Belarusians voted in presidential election on Sunday, and, as expected, re-elected Alexander Lukashenka, to yet another—his fifth--term. Provocations by the regime that some feared before the elections did not materialize, but neither did hopes that it would deliver a more democratic election. 

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that these elections were simply a repeat of the same old story. Belarus’s domestic situation and external environment have changed since the last elections in 2010. The 2015 electoral process, warts and all, shows us how the Belarusian regime is attempting to adapt to these changes, while trying to keep the Soviet-style state machinery going.  

Despite the deteriorating economic situation, public support for Lukashenka gradually increased in the months leading up to the elections. That uptick was a reaction to the festering crisis in Ukraine and public support for Lukashenka’s new foreign policy course. Against the backdrop of bad economic news and geopolitical conditions, his campaign message had shifted. Instead of promising a modicum of stability, which his government can no longer maintain, Lukashenka’s campaign emphasized the themes of maintaining peace and independence.

In a free and fair election, Lukashenka probably could have received around 60% of the vote, based on his pre-electoral rating and historical record of independent measuring of elections results. But the fact that the Central Elections Commission declared his victory with a record 83.49% makes this election yet another farce. The OSCE/ODIHR's observer mission's report catalogued all of the electoral process's manifest shortcomings.

The key unanswered question after this election is whether Lukashenka’s regime will embark on the necessary reforms, which could accelerate the country’s painfully slow pace of change.

A Nervous Public

Average Belarusians are bearing the brunt of the economic slowdown. They fear another currency devaluation, which looks increasingly likely as a consequence of the weakening of the Russian ruble. The government’s current plan for fiscal management apparently is to let the currency depreciate gradually, suggesting that the regime has learned some lessons from its “big bang” devaluation in 2011. Both, the public and the government are coping with rising unemployment, which is a new phenomenon and something that Belarus has not faced under Lukashenka’s rule.

The regime also have learned some lessons from the 2010 elections. It has developed a more conciliatory tone toward dissent and did not crack down on protesters. The government has relied instead on softer, preventive authoritarian tactics. Instead of being detained, political and civic activists received warnings from law enforcement. The government also allowed greater political space before the elections, and a certain level of pluralism of viewpoints was visible in political discussions even on state-controlled television. But this does not indicate a real change of the system: the regime clearly has the capacity and the will to return to repression at a time and place of its choosing.

Leaning to the West: Normalization not Recognition

In August Alexander Lukashenka granted amnesty to all six remaining political prisoners, including Mikalai Statkevich, a former presidential candidate. However, this gesture had little impact on the opposition. The best the regime’s hard-core opponents could muster was two gatherings of a few hundred demonstrators: to protest the planned Russian air base; and to call for free and fair elections.

The release of political prisoners had an obvious external motive. For Lukashenka, the move was a necessary to fulfill precondition for resuming relations with the West. Accordingly, the EU responded by announcing that its sanctions could be suspended. But Lukashenka’s move was primarily aimed at Washington, and there he got little, if any attention. Ever since the Ukraine crisis erupted, Lukashenka has been focused on the United States, which he sees as the more important international actor than the EU.

Minsk probably underestimates just how low Belarus is on the priority list of Western policymakers and has repeatedly misunderstood the muddled messages it receives from Europe. The EU should be clearer in its message that recognition of Lukashenka regime could only occur as a result of holding free and fair elections. The actual message Brussels has been sending is to avoid violence.

Even if Minsk were to release the real election results, the West would still not be ready to accept the regime. Instead of recognition, the most that Lukashenka can hope for is slow-motion normalization. The title of the last dictatorship in Europe cannot and should not disappear quickly.

The announcement that EU sanctions could be suspended for four months if there is no violence during the actual vote highlights changes in how Brussels thinks after the Ukraine crisis. It is focused more on avoiding conflict. The change in Brussels’ thinking was also evident in its diminished support for opposition politicians, reflecting post-Ukraine concerns about instability and conflict inside Belarus.

Vladimir Putin poked his nose into Belarus’ elections with a push to establish a Russian air base in the Belarusian city of Babrujsk. Moscow intends this move to be a response to calls from Poland and the Baltic countries to establish permanent NATO bases. It was also a warning of sorts for its “close but restive ally.”  For now, Lukashenka seems to be capable of fending off Russia’s entreaties, but the remilitarization of relations between NATO and Russia makes it very difficult to predict how this issue will play out.

