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Can the Belarusian earthquake hit Russia and Europe?

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Belarusians voted Sunday, August 9 to elect their president after a campaign of arrests of opponents and protesters. The authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko faces the most serious challenge since coming to power in 1994.

Irina, 52, has long carefully avoided all political activity in Belarus, like the vast majority of her compatriots. And then this bank worker came out of her lethargy a bit before summer.

The arrest of his candidate, the banker Viktor Babariko, and of all those who threatened the re-election of the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko, "scandalized" her. "I have the impression that our president lives in a sort of parallel reality," she said.

Irina has come out to support the candidate Svetlana Tikhanovsky, who now carried the opposition's hopes on the presidential election of this year. This unexpected mother of two gathered tens of thousands of supporters in Minsk, the capital, but also in the big provincial towns, who had never participated in meetings before. "The engagement of the population around this election is unheard of under the Lukashenko era," notes political scientist Artyom Schreibman.

In Belarus, the re-election of the outgoing President Alexander Lukashenko for his sixth term, scheduled for August 9, 2020, should have taken place without many surprises. After 26 years in power, the man seemed to have full control throughout the electoral process and seemed to be sure to win again with a triumphant score. But a grain of sand derailed the well-oiled mechanism of her authoritarian regime: a last-minute candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya

The authorization to compete given to this 30-year-old housewife, considered to be completely harmless and incapable of overshadowing Minsk's strongman, proved to be a fatal mistake by a deeply misogynistic president. In the space of a few weeks, the near-unknown candidate embodied the massive rejection of Lukashenko and became the symbol of the desire for a change of a large part of the Belarusian population.

Why has the so-expected scenario of Lukashenko's peaceful re-election failed? What does the unexpected success of Tikhanovskaia and the unprecedented scale of the challenges to the profound changes in Belarusian society tell us? And what implications will these events have at the regional level?

The president's regime seems to have aged badly

The regular holding of elections is one of those rituals that are common to observe even in authoritarian countries like Belarus, where the opposition is marginalized, where the political competition impossible within the framework of official institutions and the idea of a renewed government is simply unthinkable. The authoritarian leaders usually comply with the preparations of non-competitive elections whose results are known in advance. However, they know that this exercise can be perilous.

Elected in 1994 against his reckless rival, former President Vyacheslav Kebitch, in the first (and last to date) truly democratic and transparent presidential election, Lukashenko made sure not to make the same mistake. He has never let go of control of the electoral process, assisted by the faithful Lidia Ermochina, irremovable president of the Central Election Commission since 1996. The duo had already tested several means of minimizing the risks inherent in each re-election (in 2001, 2006, 2010, 2015).

The essential of these means can be classified into four broad categories: ousting the most serious competitors; monitoring media coverage; use of the “administrative resources” and the falsification of results; the use of intimidation and force if necessary. All these methods were used in 2020.

In the first months of 2020, the three competitors deemed potentially dangerous (Viktor Babariko, Sergei Tikhanovskiï, Valeriï Tsepkalo) were dismissed, the first two being imprisoned and the third forced to flee the country. The four officially registered candidates (Andrei Dmitriev, Anna Kanopatskaya, Sergei Tcheretchen and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya) were only allowed two hours of air in the national media each. Meanwhile, the activities of the president received ample media coverage – which was overwhelmingly positive, of course. His traditional address to members of the Parliament and the nation, initially scheduled for mid-April, had been rescheduled for August 4, five days before the election. This was supplemented by a violent crackdown on journalists and a total shutdown of the Internet on election day.

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The number of places officially authorized for candidates' meetings with voters had been drastically reduced. At the same time, some candidates had reported intimidation of their collaborators, and numerous arbitrary arrests had been reported throughout the campaign.

The possibilities of supervising the electoral process were greatly reduced: the only foreign observation mission was the one delegated to the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly (the counter-model of the OSCE missions), and the access of independent observers at polling stations was deliberately made very difficult. Besides, the early voting procedure, regularly denounced as a major tool for forgery, was launched five days before the official date of August 9.

On election night, in anticipation of protests, an imposing repressive apparatus was mobilized in the capital. The outburst of violence by law enforcement officials against protesters far exceeded that of 2010.

However, despite all these means used to avoid media coverage and dismiss any attempt to challenge the results, the election exposed the growing unpopularity of the president and the weariness of a large part of the population ready to mobilize to support a complete unknown as soon as it embodies the idea of change.

What Tikhanovskaya's success reveals

Who is this Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa who challenged the "last dictator of Europe" and now proclaims herself victorious, from Lithuania where she took refuge? It is important to clarify that this is not a politician representing an opposition party. Her involvement in the campaign was improvised because it was following the refusal by the authorities to register the candidacy of her husband, a popular blogger and pugnacious detractor of Lukashenko, imprisoned since June, that she s' is a candidate.

Its brilliant and original campaign on social media and alternative media (such as the news portal tut.by or the Belarusian-language channel Belsat, funded by the EU and hosted in Poland) was carried out thanks to the combined efforts of the teams of the three candidates excluded from the presidential race. Their appeal to the three other registered candidates and their pledge to the opposition parties to withdraw in favor of a single candidacy against Lukashenko was not followed up.

