Since being democratically elected in 1994, the subsequent presidential elections in Belarus have all been rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko. Most recently, in August 2020, Lukashenko was once again declared the winner, in spite of widespread support for the most popular opponent he has ever faced, Sviatlana Tikhanouskaya. The announcement of the results sparked massive protests across Belarus, which continue four months later.
To understand the importance of this election, we first need to understand Lukashenko’s initial popularity.
Alexander Lukashenko’s influence explained
When Lukashenko was first elected, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he promised the people of Belarus that the relative prosperity they had seen under Soviet rule would continue. Belarus’ industrial development had thrived during the Cold War, leading to a strong economy and close ties with Russia.
In an interview for The Meridian, David Marples, Professor of History at the University of Alberta, Canada, suggested that given the choice, “Belarus may not have voted to leave the Soviet Union. They left because everybody else did.”
Even so, Lukashenko formed close ties with Russia after he was first elected President, and Russia would sell oil and gas to Belarus to be refined at extremely low prices, leading to huge profits when the refined oil was sold on to central and western Europe. As a result, up until around 2012 when the price of oil began to collapse on the global market, Belarus’ GDP growth averaged 5-7%, much higher than that of neighbouring nations.
With the collapse of oil prices came the collapse Lukashenko’s relationship with Russia. In 1999, Boris Yeltsin and Lukashenko formed a Russia-Belarus Union. However, shortly after the treaty was signed, Yeltsin resigned as President of Russia and Vladimir Putin came into power.
Putin questioned the reasoning behind the union, as Russia was so much more influential than Belarus. Russia’s population is well over 10 times larger than Belarus’, their military is more powerful, and they have more natural resources. As a result, the plans drawn out in the treaty, such as introducing a common currency between the two nations, were never realised, and today only an open border between the two remains.
Why this election is different
In Belarus, the constitution outlines their Presidential election voting system, in which a candidate hoping to run must receive 100,000 signatures from the public endorsing them. Following this, a first round of voting, and, if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, a second round between the top two candidates. The only election in which a second round of voting has been required was in 1994.
In all the previous Presidential elections in Belarus, Marples argues that if “it was free and fair, I think Lukashenko would probably have won”. Of course, we’ll never know. Marples argues Lukashenko would likely have received around 40% of the vote, and would have consistently won the second round of voting against his various opponents across the years.
In the 2020 election, however, Sviatlana Tikhanouskaya was clearly the most popular candidate. While she may not have received 50% of votes (though she claims she received about 60-70%), she would easily have won the second round of voting.
This is due in part to Lukashenko’s traditionally older voter base, who are now dying out. People who have no memory of the cold war, only Lukashenko’s rule, are now old enough to vote and are overwhelmingly in favour of change.
Other factors to the diminishing of Lukashenko’s popularity
The previous election result announcements, particularly those of 2010, in Belarus have caused protests against Lukashenko, as the citizens begin to believe he may be overthrown during the campaign period, only for him to once again claim 80% of the popular vote. This is because the presidential elections in Belarus are one of the only times any opposition to Lukashenko can make their voices heard.
The 2020 protests may be different, however, following Lukashenko’s failed ‘Parasite Tax’ in 2017. He planned to introduce a tax to discourage unemployment, which would mean anyone who had not worked for six months of the last year would be forced to pay around half a month’s salary back to the government. This brought thousands out into the centre of Minsk to protest, eventually leading to Lukashenko suspending the law.
Previous protests following election results have always been unsuccessful, and the ‘Parasite Tax’ protests are one of very few success stories of grassroots political activity against Lukashenko. By acquiescing to the public’s demands then, Lukashenko may have unintentionally inspired hope that has carried through to the present day, hence the continued protests.
Just north of Minsk lies the Kuropaty memorial, a wooded area where vast numbers of people were executed by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police. It had remained an unofficial memorial until 2018, when a memorial bell was placed there by Belarusian authorities. The following spring, during Lent, authorities used tractors to dig up crosses that had been placed at the site over the years since its discovery in 1987.
The negative public response to this desecration was strong, but more importantly, religious leaders in Belarus spoke for the first time against Lukashenko. Belarus is a strongly Christian country, although a sizable portion of the population identify as atheist following their years under the rule of the secular Soviet Union. As such, religious leaders are very influential to voters, and the destruction of the crosses would have impacted Lukashenko’s older, more traditional voting base.
Of course, the pandemic has impacted this election as well. When the outbreak of COVID-19 began in Belarus, Lukashenko denied its existence. He claimed people were suffering from a form of pneumonia and did not introduce any measures to contain the spread of the virus. As a result, individual local authorities introduced their own measures, for example making masks compulsory in public spaces.
The impact of this is two-fold. Firstly, grassroots, local community organisation improved massively as people took it upon themselves to improve their situation, which in turn would have decreased voter apathy. Secondly, for many citizens this was the final nail in the coffin of the social contract Lukashenko had promised them, as it was clear he no longer represented their best interests, and he did not seem to truly care about the lives of his citizens.
These three factors are the main reasons Lukashenko is so unpopular today, and why the protests against this rigged 2020 election will be different to the protests against all the previous rigged elections.
What happens now?
I asked Professor Marples what his prediction for the future of Lukashenko and Belarus was, and he had a number of theories.
Firstly, he said it is important to note that Lukashenko has “been around long enough to see what happens to dictators who are forced out of office”. Lukashenko believes, rightly, that he will be imprisoned if not executed if he steps down from his role. Now, “he’s hanging on for dear life”.
Marples believes that Russia will play a key role in deciding the future of Belarus. They may reach some kind of deal with the EU, or Putin may persuade Lukashenko to step down.
“If Russia says to him ‘we’re no longer going to support you’, then he’s dead, there’s absolutely no way he could survive that.”
Russia have a vested interest in having a friendly leader of Belarus, and Tikhanouskaya does not fit the bill. She has been spending so much time with other European leaders, it appears she has chosen the EU over Putin.
The political landscape in Belarus is shifting, and there are a number of factors that influence the course it will take. The 2020 election took place in an entirely different Belarus to the previous elections, a Belarus where there is an actual opportunity for a genuine, democratic change from below, bringing new elections, and a new constitution.