A New Generation of Opposition

The election campaign did little to help Belarus’s traditional opposition--those who have stood up to the Lukashenka regime since the mid-1990s. However, it did cast the spotlight on the younger generation. The government did register Tatiana Karatkevich, a 38-year old activist, as a candidate for the presidency. She broke with the long-standing practice of the opposition of calling for regime change and instead promoted “peaceful change.” Evolutionary reforms replaced revolutionary rhetoric.

Since the early 2000s, opposition figures had participated in elections in order to enhance their standing within the opposition and boost their image in the West, rather than to compete against Lukashenka. That helps explain the constant struggle for the second place as well as the opposition’s low popularity among the general public.

The “new opposition” chose to make a play for support beyond its traditional electoral base, estimated by pollsters at around 20 percent of the population, by relying on moderate rhetoric and populist slogans. This points to a possible serious rift within the opposition as the traditional opposition could try to discredit the new generation. Some fear, mostly in opposition circles, that in the run-up to next year’s parliamentary elections, the new generation will turn out to be little more than a rather tame regime-sanctioned systemic opposition movement.  

Is (D)Evolution Next?

The main question is what will happen after the elections. Belarus faces its worst economic crisis since 1995. Instead of convening the usual All Belarusian Congress to brag about his achievements, Lukashenka issued a prayer for Belarus. This newfound solemnity underlines how times are changing, and with them Lukashenka’s social contract is shifting from “Prosperity and Stability” to “Plain Old Sovereignty.”  The regime`s new message is “We won’t live too well, but at least we can ensure peace.”  This suggests that what Lukashenka needs is to gather as much goodwill as he can in order to survive.

This should make reforms unavoidable, but there is little understanding about reforms among the elite. Even though Belarusians are well aware of the need for change, they don’t like the idea of weakening the state. The government has pursued a conservative fiscal policy and taken some steps toward structural reforms. However, more reforms are needed to modernize the state apparatus and its services. There are some early, but encouraging signs that this may be happening, as the government has been gradually reducing its role in the economy, while trying to maintain control over the country as a whole.

Due to unprecedented regional changes and instability, the government is forming a new foreign policy doctrine in an attempt to minimize the threat posed by the economic crisis and to counter new political and military risks in the region. Belarusians’ current geopolitical orientation is neither toward Russia, nor toward the EU. The public’s basic attitude can be summed up as “anything goes as long as there no war.”  The elite continues to assume that Belarus’s only geopolitical choice will be Russia, but at the same time it clearly has been shaken by Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine. The regime’s short-term plan is to keep its distance from its aggressive ally in the Kremlin while at the same time preventing Moscow from thinking that Minsk is trying to move toward the West.

Lukashenka hopes to keep relations with the West from deteriorating in the wake of the presidential election. Clearly, he is not ready to change the political system. But although the West can not be happy with the outcome of the election, it would be a mistake to ignore the recent modest positive dynamics inside Belarus and in its foreign policy course.

What the West needs to recognize is that normalization of ties would require sustaining the pattern of relations with Belarus’ that has emerged since 2012 in the course of preparations of the EU`s 2013 Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, 160 km from Minsk. This quiet dialogue was further encouraged by Belarus` successful European hockey championship in 2014. Accordingly, more contact, listening, and building trust on both sides is the way forward. Reforming “Europe’s last dictatorship” requires a long-term strategy, taking into account the emerging civil society and changes in the opposition.

The election week brought into the mainstream two dissenting female voices: the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Svetlana Alexievich and Tatiana Karatkevich, the opposition candidate who against all odds ran a credible campaign. Their voices are a reminder that the biggest responsibility for reconciliation in society and reforming the state to serve its citizens lies with the “monarch” of Belarus. Europe`s longest serving and unchangeable head of state will also benefit, if he allows more democracy.    

Balazs Jarabik is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment and project director at Pact, a development NGO where he works on civic society programs for Belarus. Dzianis Melyantsou is a senior analyst with the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies (BISS) in Minsk.  Pact provided assistance to BISS in the past.

  • Balázs Jarábik
  • Dzianis Melyantsou