his failings and ignores other aspects of Belarusian political and cultural life. It also conveys the image that he alone is standing, defiant, against imperialist and predatory Russia while the EU dithers.
The people see what they are meant to see, however narrow and distorted that vision may be. And it is why we have not seen the last of Alexander Lukashenka.
David Marples, special to Belarus Digest
David is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Alberta in Canada.
BRSM, Lukashenka’s Press Conference – Belarus State TV Digest
Aleksandr Lukashenka attended a recent BRSM Youth Union conference and tried to convince young Belarusians to stay in the country and be loyal.
Lukashenka's press conference with domestic and foreign journalists on 29 January turned into one of the biggest news events of the year. According to coverage on state-run TV, even the journalists deemed “disloyal to the authorities” were given a chance to express their views at the event.
State TV journalists have been disseminating confusing messages on EU-Belarus relations as of late. On one occasion they took note of several positive developments, but in another instance they were very critical of a Latvian official for his interview on a potential “thaw” in relations between the West and Belarus.
All of this and more in this edition of Belarus State TV Digest.
Belarus: An Island of Social Stability According to the Glavnyj Efir programme on state-run Channel 1, Belarus distinguishes itself on a global arena via its generous financial support for the poorest and most vulnerable segments of society. Its commitment to maintaining a high level of social welfare support remains a priority for the authorities.
However, not every Belarusian has been contributing their fair share to this enormous financial burden. The authorities have already come up with an idea of how to encourage tax evaders to contribute to the budget. Anyone who has been unemployed for more than half a year will be charged a special fee in lieu of taxes.
Is the EU Ignoring Belarus' National Interests? According to a Channel 1 report, there is room for real improvements in EU-Belarus ties. State TV noted that for years Belarus has been advocating for “pragmatism in its relations with its European partners and respect for its national interests”. There is potential for EU-Belarusian relations to obtain an entirely “new quality” before the Eastern Partnership Summit scheduled to take place in May in Riga.
Who Needs Better Relations with Minsk? In a recent programme, a journalist from ONT TV “Bez Granic” criticised an interview by a Latvian official, Andrejs Pildegovichs, for his comments on the need to release political prisoners as a pre-condition for improving ties between Belarus and the EU. According to the coverage, the interview with Mr Pildegovichs was tragicomic in its content. “Who is advocating for Belarus now? Latvia?(…) Every eighth person living in Latvia appears to be stateless”, scoffed the commentator. Co-operation with Belarus is still quite beneficial for Latvia due to severe the economic difficulties that the country is facing at the moment – a comment made with a tone of peculiar satisfaction.
Belarusian Youth – an Apple in the Eye of the Head of State. State Channel 1 widely covered the 42 assembly of the BRSM (Belarusian Republican Youth Union), the largest government-organised nongovernmental youth organisation in Belarus. In covering the event, state TV noted that it was an opportunity for the nation's youth to have an “open dialogue” with Lukashenka. The report also emphasised that the head of state has made great efforts to improve the situation of young Belarusians throughout his years in office.
If You Want to Earn Money – Stay in Belarus. Lukashenka pointed out that all of projects oriented towards modernising the economy will be completed to offer workplaces for the younger generation. This, in turn, will ensure that young Belarusians will not need to emigrate to find a well-paid job.
The State’s Support to the Youth Wanting Their Loyalty in Return. Young people should “resist the [ongoing] provocations and the information war”. If there was any threat to the nation's security, they should get involved in its defence by joining the armed forces. In its latest coverage, state TV also pointed out that they should defend the history, culture and the Belarusian language. The speech of the head of state was delivered in Russian.
Belarusian Youth is not Susceptible to Western Influence ? One journalist proudly noted that the youth remains a driving force for the modernisation of the country and society. The authorities have taken care of younger Belarusians for over two decades now and, unlike in the West where young people all too often have no idea what to do with their lives, here in Belarus they are neither the fuel or kindling that could lead to social or political upheavals.
Local Authorities Happy to Speak with Ordinary Belarusians. ONT TV commented that the Minsk authorities have recently initiated a new practice to learn about the problems of average Belarusians. People now have an option to call and personally discuss the actual problems with the governor himself. According to the reporter covering the story, the sheer number of those who called (over 17 thousand people) proves that Belarusians trust this type of dialogue with the authorities.
Nothing Taboo During Lukashenka’s Chat with the Media. According to Channel 1's coverage Lukashenka's press conference of 29 January was a unique opportunity to hold an “open dialogue” not just with journalists but, more importantly, with society. Even journalists “disloyal to the authorities” got a chance to express their views during the event. Here are a few key moments from the coverage:
An American Political-economic Model for Belarus? A reporter from Channel 1 inquired about an alternative to the present state model in the country. Lukashenka emphasised that Belarusians would not like the “shock therapy” they would be subject to if serious changes were put into play. “Even if we would implement the most efficient American model, the very next day a number of militants – the [nation's] fifth column would appear on the streets – trying to create a “Maidan” there…” As a result a large number of Belarusians would not be able to survive a radically changed state model and would live in poverty, according to Lukashenka.
No Restrictions on the Belarusian Language. A Belarusian girl asked what the state authorities would do to promote and support the language. “The issue of language has already been decided once and for all”, he stated. As he explained, the turbulent events in Ukraine begun because of the senseless national policies, including its language policy.
Who is a Better Partner for Belarus? Minsk will maintain its multi-vector foreign policy. No spectacular changes are to be expected in the nation's relations with either the EU and United States. “I don’t really trust our Western partners”, remarked Lukashenka at one point. He went on to state that there will not be any big shifts in the country's relations with Brussels or Washington leading up to this year's presidential elections. “There will be no Maidan in Belarus so long as I am the president”, Lukashenka huffed.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT TV. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.