The sight of thousands of people snaking along streets in towns and cities across Belarus to sign petitions for opposition would-be candidates has apparently spooked authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled since 1994 and is seeking a sixth term in an election on August 9.
Since the opposition rallies and gatherings started more than a month ago, Lukashenka has ordered arrests, including of two key opposition leaders, sacked his government, and vowed there will be no Maidan-style revolution in Belarus -- a reference to the protests that pushed a Russia-friendly president from power in neighboring Ukraine in 2014.
The trouble comes as Belarus struggles to contain COVID-19, a disease Lukashenka has dismissed as a “psychosis” and suggested can be warded off with a tractor ride, vodka, or a visit to a sauna. Belarus is one of the few countries that hasn’t shut its borders and hasn’t imposed any restrictions to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Belarus had almost 47,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of June 6, according to data compiled by U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University, with 259 related deaths. Health officials note the infection rate is high given Belarus’s population of about 9 million. But analysts and others fear the real figures, especially deaths, could be much higher. Some have likened Lukashenka’s response to the Soviet government’s handling of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
“Quite rightly, many are comparing the situation today with the situation in 1986, when Chernobyl exploded, when we really don’t know now how many were sick, how many died, what the real situation in the country is. The figures that we see defy all the rules of mathematics that exist. In fact, people see this complete disregard for them, and they, of course, join the lines [to sign petitions for opposition would-be candidates],” said Yaraslav Ramanchuk, an economist and a presidential candidate himself in 2010, in comments to RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
However, the arrests and the barring of would-be candidates to even collect signatures to get on the ballot suggest Lukashenka, 65, may hold the levers he’ll need to ensure he comes out the winner on August 9, as has been the case in every other election since he was first voted in three years after the Soviet collapse. None of the votes has been deemed by Western governments and international observers to have met democratic standards.
"In my opinion, everything is predetermined. Lukashenka is in complete control of the situation. No matter what percentage of voters actually vote for him, he has the means to ensure that the figures appear in the final tallies that satisfy him," said Igor Mintusov, a Russian political consultant who worked for Boris Yeltsin during the 1996 Russian presidential campaign, in comments to RFE/RL’s Belarus Service.
On June 4, Lukashenka named 46-year-old Raman Halouchanka, who previously oversaw military industries, as prime minister. The appointment came a day after Lukashenka, who had been promising a government shake-up ahead of the election, dismissed Syarhey Rumas along with his government.
Lukashenka said that “we need to clench our teeth” and show more discipline in order to repair the economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic and “save what we have built.”
“We need to mobilize to cope with multiple new challenges over a short period of time,” Lukashenka said.
“Lukashenka is trying to secure full control over the plummeting economy and block protests, and he needs a prime minister who is predictable and ready to fulfill any order,” said Minsk-based political analyst Valer Karbalevich in comments to Reuters.
Dzmitry Bolkunets, a Belarusian political analyst, said the move is little more than window dressing aimed at portraying Lukashenka as taking action to improve an economy damaged by the coronavirus.
“But whomever he puts at the head of the government, it must be understood that in Belarus the head of government is not responsible for anything. His role is minimal. He solves some technical issues,” Bolkunets told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
The appointment came a day after police in the city of Homel said they had found some $900,000 at a home belonging to Syarhey Tsikhanouski, the blunt-talking vlogger whose call for Belarusians to take up their slippers to squash Lukashenka, whom he calls a “cockroach,” has resonated with many Belarusians.
Tsikhanouski, 41, has traveled across the country preaching his desire for an "independent" Belarus free of Lukashenka. His YouTube channel, A Country For Living, has more than 200,000 subscribers, and has documented alleged corruption and graft in Belarus.
Tsikhanouski has been in and out of jail on charges of holding unsanctioned meetings with supporters. He has been barred by election officials from running for president, but his wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has been allowed.
Tsikhanouski was arrested again on May 29 in Hrodna, a western city where he had traveled to collect signatures for the nomination of his wife. He was charged with assaulting a police officer, although he and supporters said police were blocking them from legally collecting signatures.
