MINSK -- Ihar Barysau, a chairman of the opposition Belarusian Social-Democratic party, looked out at the rows of empty seats in an auditorium in Minsk.
What should have been a meet-the-candidate event in the Belarusian capital earlier this month ahead of November 17 parliamentary elections turned out to be an embarrassing bust.
Such is the life of an opposition candidate in Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has held power unopposed for 25 years, largely by crushing any opposition to his authoritarian rule.
Barysau said the government's policies have long sapped the populace of any enthusiasm for the electoral process, even though the authorities desire the veneer of legitimacy provided by high voter turnouts.
"For 25 years, the government has done everything possible to discourage people from going to the polls, although for the authorities, elections are only about mobilization," Barysau told RFE/RL's Belarus Service in comments published on November 6.
While elections in Belarus have long been largely stage-managed by Lukashenka, the vote this time could be more problematic for the wily autocrat. Relations with Moscow, on the slide since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, are even testier now as Russia pushes Belarus to intensify integration.
It was interesting to see how society is still able to mobilize in spite of the conditions that exist in Belarus now, despite 25 years of fear."-- Vlogger Stsyapan Svyatlou
Seeking leverage against Moscow, Lukashenka has made overtures to the European Union, the United States, and even China.
Moreover, Lukashenka faces a presidential election in 2020.
With Lukashenka courting the West, the opposition can expect some gains in these elections, explained Alesia Rudnik, a Belarusian journalist and analyst based in Sweden, although they will likely be far from free and fair.
Despite the problems candidates like Barysau and others are having sparking public interest in the polls, there are signs Belarusians' patience with Lukashenka's largely state-run economy and limits on freedoms may be wearing thin. More than 1,000 people turned out in Minsk on November 8 following an online call by a popular, pro-democracy blogger for people to take to the streets to protest Lukashenka.
Record Number Of Would-Be Opposition Candidates
All 110 seats in the lower house of the country's rubber-stamp National Assembly will be up for grabs on November 17, contested by a total of 558 candidates.
More than 150 would-be candidates – many of them from opposition groups -- were rejected by election officials, who deemed some of the signatures they submitted invalid.
Current parliament deputies Hanna Kanapatskaya and Alena Anisim were among those whose election bids were shot down. Kanapatskaya, a member of the opposition United Civil Party, and Anisim, an independent with links to the opposition, were elected in 2016, becoming the first oppositionists elected to parliament in Belarus since 1996.
Anisim said authorities had barred her and Kanapatskaya on a "technical inaccuracy," asserting that all the signatures they submitted were valid.
Despite the disqualification of the only two opposition members of parliament, more opposition figures have been given a chance this year than even in 2016, Rudnik explained.
"While many were denied registration as candidates, the number of new faces among candidates…is quite high," she said.
Lukashenka himself ordered electoral officials to be tougher on registering potential candidates than he claimed had been the case in the last parliamentary elections in 2016.
"I told them, look, we must demonstrate there is order in this country and elect appropriate deputies and an appropriate president," Lukashenka was quoted as saying on October 20, referring to the current parliamentary campaign and the 2020 presidential vote.
But Does Anyone Care?
The number of opposition candidates on the ballot may be high, but will Belarusians be convinced the elections matter?
Barysau, who posted on Facebook a photo of himself sitting in the empty Minsk auditorium, said average Belarusians, at least in the capital, had little interest in the elections.
"Interest is very low," he told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "About 20 to 30 percent [of voters] will go to the polls in Minsk."
Uladzimer Labkovich, the coordinator of the nongovernmental watchdog For Free Elections, contends the Lukashenka government has "depoliticized elections," and that any candidate actually advocating change is simply ruled out.
That lack of prospects for change means interest in the polls "is virtually zero," explained Alyaksandr Klaskouski, a Minsk-based political analyst.
"This total apathy is the result of the deliberate policies of the authorities, since for many years they have cut people off from politics and destroyed politics itself through various repressions," he explained. "And this is what the authorities want -- except that they somehow need to ensure that people turn out at the polling stations."
