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Belarus is entering an election year. In November, the country will hold a parliamentary vote and, in mid-2020, President Alexander Lukashenko will be elected to his sixth term.
Belarusian elections have long been predictable. This time, however, Minsk finds itself in conflict with Moscow over bilateral integration. Meanwhile, there is new talk of a change of power after twenty-five years of Lukashenko’s rule. All this raises the stakes of the upcoming elections—both in Belarus’s international relations and domestically—and indicates that changes may be coming for the country.
Such changes won’t be immediately visible. The country’s opposition still stands no chance of winning, even though a few opposition candidates may make it into parliament as an orchestrated move to placate the West.
And, as usual, election committees are free to stuff ballot boxes during the five days of early voting and can remove pesky observers from the polls. During the vote count, there is no way to tell whether the stack tallies are real, and nothing can stop a committee chair from “correcting” the tally in the final report.
Nevertheless, elections—especially two campaigns in a row—put a serious strain on the Belarusian power vertical. Local authorities must provide the central government with a decent but not outlandish outcome: 70 to 80 percent for candidates selected by the presidential administration. If possible, this must be done smoothly, without controversies.
Obviously, the opposition doesn’t take part in the elections to win. Its goal is to remind the public that it exists, 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. Nonetheless, there is lingering uncertainty about the upcoming votes. One of the main questions is whether more opposition members will be allowed into parliament. Currently, there are two in the 110-member lower house, but their presence allowed Minsk to unfreeze relations with the EU.
Today, dialogue between the EU and Belarus has plateaued. The parties hold frequent visits and participate in numerous dialogue formats. In the fall, the departing head of the EU diplomatic corps, Federica Mogherini, is to appear in Minsk. The two sides are close to signing an agreement on simplifying the visa regime, and EU banks are increasing their investment portfolios in Belarus.
Still, no new agreements loom on the horizon, and the agenda for future dialogue remains unclear. The EU is more preoccupied with its internal problems than with continuing dialogue that would suit Lukashenko, since the latter is not ready to make concessions in return. Minsk has halted the liberalization it started in 2015. Moreover, it has been gradually restricting freedom of the press and assembly, and it refuses to adopt a moratorium on the death penalty.
For this reason, increasing the opposition quota in Belarus’s largely powerless parliament would be a logical and painless concession for Minsk. No one would notice the difference between two and five opposition lawmakers—except Brussels.
At the same time, autocrats don’t always act logically, preferring convenience over strategy. The security wing of the Belarusian government may convince the president to keep current restrictions on opposition parliament members in place, especially as growing problems with Russia may seriously impact the country’s economy. They fear that opposition parliamentarians could use their diplomatic immunity in these troubled times to destabilize the already discontented Belarusian provinces.
Even if the parliament has only two opposition members (or none at all), Belarus and the West will still continue their difficult and slow dialogue. No one wants to freeze the relationship. The West believes that isolating Minsk again would simply force it into Putin’s imperial embrace.
While the parliamentary election may affect Belarusian relations with the West, the presidential election, which will likely be scheduled for April or May, could cause problems for the country’s ties with Russia. Minsk and Moscow are in the midst of a complicated dialogue on integration. Putin-Lukashenko summits this year are ending in postponements of the integration road map’s implementation.
Judging by top ministers’ statements, the Belarusian understanding of the term “integration” has, so far, prevailed: the parties are simply discussing harmonizing their markets and laws. Global decisions like introducing a single currency or supranational government body are still far out of reach. Still, it’s highly doubtful Moscow only wanted nonbinding dialogue on market harmonization when it first raised the issue of deeper integration twenty years ago. If it wants something more, Minsk will not receive a tax break or a good price for gas. Or Moscow will continue to put pressure on it. Either way, a new escalation of the conflict is inevitable.
Should that escalation come during the presidential campaign, Moscow may very well attempt to further unsettle Lukashenko. Exploiting a partner’s weakness to destabilize them and undermine their bargaining power is a known negotiation technique, and has been used before. In 2010, during the Russian-Belarusian trade wars, Russian state television launched a series of devastating anti-Lukashenko exposés right before his fourth election. In 2015, Moscow started pushing the idea of creating a Russian air base in Belarus a few months before elections.
Still, there are limits to the escalation. It’s difficult to imagine Russia supporting a candidate other than Lukashenko in the upcoming election, but it may deploy more subtle approaches to heightening tension. Fake news about Lukashenko’s health may surface on Russian-controlled Telegram messenger channels. Or Russian television could broadcast several talk shows about Belarus failing to oppose anti-Russian nationalism in the country. Or Russian representatives could “accidentally” speak with the Belarusian opposition.
The upcoming electoral season also has a longer-term, domestic dimension. Early this year, Lukashenko announced that he would amend the Constitution in his next term to strengthen the parliament and the cabinet. He also may change the electoral system from majoritarian to mixed or proportional in order to breathe new life into Belarus’s political parties. Anticipating this development trajectory, the presidential administration increased the number of party-list parliament members from five to sixteen. In other words, Lukashenko is preparing for a transition of power, but he is unwilling to leave the next president as many powers as he currently has.
So far, Lukashenko is not pressed for time. His regime is stable and he is in good health. This allows him to calmly select his successor and choose a convenient constitutional arrangement. But he will carefully watch Kazakhstan’s transition and Russia’s preparations for 2024, when President Vladimir Putin reaches his constitutional term limit, for indications of what he might need to do.
At this stage, parliament is likely to gain more party-list members. Altogether, there are fifteen political parties in Belarus, but half exist mainly on paper. At least two—the Communists and the Liberal Democrats—aspire to be the “in-system” opposition in the new power configuration. Should the regime opt for this scenario, it will need a full-fledged ruling party. At this time, most lawmakers and government officials belong to the White Rus movement, which has long aspired to become a political party.
So far, Lukashenko has been unwilling to form such a structure. He wants to avoid creating a parallel loyalty vertical for government bureaucracy, and remembers the popular rejection of the ruling party during the late Soviet era. But creating a pro-regime party is simply too convenient an instrument of control for him to reject.
Finally, this scenario presumes that parliamentary leaders will be tasked with coordinating a smooth and peaceful transition of power. These people should be fiercely loyal to Lukashenko and fairly young, but nevertheless already influential. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga is currently playing a similar role in Kazakhstan.
If Lukashenko has serious intentions of reforming the Constitution and then starting a transition of power, the two upcoming elections will be the last to resemble administrative rituals. They will be replaced by a true political process, however controlled it might initially be.
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