No-one can say the line-up for the presidential election in Belarus scheduled for August 9 lacks variety.
Several strong candidates from among the Minsk political establishment have their sights set on ousting — peacefully — the country’s “perennial” president Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking his sixth term in office.
"This time some very unexpected candidates, who could give Lukashenko a real fight, have popped up. They have learnt a lesson from the previous elections, in which some presidential hopefuls focused too much on street protests," Alyaksandr Klaskouski, a Belarusian political analyst and media expert, told Euronews.
"Now we have at least two candidates who can throw down the gauntlet to Lukashenko differently but appealingly — through connecting with Belarusian people’s hearts and minds for a new chapter in Belarusian history. Many people have already pinned their hopes on them."
Of 55 groups that initially submitted documents to enter the race, 15 were given a green light to move forward by collecting 100,000 votes in support of their candidates, a mandatory prerequisite in the election.
The deadline for this is June 19, when the Central Election Commission will rule on the legitimacy of the collected votes and decide who to put on the ballot. Candidates will then be nominated between June 20 and July 4.
A sea of candidates
Among the hotchpotch of candidates are relatively seasoned politicians: Oleg Gaidukevich, leader of the Liberal-Democratic party (LDP), Yuri Gubarevich, leader of the movement “Za svobodu” (“For Freedom”), Andrei Dmitrijev, co-chairman of the movement “Govori pravdu” (“Speak the truth”), and Olga Kovalkova, co-founder of the party of Belarusian Christian Democracy.
But the list is also spiced up with several outsiders, like pensioner Vladimir Nepomniashchikh or Aleksandr Tabolich -- a tattoo artist and a member of a Minsk-based band -- who are both arguably seeking the limelight primarily for non-political reasons.
Importantly, the list also includes two heavyweights who have captured the attention of both the public and analysts alike: Viktor Babariko, ex-chairman of the board of Belgazprombank, and Valery Tsepkalo, former Belarusian ambassador to the United States, and the ex-head of High Technologies Park in Minsk.
"These two candidates represent the Belarusian establishment. They know very well how the system works and they have met the president (Lukashenko) on numerous occasions. The latter in fact was his aide at some point. They have resources for the campaign and street unrest is not part of their game. This is what sets the election apart from the previous elections,” stresses Alyaksandr Klaskouski.
Anatolij Pankovskij, a Belarusian political analyst, told Euronews that the participation of “political novices” and “fat cats” like Babariko and Tsepkalo makes the campaign different and very interesting.
“The situation we now see appearing is unprecedented. It remains to be seen if the two will be cleared by the electoral authority for the election campaign,” he says.
However Genadih Sharipkin, a political observer from Minsk, notes that the election will be played out in “extraordinary” circumstances: conducted against the background of a collapsed economy and the COVID-19 crisis that has claimed many lives, partly due to the reckless behaviour of President Lukashenko.
Although Belarus has had more than 52,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and 298 deaths (as of June 12) according to the Johns Hopkins University, no lockdown has been imposed.
“I’d pay attention to the time chosen for the election — on August 9, in the midst of summer holidays for many, which are usually spent in gardens and summer cottages. It seems the leaders of the country are not particularly worried about that. What they are really worried about is how to make the whole campaign quick, quiet and boring for everyone,” Sharipkin explained to Euronews.
Valeria Kostyugova of “Nashe mnenije” (Our opinion), a platform of independent Belarusian political experts, told Euronews that the election is marked by particularly high “political exuberance”.
“We see nominations backed by huge support. Signatures are being collected swiftly and efficiently, employing social media and social networks,” Kostyugova said.
Opposition rallies bring wave of arrests
For many years, the Belarusian opposition was largely represented by Mikola (Nikolai) Statkevich, an intrepid senior figure in the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (People’s Assembly) and a contender in the 2010 presidential election. But his affinity with vociferous street protests has landed him in jail on numerous occasions. Sentenced in 2011 to six years, he was pardoned by Lukashenko before he fully served the term, but was stripped of the right to take part in the country’s elections where an oath is required.
On June 1 Statkevich was jailed for 15 days after taking part in anti-Lukashenko rallies. More than 100 opposition activists were arrested in a government crackdown in May, according to Human Rights Watch and Belarusian campaign group Viasna.
It came amid protests which saw hundreds of people in Minsk clamour against Lukashenko's rule, in the largest opposition demonstrations of the year.
None of the analysts approached for the article considered Statkevich an important figure any more. They say that over the years of Lukashenko's rule, the traditional opposition has been pushed to the edges of Belarussian politics.
“The political spectrum representing itself as the opposition is patchy, but weak, unable to speak with a single voice and languishing in the margins. This is where Lukashenko wants them to be. Not only he, but the public too sees them as whining losers,” Klaskouski points out.
Yet in contrast, Babariko and Tsepkalo have conjured up images of themselves as successful, smart visionaries who have nothing to do with the traditional opposition.
“It would be hard to question their accomplishments even for Lukashenko. Their achiever status compels the president to scratch his head: how to deal with them? Lukashenko is used to clamping down on bellicose street protestors, but these two make it a completely different story,” Klaskouski maintains.
However, the political analyst also claims that their moderate, polite, incombustible rhetoric could also prove to be their Achilles heel.
“In any revolution, the power of the street always plays big. Without it, they are unlikely to secure wide support from all the political parties and the public alike,” Klaskouski said.