The opposition, meanwhile, holds few illusions. For them, elections are not about winning, explained Artyom Shraibman, a journalist and political commentator for the Belarusian portal Tut.by.
"[The opposition's] goal is to remind the public that it exists, to train its members for the future, and register voter fraud, thereby undermining the regime's legitimacy in the eyes of its supporters and the West," Shraibman wrote in a commentary for the Carnegie Moscow Center in August.
Apathetic, But Agitated?
The lack of election enthusiasm comes amid signs of creeping discontent in this tightly controlled Eastern European country of 9.5 million people.
A crowd estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500 demonstrated on Minsk's Freedom Square on November 8, calling for democratic reforms. The unsanctioned event was the brainchild of Stsyapan Svyatlou, a popular vlogger who is better known by the pseudonym NEXTA.
NEXTA regularly posts satirical videos on YouTube and Telegram that often lampoon Lukashenka and his government. One posted on October 25 about Lukashenka's rise to power has been viewed nearly 1.7 million times.
Police harassed and briefly detained a German public television crew trying to cover the event. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the detention of the ARD TV crew.
"As if persecuting the few remaining Belarusian independent media outlets were not enough, the authorities have now harassed a foreign media outlet, although it had accreditation," RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk said in a statement.
The fact that a vlogger was able to turn out such a crowd in Belarus, where spontaneous demonstrations are rare, may be a worrisome sign for Lukashenka.
"Despite the skepticism of some experts, the protest organized by NEXTA could make Lukashenka worry," Rudnik explained. "The Belarusian government started to limit online media and bloggers already last year when the parliament passed an amendment to the media law."
That law was widely criticized in the country and abroad as a step toward wider censorship.
Svyatlou told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on November 11 that he was surprised by the size of the turnout, saying he had expected a maximum of 300 people.
"It was interesting to see how society is still able to mobilize in spite of the conditions that exist in Belarus now, despite 25 years of fear," Svyatlou said.
He also denied he was calling on followers to join a similar rally being organized by opposition groups for November 15, explaining that the November 8 event was not political but rather a "meeting of like-minded people, to get acquainted and feel that we are united and not alone."
Lukashenka Turns To Beijing, Brussels, And Washington
The current parliamentary elections come as the Lukashenka government stands at a crossroads. Moscow is pushing Minsk to speed up military and economic integration, prompting Lukashenka to look elsewhere for leverage in talks with Russia.
The outbreak of the Ukraine crisis five years ago spooked Lukashenka and spurred the government to scale back its dependence on Russia.
Seeking closer ties with the EU, which in 2016 lifted most sanctions imposed against Belarus over its record on rights and democracy, Lukashenka visited Vienna on November 12 for his first trip to an EU country in three years.
Shraibman told Current Time it was "absolutely no accident" that Lukashenka picked Austria.
"Austria, over the entire difficult history of relations between Belarus and the European Union, has been the most loyal EU member for Belarus," Shraibman explained to Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "As, for example, it has been for Russia…. There are a lot of business ties between Belarus and Austria, despite the small size of the countries. This has always impressed Lukashenka."
Relations with the United States have been on the mend as well. The two countries announced on September 17 that they plan to resume hosting ambassadors after an 11-year hiatus.
Washington and Minsk began to reconsider their frosty relationship after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and began supporting separatist formations in eastern Ukraine, raising concerns in Belarus about its own territorial integrity.
China, which makes no demands for democratic reforms, has also warmed up to Belarus lately. In September, the China Development Bank issued a $500 million loan to Belarus after Moscow stalled on a $600 million loan. China and Belarus are also developing the Great Stone Industrial Park, the biggest foreign investment project in Belarus.
The upcoming elections, according to Rudnik, could determine how much further warmer ties with the West, especially the EU, develop.
"The parliamentary elections on November 17 are a chance for the Belarusian government to make a big step toward the EU," Rudnik said, adding, however, that she does not expect Lukashenka to take advantage of the opportunity.
"The Belarusian authorities can easily let in more independent parliamentarians to the almost powerless parliament, which can both please the EU and maintain the regime's status quo," Rudnik said. "However, the election will most likely happen according to the well-known fraud scenario."