Moreover, the attempt to nominate a single candidate representing all opposition parties and movements in the primaries organized in February 2020 had already failed. In the end, it was not the ties to the historic opposition, but the inventiveness and use of new technologies in a country more connected than one might think that made the difference with previous campaigns.

The originality of Tikhanovskaya’s approach was to run for president not to keep the power for herself, but to organize a new presidential election later, this time fully transparent**. His campaign was articulated not around socio-economic issues but demands for political freedom and the rule of law.**

This positioning strongly resonated with the desire of a growing part of Belarusian society to see the country embark on the path of political, social, and economic modernization, and above all to put an end to an increasingly authoritarian regime, more outdated and disconnected from society than ever before.

Lukashenko's popularity has long been linked to his ability to guarantee socio-economic stability, particularly valued by generations who had resented the disappearance of the USSR and were nostalgic for the Soviet model. The percentage of this elderly and predominantly rural electorate has gradually declined, to the benefit of the new, younger, and urban generations. Tikhanovskaya and her allies Veronika Tsepkalo (the wife of the second rejected candidate, Valériï Tsepkalo), and Maria Kolesnikova (the campaign leader of the ousted third candidate, Viktor Babariko), described by Lukashenko as “three poor girls who understand nothing”, have perfectly captured and embodied the profound changes that Belarusian society has undergone in a quarter of a century.

Their demand to restore dignity to the Belarusian people has found a much wider echo than the empty promises of salary increases the president has made, including among his traditional electorate. His clumsy handling of the coronavirus crisis only underscored the archaic nature of his power.

Beyond this basic explanation, Lukashenko is also paying today for two major errors: the announcement of the official results giving it a highly improbable score of 80% of the votes, and the excessive use of violence to suppress the protest in the days following the election. In the space of a week, the entire Belarusian population, known until then apolitical, mobilized through well-attended demonstrations despite the repression, a general strike and multiple street actions (solidarity chains women dressed in white and carrying flowers, horns for motorists, etc.) who took the regime off guard. Civil society, whose absence the Belarusian opposition had long lamented, has revealed itself and the world.

An unexpected geopolitical challenge

The electoral deadline was to take place in an international context rather than favorable to Lukashenko. If the freedoms given by the 1994 Constitution during the multiple parodies of electoral consultations that his government organized have long earned it strong criticism from Western countries, accompanied by a series of sanctions, the situation had calmed down these last years. His return to favor with the international community was linked to his skillful mediation position during the Ukrainian crisis, and to a few gestures of openness towards the political opposition which allowed the lifting of European sanctions and the initiation of some cooperation projects with the EU. His re-election in 2015 did not elicit any negative reaction from the EU despite the Soviet score of 83%. The visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Minsk in early 2020 also hinted at the warming of relations with the United States.

On the other hand, the recurring tensions around trade and energy issues with Moscow, Minsk's reluctance on the advancement of the unified state project and a certain mistrust of Belarusian attempts to reconcile with the West did not call not fundamentally in question the priority given to cooperation with Russia. Russians have remained unmoved by the Belarusian president’s verbal provocations during his election campaign and the trumped-up Wagner affair, which raised suspicion of possible Russian intervention to destabilize Lukashenko’s regime.

Thus, the main regional players appeared relatively neutral ahead of the election. This caution was completely understandable given the dramatic consequences of the Ukrainian crisis. The EU sought above all to avoid provoking Russia so as not to give it the pretext to intervene militarily, but also not to jeopardize the path towards normalization which is looming in Russian-European relations. No one had an interest in the emergence of a new hotbed of instability in Europe.

This new "revolution of dignity" has launched an unexpected challenge as much to the EU, absorbed in the management of the coronavirus crisis, and the Brexit, as to Russia, plunged into the economic crisis following the fall in prices of the oil.

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European neutrality became difficult to sustain in the aftermath of the election because of the regime’s excessive violence as well as the scale and duration of the protests. EU authorities responded first with a call to end the violence and recount the votes, followed by threats of sanctions against the regime and a proposal for mediation.

The demand by the leaders of many Western countries, primarily Poland and the Baltic States, to hold new elections has prompted Lukashenko to turn around and return to the classic Western plot scenario. Thus, he suddenly forgot his insinuations about a threat of destabilization from Russia, launched in the middle of the election campaign with the Wagner affair, and called on Vladimir Putin for help. The latter promised on August 16 that Moscow “will respect its commitments” within the framework of the Russia-Belarus Unified State Treaty, and if necessary, within the framework of the CSTO, which implies the possibility of dispatch of armed forces.

The situation in Belarus represents a real dilemma for the Kremlin: on the one hand, the Russian leadership is tired of Lukashenko's turnarounds and the arrival of a new person at the head of the Belarusian state does not involve many risks. The country has been moving away politically from Russian orbit since 2014 but remains economically dependent on Russia.

On the other hand, a regime change under pressure from the streets in Belarus could give unprecedented impetus to the rise of political protests in Russia on the eve of a regional election which promises to be very tense; and, symbolically, the fall of Lukashenko would presage the inexorable end of Putin. Finally, neither the Belarusian population nor the Russian population favors the scenario of military intervention. Would Putin be ready to take such a decision, with very serious geopolitical and domestic consequences, in the context of economic recession?