Both standout potential candidates have so far shunned making clear statements on Belarus’ geopolitical future. They are clearly not in favour of closer integration with Europe, and both understand that Russia is hugely important to Belarus. In fact, some have already accused Babariko of “selling” Belarus to Russia, which he vehemently denies.
Babariko collected more than 50,000 signatures in his support in just three days. If as expected this pace is kept up, analysts believe the candidate will notch up way more signatures than are required.
After 20 years as chairman of the board of Belgazprombank, Babariko is carrying over into the election campaign the low profile he has maintained both in his private life and professional career. He has already earned the nickname the "candidate of hope".
"In terms of collecting signatures, he has broken all the previous records. As much as Lukashenko and the Central Election Commission — orchestrated by the president's people — would like to cast a shadow on all the votes in his favour, the number may be just too big to ignore," Klaskouski emphasises.
The president weighs his options
As for the president's own campaign, Alexander Lukashenko supposedly collected 200,000 votes in his support in just four days.
“I just do not believe it. This must be a fabrication,” says analyst Anatolij Pankovskij.
Klaskouski believes that Lukashenko may be itching to crack the whip against his new political foes, as he did many times before — but that this time, clamping down on opponents who are not mired in scandals and politics could backfire against the president.
“Lukashenko, who zealously cherishes his meticulously burnished macho image, would be dealt a political blow if he, the Belarusian-style embodiment of manhood, chose to discredit or use force against his opponents and did not allow their names to appear on the ballot,” he says.
The prospect of supporters of Babariko and Tsepkalo pouring into the streets if Minsk officials refuse to register them for the election cannot be ruled out either, although both potential candidates have reiterated they are against any street protests.
“For example, Babariko repeats that a massive number of signatures collected for his candidacy is the best deterrence against Lukashenko’s evil intents,” Klaskouski said. “But Lukashenko faces a big headache: to play the game — new for him — or axe the annoying candidates at some point,” Klaskouski said.
When asked about potential rival candidates in the presidential race, Lukashenko sounds irked and, on one occasion, compared them with “beetles” who turn up to feed on the fodder prepared by others.
Talking to workers at the tractor factory MTZ last week, Lukashenko noted that he knows little about the people seeking nomination.
“Except for my former aide (Tsepkalo). To tell the truth, he is a sly one. He doesn't say why the president fired him. Feel free to ask him that. He may give you an honest answer. He would not want to run for the presidency then. But he won't speak honestly. If we have to, we will tell but we don't want to indulge in smear campaigns,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying.
The current support for the Belarusian leader is believed to be low. The last credible poll conducted by a Vilnius-based pollster in 2016 showed it hovering around 30 percent. The deepening of poverty, combined with a slew of social issues and the distrust in the president for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, puts him in a precarious situation prior to the election.
“Provided the other two prominent candidates are allowed to run,” the analysts conclude. But Valeria Kostyugova believes that although there will be much ruckus, Lukashenko will prevail.
“He has the resources and the experience,” she said.
The president has been in power since 1994 — Belarus did away with presidential term limits in 2004 — and opposition activists have accused him of suppressing anti-government voices and independent news media over a quarter of a century.
Despite the focus on the two main rival candidates, some other contenders should not be ignored. Alyaksandr Klaskouski cites the name of Sergei Tikhanovski, a popular video blogger who boasts over 180,000 online subscribers and has been dubbed 'Belarus’ mini Zelensky', after Ukraine's comedian-turned-politician who was elected the country's president in 2019.
Tikhanovski was detained by the authorities in May. On June 9 the state Investigative Committee said he faces up to three years in prison on charges of violation of public order and assaulting a police officer during a protest against Lukashenko's re-election bid.
“Due to arrest, he was unable to submit his documents on time to the Central Election Commission. So his wife Svetlana registered herself for the race and, having employed the tools of social media, she is now exhorting Belarussians to get rid of Lukashenko. The operation is mimicking the presidential campaign run by the current Ukrainian President (Volodymyr) Zelensky,” Klaskouski said.
Like Zelensky, the blogger speaks in plain language with no plum in his mouth. Tikhanovski castigates the establishment, but unlike the successful Ukrainian campaigner, he has few resources and the level of public attention is no match.
A Belarusian Maidan?
The analysts agree that the blogger, Babariko, Tsepkalo and perhaps Dmitrijev, of “Speak the truth!” stand the best chances of clearing the 100,000-signature hurdle.
As Belarus is currently forming commissions of electoral districts, the authorities are including mostly Lukashenko-devotees — like teachers, farmers (Lukashenko is a former director of a kolkhoz, or collective farm) — not representative of the candidates, Klaskouski notes.
“This can be very important when it comes to counting ballots,” he emphasises.
Belarus' government and parliament have refused to postpone the elections — scheduled for August 9 — amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
On June 3, Lukashenko dismissed his government and replaced his prime minister in a move seen by some analysts as a reflection of official anxiety.
But the bottom-line question is this: to what extent will the election be rigged? At least one political observer believes that cannot be ruled out.
“The presidential campaign is set to be particularly ferocious and unpredictable this time. The president has already been derided by some of the candidates and is weighing his options. As everything at the end of the day boils down to the survival of the regime and the president himself, Lukashenko will not be too pernickety or hesitant, heeding warnings from the West,” Genadih Sharipkin told Euronews.
In some people's minds are the street protests in Kyiv that led to the Ukrainian revolution of 2014.
But will a second Maidan brew up in Minsk?