Belarus before election: David against Goliath

In Short:

According to the principal author of this analysis, the Minsk-based Centre for Political Education, it might be too late for the democratic forces of Belarus to win the elections on March 19, but a new political movement capable of becoming an alternative to President Alexander Lukashenka has, nevertheless, been developed. Thus, the elections might be the first step towards a change of regime.

Executive Summary

Since the 2001 presidential elections Alexander Lukashenka has been keeping control over the situation in Belarus. Economic growth fuelled by unconditional support from Russia and growing trading relations with the EU allows him using the habitual toolkit - material interest and fear - of control over society.

Lukashenka cannot afford full prohibition of the opposition: to render economic and political support he needs demonstrating the existence of two alternatives for Russia - Lukashenka or "Westerners". But he needs it in a condition representing no threat to his authority. Stability of the regime depends on adhering to the principle "divide et impera". However, his toolkit does not seem to be enough to keep "tight" control in 2006. Aside from the changing of crucial external factors (Russia and the EU) supporting his preservation, one of the most important domestic ones - preservation of crisis among the opposition - seems to be diverging from Lukashenka's intentions.

The four months since the selection of Alexander Milinkevich as the "single candidate" have shown that his presence in politics seriously influences Belarus's political development. Due to lack of time he has less chance to convince voters, whose political behaviour depends on the current social and economic situation. His campaign has already made him widely known in and out of Belarus, though. Lukashenka and his strongman Viktor Sheiman certainly understand the threat from the growing movement and what steps can be taken to limit it. Therefore his position in politics after the elections will depend not only on further consolidation of democratic forces around him as "the single candidate," but his personal safety, too.

The large amount of domestic and international media coverage of the attack on Alexander Kazulin, the second independent candidate, seems to serve to overshadow the protest meeting of Milinkevich with people on the very same day. This has increased the reputation of Kazulin in the international community (which rallied overwhelmingly behind Milinkevich as key democratic challenger) and increased Kazulin`s popularity among opponents of the regime, thus dividing opposition votes. His political behaviour after his registration as a presidential candidate, especially his TV speech February 22, 2006 clearly indicates that he is sure he won't be subject to criminal prosecution. There is only one logical explanation for this, as argued by this analysis.

Lukashenka will declare his elegant victory in the 1st round of the presidential elections. He cannot afford to organize the 2nd round due to his strong internal wish to prove domestically and internationally that he is the only alternative. However, this time the declared "elegant victory" may be not accepted as genuine in the society, as it used to be. Therefore, future politics won't develop necessary the way Lukashenka projects. It might be too late to win the struggle on March 19 for the democratic forces, but a new political movement capable of becoming Lukashenka's alternative has been, nevertheless, developed. If Lukashenka decides to announce official results with too large of a margin in his favour, he may loose control over society. Thus, the elections might be the first step for change of regime.

To read the paper in full, visit the Pontis Foundation website.