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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

BELARUS NOTES #3: SUCCESSION

Speculation surrounded Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s recent disappearance from public. After a six-day absence, he reappeared scrubbed and bloated in front of television cameras. Commenting on his health, I said that there will be continued rumours and doubts about his condition from now on.


It was unsurprising, therefore, to see reports of his death circulating again on social media over the weekend. These things quickly gather momentum as people who frankly should know better relish spreading gossip.


The source of the latest stories was Valer Tsapkala, an opposition leader who tried to stand against Lukashenka in the 2020 presidential election, although fled Belarus to avoid arrest in the summer before the vote. This weekend his Twitter account claimed that Lukashenka had been admitted to a Moscow hospital in critical condition and that a cover-up was underway. Russia, claimed Tsapkala, was treating Lukashenka so as ‘to dispel speculations regarding [the] Kremlin’s alleged involvement in his poisoning.’


There was no corroboration for Tsapkala’s weekend claims from other sources, and they would appear to have been unfounded. I am prepared to be wrong, naturally, but Lukashenka appears to have held meetings in Minsk both yesterday and today. His life is not endless, but nor is it yet ended.


Succession: What the constitution says


Still, the latest rumours afford me an opportunity to talk about what would happen in the event of Lukashenka’s death or incapacity to carry out his functions. It could well set in motion a violent tussle for power inside the country. But a scenario in which power passes from Lukashenka to a chosen successor could succeed, too, and I focus here on the constitutional situation regarding power transition.


Article 88 of Belarus’s constitution, as amended by a dubious referendum in early 2022, specifies that, if the ‘president’ is unable to fulfil his functions owing to his health condition, presidential powers pass to the chairperson of the upper house of the parliament. That is currently 62-year-old Natallya Kachanava – a loyalist who Lukashenka relied on to be the public face of the political regime during the Covid-19 pandemic and in the run up to the 2020 election. She, reportedly, was the person most inclined to tell Lukashenka what he wanted to hear before the 2020 election, and survived in her role even though hindsight (and the scale of the post-election protests) suggests it was a mistake to pretend such an emphatic victory for Lukashenka.


Kachanava, under Article 88, would carry out the 'president’s' duties until a new election takes place and the rest of the state apparatus is expected to function more or less as usual. It is speculated, meanwhile, that Lukashenka would take on a role as chairman of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (see below).


Article 88 goes on to say that, ‘in the case of the president’s death through assassination, terrorist act, military actions or as the result of actions of other violent character,’ a state of martial law would be introduced. Kachanava would take over leadership of the Security Council, and the Security Council would take on the responsibility for governing.


What is untested in this scenario is the relationship between Kachanava, who in effect becomes the acting president, and the Security Council. How well would the arrangement actually function? The Security Council is otherwise led by Alyaksandr Valfovich, who reputedly maintains particularly close ties to Russian security agencies, and his relationship with Kachanava could prove tricky in a situation where she is de facto in charge.


Would Valfovich be happy to take orders from Kachanava? Would Russia be content with the situation? I cannot answer these questions, but it could be the moment Russia intervenes overtly, especially if it favours seeing Valfovich in charge.


Prospective successors


In either of the situations envisaged in Article 88, and should the political regime maintain stability, then an ensuing election will be neither free nor fair. The question of who would claim the presidency looms large, and Lukashenka will presumably have put forward an approved figure.


Traditionally, it was thought that Lukashenka was grooming the youngest of his three sons for the role. Eighteen-year-old Mikalai Lukashenka is well-known to Belarusians, since he has routinely accompanied his father to public ceremonies, and Lukashenka has intimated in the past that this is indeed his plan for his son to take over.


More recently he has disavowed such claims. In 2021 he said that none of his sons would become president and named two potential successors. He mentioned Yuryj Karayeu, the former interior minister who was responsible for the harsh crackdown on the protests in August 2020, and Uladzimir Karanik, the former health minister who oversaw the limp response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Lukashenka was floating these names to gauge the public response.


At any rate, the notion of a blood succession has looked less likely since 2020. Instead, the regime seems to have planned more seriously for what might happen after Lukashenka. Three changes reflect this:


(i) the upgrading of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, an ad hoc association of government and public representatives that has been used to confer a faux legitimacy on Lukashenka’s politics in the past, and which may become more important if Lukashenka is alive but has stepped aside from the top role (it has been empowered at the cost of the parliament in recent legislative amendments);


(ii) the registration of a loyalist political party Belaya Rus’ earlier this year, which marked a shift in Lukashenka’s general contempt for political parties (see my book for discussion on this point);


(iii) the February 2022 changes to the constitution, which included amendments to the article cited above.


None of these decisions was taken for the sake of democracy!


One possibility is that Kachanava is put forward as an anointed successor. Although Lukashenka has been dismissive of women politicians in the past (in 2020 he derided women, saying that a woman ‘would not be up to the job’ of president), he clearly rates Kachanava. She served as the head of the presidential administration prior to her current role, and Lukashenka has mooted her as a potential successor in public if I am not mistaken.


Commentators have discussed other potential successors. Grigory Ioffe ponders whether the head of the new political party, Belaya Rus’, might be a future president. Aleh Ramanau is, according to Ioffe, ‘a devout “Russian world” sympathiser’ and someone who thinks the dissolution of the USSR was a ‘crime’. Ioffe concludes: ‘[Ramanau] is a likely type – if not necessarily the likely person [to take over]. Well-schooled in the ideology required for ascending Belarusian elites, he is entirely devoid of Lukashenka’s folkish charisma.’ For Ioffe the last detail is an asset because a new leader should represent difference from Lukashenka if they are going to succeed in winning over the public and keeping the opposition sidelined.


Other figures to watch might include the prosecutor general, Andrey Shved, and the prime minister, Raman Halouchenka – both of whom I’ve discussed elsewhere. In general, any prospective successor can be assumed to be a hardline figure.


Or an uprising?


In this blog post, I do not wish to speculate on the unrest that could result from Lukashenka’s death, or indeed from his blatant incapacity to function for health reasons, although I did touch on it in a recent lecture (listen here). The possibility of unrest clearly preoccupies the regime, though. We saw this in something else that caught Belarus-watchers’ attention in recent days.


A retired Polish general – Waldemar Skrzypczak – made some public comments in response to an incursion into Russia’s Belgorod by pro-Ukrainian partisans. He suggested there might be an uprising in Russia and ‘hopefully’ in Belarus. He said that Belarusian volunteers fighting on Ukraine’s side would take the fight to Belarus should Ukraine prevail in the war (I agree, incidentally, that the Belarusian fighters will likely return to their home country and keep fighting – the stated aim of the Kalinouski Regiment of Belarusian volunteers fighting in Ukraine is ‘to liberate Belarus through the liberation of Ukraine’).


In parts of the Russian and Belarusian state media the retired general’s comments were falsely presented as evidence of western states’ ‘preparing a coup’ in Belarus. The remarks drew a response from Lukashenka himself, and also from Russia where Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Russia 'naturally has obligations to defend Belarus' in such a situation. A menacing prospect in the eyes of the Belarus opposition.


There is no evidence of coup planning in western capitals, only evidence of heightened ‘coup proofing’ in Minsk – where there does appear to be nervousness about Lukashenka’s health and the war bandages holding the regime together.


Conclusion


Those Belarusian opposition leaders, veterans of the 2020 democracy movement, who escaped their home country to avoid prison are in a state of preparedness abroad.


Tsapkala, who was recently sentenced in absentia by a Belarusian court on nine separate charges, has resided in Russia since 2020. Former presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, based in Lithuania, wrote recently: ‘We must prepare for every possible scenario.’ Another opposition leader, Paval Latushka, operates out of Poland where one might think he sleeps in a neatly-pressed suit and tie, so seldom does he appear without these. And the fighters in Ukraine may represent a formidable political challenge.


The leaders of Belarus’s opposition are signalling a belief that change might well come to Belarus soon, with their own ambitions and emotions barely concealed.


Image credit: Cropped from the original by Kremlin.ru and used under creative commons licence 4.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128112863

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