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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

BELARUS NOTES #6: THE NO VOTE

Last Sunday Belarus held elections for the first time since the 2020 presidential election that sparked massive street protests. Although last weekend's parliamentary and local elections barely registered with outsiders – parliamentary elections in Belarus are generally an unremarkable affair (I wrote an article at the time of the last election in 2019) – there were a few things worth commenting on.


They were not elections in any democratic sense. The president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe condemned the votes as 'a travesty of democracy'. Indeed, they took place in the context of the wholesale repression of opposition and civil society that has characterised Belarus since 2020. Many prominent individuals involved in the 2020 events have disappeared into the penal system, with the authorities apparently believing that out of sight means out of mind. We cannot be sure about the health status of Viktar Babaryka, Maria Kalesnikava, Siarhei Tsikhanovsky, and others. There has been no news of them since early last year. According to the Vyasna Human Rights Centre, there are more than 1,400 political prisoners in Belarus today. Most of the politically active opposition to the regime is either in prison or in exile.


Regime planning


The real significance of last weekend's vote may be as part of the regime's planning for the eventuality that Alyaksandr Lukashenka steps down from the presidency.


The first thing to note is that all the elected MPs and plenty of the newly–elected local councillors will become members of the All–Belarusian People's Assembly (ABPA). An ABPA has existed as an ad hoc body since Lukashenka came to power in 1994, but it became a formal institution under the state's constitution following a referendum in February 2022. The new format ABPA will have about 1,200 members.


The ABPA has been granted far–reaching powers including the ability to overturn election results. When it convenes for the first time in its new format in April, it will elect its chairperson and 15–person presidium. It is pretty much taken for granted that Lukashenka will be elected its chair. It is part of the process by which he appears to be preparing to step away from the presidency, though no one should be surprised if that doesn't happen soon. As chair of the ABPA, he would be able to retain de facto control of Belarusian politics and his successor as president.


A second thing worth noting is the composition of the new parliament. A re–registration of political parties last summer left only four parties, all loyalist, legally operating the country. The granting of party status to the parliamentary faction, Belaya Rus', looked to be a signal that Lukashenka had decided to relent on his deeply held suspicion of party politics; he has long preferred independent MPs over ones organised into formal groups, which presumably he deemed threatening.


Many analysts expected the Belaya Rus' party to have the most seats in the parliament after the election. It does: but with 51 MPs it does not command a majority in the 110–seat chamber. At the same time, 40 seats were still given to candidates not belonging to a party. Lukashenka therefore hasn't given political parties too much strength, even after the authorities carefully vetted all candidates and barred anyone who had shown the slightest suggestion of sympathy for the 2020 protest movement.


The Belarusian state did not allow the OSCE to send an observer mission. The non–western CIS and SCO observer missions duly praised the conduct of the elections, though no one could seriously deem it to have been a free and fair vote. The authorities claimed that 41% of the electorate voted early, which is a classic trick that allows autocracies to manipulate the result with less suspicion. As well, as someone pointed out to me during the week, it helps to explain the absence of queues as polling stations to the electorate which was told turnout was 73%.


The 'V for Vendetta' moment


The opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya had urged Belarusians to boycott the vote. While I can see the moral appeal of election boycotts – the opposition doesn't want to be seen to give any legitimacy to the process – I am doubtful it is ever a wise choice. It marginalises the opposition further by taking them out of what limited 'politics' there is. It also allows the incumbent regime to claim a more credible majority. Unless the opposition calling for a boycott is a major and visible force in a country's politics, it feels like a futile action.


Of course, living in exile, Tsikhanouskaya's team could not participate in the elections and the regime would not have allowed them to had they tried. They could though have adopted the policy of the oppositional campaign Honest People which called on people to vote 'against all'. To my mind, that is the better option because it at least encourages citizens to keep politically active.


Visibility inside Belarus is a major problem for Tsikhanouskaya. The other oppositional 'coup' last weekend was an attempt to address this issue. A group of former security officials who defected from the ruling regime in 2020, Belpol, helped to hack hundreds of television screens in public places, including the Minsk metro and supermarkets, and broadcast a video message by Tsikhanouskaya. ('Belpol' broke away from the better known BYPOL initiative last summer after internal squabbles.)


In the video Tsikhanouskaya recalled the 2020 protests and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 'We said "No" to the dictatorship. We said "No" to the war. Today we say "No" to fake elections... We know how to fight. We know how to win.' Tsikanouskaya's adviser Franak Viachorka called it 'a "V for Vendetta" moment', referring to a scene in the 2005 film about an anarchist fighting against a totalitarian state.


Undoubtedly, for Tsikahnouskaya's supporters, it showed a capability to penetrate the state's monopoly on communications and they understandably enjoyed the moment. The question is how the average Belarusian, neither a strong supporter of the exiled opposition nor of Lukashenka, perceived it. Philipp Bikanau, a Belarusian sociologist, did not think it sent the right message.


Bikanau spoke on a panel that I moderated on Wednesday as part of the Warwick UkraineBelarus Hub (WUB Hub). He said: 'I believe it did more harm than good [as a message to the centre ground of society].' He took issue with the anti–war component of the video, which showed people carrying Ukrainian flags. He argued that showing support for Ukraine does not play well with 'neutrals' because it chimes with Lukashenka's message that outsiders are keen to destabilise Belarus. Pro–Lukashenka propagandists see western meddling as the taproot of the Ukraine crisis and portray Tsikhanouskaya as a puppet of western states.


Another panellist, Alexander Shlyk, countered that it was important to send the right message even if it wasn't the most popular one. He tended to think, nonetheless, that it was a wasted opportunity because one doubts the opposition will have that platform again any time soon, and a stronger message could have been sent than the relatively anodyne one proffered.


European perspective


Another issue where the opposition's message isn't necessarily the most popular one is in its ambitions to pursue European integration.


This week I contributed to a workshop discussing a new policy paper written by Victoria Leukavets and Roza Turarbekova. The paper, 'Analysing the European Perspective for Belarus: Views from Experts and the Belarusian Democratic Forces', is based on a round table held last November. I have written on this topic before (here and here) and it would be fair to say I have some reservations about the merits of the ambition. But I strived to give constructive feedback and accepted the basic premise while noting some reasons for caution.


Some caution is necessary round how Russia might react, in my view, and in assuming that public opinion, presently not especially favourable to EU integration, will naturally move towards greater support. There are, however, precedents for building support for a pro–EU choice. I cited historical polling showing growing support for EU membership in Ukraine throughout the 2010s, albeit that it started from a higher baseline level.


Moreover, the Belarusian opposition's ambitions coincide with the EU's goals for Belarus (promoting democracy, human rights, support for ordinary people) and, handled properly, the policy will give the EU institutions a natural partner to work with. It is vital that citizens inside Belarus are carried along with the process, however, as otherwise the exiled opposition will risk growing more and more marginalised from citizens in the country.


Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters have a lot of work to do if they are to remain relevant to all Belarusians (not only the diaspora). For those who think Tsikhanouskaya won a majority in the 2020 presidential election, there is the looming issue that the five–year term that began with that vote is nearing its end. Many people are asking about Tsikhanouskaya's legitimacy after 2025. In our webinar on Wednesday, Shlyk left us with a resounding question: 'Has she really started her mandate yet?'



Thank you for reading! You can support this blog by buying a copy of my book Belarus in Crisis: From Domestic Unrest to the Russia–Ukraine War. Available to UK buyers here and US buyers here.


Image credit: From Kremlin.ru; cropped by me and used under creative commons licence 4.0.

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