Another prominent opposition leader, Mikalay Statkevich – who challenged Lukashenka in the 2010 election, which was marred by allegations of fraud -- has been barred from running this time around.
Statkevich was also sentenced on June 1 to 15 days in jail for taking part in an opposition event in Minsk a day earlier when Belarusians lined up in the capital and other cities and towns to sign petitions to support those would-be candidates who have been vetted by election officials.
According to the Belarusian rights NGO Vyasna (Spring), “numerous bloggers, activists, and supporters of Tsikhanouski" were arrested on May 31 “across the country during the signature collection drive. Vyasna said the Interior Ministry told them that a criminal investigation had been opened into an alleged act of violence against police officers, in which Tsikhanouski and other detainees were allegedly involved.
In May, Human Rights Watch warned that Belarusian authorities were intensifying their crackdown on protesters, opposition bloggers, journalists, and other government critics.
The large crowds not only in Minsk, but in Brest, Hrodna, Homel, Slutsk, and other locations have underscored pent-up frustration in Belarus and just how widespread it is, said Bolkunets.
“[Lukashenka] has been in power, let’s remember, 26 years, and he feels he hasn’t carried out reforms in the country – [he's] asking for five more years, and ‘maybe I’ll finish it.’ He promised people a lot: good living standards, high pay, etc. But he has been unable to achieve a $500 [average monthly wage]; he finds some excuse every time. But this time, I think, the difficult economic situation in the country was certainly finished off by the coronavirus,” he said.
The fact that Valer Tsapkala, a prominent businessman and former Belarusian ambassador to the United States, and Viktar Babaryka, a banker and philanthropist, have thrown their hats into the race suggests even business leaders and other influential Belarusians are eager for change as well.
“Lukashenka, in my opinion, has transformed into his former opponent from 1994, Vyacheslav Kebich, who also was the last of the Soviet-era leaders who remained at the helm of power of the independent state,” said Ramanchuk.
In 1994, he said, “People just wanted some new face.” In 2020, the situation “has been aggravated by the coronavirus” and issues such as what he called “glaring gaps in the education system and the health-care system.”
While Lukashenka may be facing the biggest electoral challenge to date, analysts caution he is still firmly in control of the levers.
Vyasna and others have criticized the formation of the country's election commissions, the bodies overseeing the voting process.
The human rights group has said that the lack of "legal guarantees for the representation in the election commissions of all political entities participating in the election results in an arbitrary and discriminatory approach to opposition parties and groups."
That criticism has been echoed by the European Union, which in a May 27 statement condemned the overall crackdown on peaceful protesters in Belarus and said it was “worried” by the decision by the Belarusian Central Election Commission to bar “prominent opposition figures.”
The United States and the EU have continuously criticized Belarusian authorities for flawed elections and their crackdown on the opposition, introducing sanctions against Lukashenka’s government. However, some of those penalties have been lifted in recent years as Belarus freed political prisoners as part of Lukashenka’s efforts to reach out to the West during tense times with Russia, Belarus’s main financial backer and partner in a close, often tense relationship.
Mintusov noted the head of the Central Election Commission has been in her post for more than two decades and has no record of upholding clean elections.
"Lidziya Yarmoshyna has been the head of the CEC for 20 years, and all the elections have passed through her hands. The fact that this commission has not changed for so many years shows that the president himself will decide how many votes will be handed to him in the final voting figures," said Mintusov.
During parliamentary elections in 2019, an independent observer filmed a woman who appeared to be stuffing voting papers into a ballot box at a polling station in Brest, a city on the border with Poland.
Yarmoshyna responded by saying the observer who filmed the video should be stripped of his accreditation.
“It doesn’t matter what an observer says,” she said. “The most important thing is the ballot box. The truth is determined by the vote count.”
During those elections, the opposition did not win any seats. Two opposition members who did have seats in the lower house of the National Assembly -- Hanna Kanapatskaya and Alena Anisim -- were barred from running.