Belarusian president faces key electoral challenge
On Sunday, the people of Belarus go to the polls to vote in presidential elections. If Belarusian history since its independence in 1991 is anything to go by, these elections will not be free and fair.
The current president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been in power since 1994. In the past, the political opposition has been largely fragmented, divided and kept down. During the last parliamentary elections in 2016, they united into a coalition — but even this was not enough to overcome the country’s rigged and corrupt electoral process.
However, there are some indications that while Lukashenko might be content with the status quo, many of his citizens are not.
Large anti-government protests have taken place across the country, the biggest of which saw more than 63,000 people gather in support of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Tikhanovskaya is a political novice. The stay-at-home mother of two young children only registered for the election because her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTube blogger, was imprisoned in May for organizing pro-democracy protests.
Polls have Tikhanovskaya leading, but in a country like Belarus, the incumbent strongman is unlikely to allow this detail to be a problem in deciding the result.
The domestic political situation is made worse by the geopolitics in the region. Belarus is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy resources and economic links. Over the years, Belarusian and Russian ties have strengthened, with some calling for the two countries to take it one step further: Full integration. Russia sees Belarus firmly in its sphere of influence and the Kremlin wants to keep it this way.
It is not the election on Sunday that matters most. Instead, the future weeks, months and maybe even years will determine if Belarus is going to take a new path or stay hitched to Lukashenko.
Among its other European neighbors Belarus is a pariah state. Because of the crackdown on basic freedoms speech and media, the country has been kept at arm’s length by the EU.
The situation with the US is slightly different. Unlike previous US governments, the Trump administration has made efforts to open the door for engagement with Belarus. The US recently reinstated its ambassador after an 11-year hiatus. In August 2019, the-then National Security Adviser John Bolton visited Minsk, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit earlier this year.
While it is unlikely US-Belarusian relations will dramatically improve overnight, no matter what the outcome of the election, this sort of engagement between Washington and Minsk must raise eyebrows in Moscow and make many suspicious, if not nervous.
With so much at stake, there are three things to watch in the coming days.
First, how fair are the elections and how will the people react? Belarusians are used to elections being rigged, political opposition marginalized and the media stifled. However, recent demonstrations show that many are getting tired of the old ways. It is likely that Lukashenko will be declared the winner regardless. No matter what the outcome, how the people react — and how the US, EU and Russia react — will set the stage for the months ahead.
Second, keep an eye on Russia. It is in Moscow’s interest that the status quo is maintained. Russia knows the stakes are high. Last week, Belarusian authorities uncovered 200 alleged Russian mercenaries operating in the country. What their mission was remains unclear.
Clearly, President Vladimir Putin is not playing games. As the world saw in 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine, Moscow is willing to use military force to ensure the countries of the former Soviet Union remain in its orbit. If the outcome of Sunday’s election does not go his way, Putin might feel forced to act.
Finally, NATO will be watching the situation closely. Belarus shares a border with three NATO members: Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. It also shares a long border with Ukraine, which is presently at war with Russia. For years, NATO military planners have kept a close eye on Belarusian-Russian military integration. NATO’s first priority will be containing any instability inside Belarus. Also, the last thing NATO wants is another Russian induced conflict on its borders.
The immediate outcome of this Sunday’s election is all but a foregone conclusion. It is almost inconceivable that Lukashenko will allow a situation to arise in which he is the loser. Even more unlikely will be Putin standing by on the sidelines if Lukashenko does lose.
But in many ways it is not the election on Sunday that matters most. Instead, the future weeks, months and maybe even years will determine if Belarus is going to take a new path or stay hitched to Lukashenko and Moscow.
- Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey