Belarus goes to the polls on Sunday for its five-yearly presidential election. This would not normally be a newsworthy event; Belarus is not a democracy, and president Alexander Lukashenko, in office since 1994, has never permitted any serious challenge to his rule.
Five years ago the election merited only a brief report, in which I noted that “Official results show him, unsurprisingly, scoring a landslide win, with 83.5% of the vote and none of his three opponents managing more than 4.4%.”
But this year is different. Lukashenko, quite contrary to his intentions, finds himself facing a serious challenge in the form of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband was arrested and prevented from nominating. Her candidacy has attracted huge support and become a focus for popular discontent with the regime.
That’s not to suggest that Tikhanovskaya will actually win: Lukashenko is not the sort to allow a free election if he’s in any doubt about the result. But if he’s forced to resort to large-scale ballot rigging then he could set in train a process with unpredictable consequences – as a similar situation did for Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych in 2004.
There are certainly signs that Lukashenko is rattled. Last week he announced the arrest of 33 alleged Russian mercenaries, who he said were “sent to foment a revolution” in Belarus. Blaming foreign interference for his country’s troubles is a well-honed act, but this looks a bit over the top.
Lukashenko’s relationship with Russia, however, has been equivocal for quite some time now. In his earlier years in power he was strongly pro-Russian, negotiating a treaty for federal union with Russia in 1999. But since the advent of Vladimir Putin, and especially with Putin’s increased assertiveness in recent years, relations have cooled. A dispute earlier this year over Russian oil supplies was particularly damaging to the Belarusian economy.
Despite their differences, Lukashenko remains, from Putin’s point of view, “a comfortable and well-known partner,” as the Center for Strategic & International Studies put it this week. If a serious contest for power develops in Belarus, Putin will be torn between his desire for stability and his sense that Lukashenko may have passed his use-by date.
Most of all, Putin will want to be on the winning side. If there is to be a new government in Belarus, best for it to be in Russia’s debt. But he will also be aware that there is a huge risk in encouraging political change, particularly change from below: the democratic contagion could all too easily spread to Russia, already facing protests in the far east against Putin’s heavy-handedness.
The parallels with Ukraine are obvious, but Belarus is more dependent on Russia and has less of a developed national consciousness than Ukraine. Nor is it clear what direction a post-Lukashenko Belarus might take. Tikhanovskaya disclaims any intention to hold power on other than an interim basis; she promises to hold fresh, fair elections and then step aside.
But that itself, in Belarus, is a revolutionary program.