Accessibility links

Belarus's Quiet Campaign

  • Yuri Drakakhrust

Special counterterrorism troops leave a polling booth during advanced voting held for the army in Minsk.

These elections are quiet. Everyone is sanguinely remarking on this particularity -- people on the street, analysts, foreign journalists, and observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The campaign for Belarus's September 28 legislative elections is quiet. There have been no debates on television. No loud demonstrations. There are no election posters festooning the cities, whether for opposition or for pro-government candidates.

We are holding elections, but there is no campaign.

Why aren't the authorities campaigning? Because the current Belarusian system is very much like the old Soviet system, appropriating many of its symbolic attributes, but it is not an ideocracy -- it does not need the constant political mobilization of the masses. It is a banal paternalistic autocracy. All its stable continuance needs is for the people to show up once every five years for the presidential election in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the Leader.

But now it seems that the opposition doesn't need the people either. Of course, it stands to reason that constant repression and more than a decade outside the institutional political framework has prevented the formulation and realization of substantive alternatives. But Belarus is not North Korea, where political opposition is impossible in principle. After all, in the current campaign, of the 270 candidates vying for the 110 parliamentary seats, 66 represent opposition parties.

Wasted Time

It appears that the opposition itself is in no hurry to renew the ideas and policies it developed in the early 1990s. That was when, for instance, it formed its sacred faith in the all-powerful West, which must seriously come to terms with "Europe's last dictator" and adopt harsh political sanctions that would force Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime to capitulate.

The lion's share of the opposition's time and effort in the current campaign was wasted on arguments about whether opposition parties should boycott the elections. And those who argued in favor did not assert that a boycott would lead people to stay away from polling stations in droves; instead, they said the gesture would impress the West, which would declare the elections illegitimate and leave the regime isolated.

At the same time, the authorities seem to have decided that relying solely on Russia is becoming increasingly dangerous, not only for the country but for the regime itself. And so it has made some genuine efforts to gain recognition from the West. Of course, we are not talking about joining NATO or the European Union. But we are talking about a normalization of relations, the emergence of a situation in which Belarus's relations with the EU were comparable to those of Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan, neither of which is a paragon of democracy either. The authorities in Belarus are trying to maintain the authoritarian nature of the regime while at the same time acquiring another point of support, a West "wing," if you will.

Prisoner No. 1

So, as part of this strategy, Lukashenka released all his political prisoners, including political prisoner No. 1, former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin. But an even more important step was Minsk's de facto refusal to join Russia in recognizing the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Some analysts have been comparing Lukashenka with former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who maintained an independent foreign-policy line in the 1970s and 1980s and, as a result, was able to achieve relatively good relations with the West.

Acknowledging these elections is part of the deal that Lukashenka is offering the West. The opposition fears that if this bargain is made, then it will no longer be able to count on the West at all. At the same time, the idea that both the West and the authorities would have to reckon with the opposition if it had solid support from the people in the elections doesn't seem to inspire the opposition much. Although most of the opposition ultimately decided to participate in the polls, the decision came literally at the very last moment, on the eve of early voting.

However, in the opposition's defense, I should note that there are no indications of a general public uprising or that the electorate is hungry for change. Maybe that is why the opposition continues to hope for a deus ex machina from the West. Neither the opposition nor the authorities need the people in these elections. And the people -- for now, at least -- have no need for change.

So why should we be surprised the campaign is so quiet?

Yuri Drakakhrust is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Belarus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

SUBSCRIBE For weekly news and analysis on Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report."