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Lukashenka’s mistakes bring Belarus closer to democratisation

Lukashenka’s prime rivals Viktar Babaryka, Valery Tsepkala and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, on the other hand, enjoy unprecedented support from the Belarusian public. Babaryka scores above 50% in the same independent surveys and has collected 435,000 signatures in his support with the help of the second largest initiative group (after Lukashenka). This is significantly more than the 100,000 signatures required for registering as a presidential candidate and more than any other democratic candidate has previously managed to collect. In fact, even Lukashenka himself collected less signatures in 1994 and 2001, until he started to present over one million every election since 2006 – a figure comparable to how many Vladimir Putin usually collects in Russia. Tsepkala and Tsikhanouskaya score from 10% to 20% in the surveys and have collected around 220,000 and 150,000 signatures, respectively. This is particularly striking given the small size of their initiative groups.

Not surprisingly, this situation has played on Lukashenka’s nerves. The real campaign has not even started yet and the candidates have not been officially (not)registered, but they are already facing repressions – something previously unseen even in Belarus. The initiative group of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, popular YouTube blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski – who initially planned to run for president – was denied registration. And Siarhei himself was imprisoned in connection with what Amnesty International considers a politically motivated case.

Viktar Babaryka, the former head of one the country’s largest banks, has also found himself in the middle of a criminal case concerning money laundering, tax evasion and bribery. He and his son Eduard (who is head of his father’s initiative group) are now in detention as the investigation continues. Babyrka’s team could not therefore submit all 435,000 signatures to the electoral committees as Viktar and Eduard themselves had to present some of them. Yet even out of the 361,654 signatures that reached the committees, around 200,000 were deemed invalid (again, something unseen in the recent history of Belarusian elections). This still leaves more than enough signatures for Babaryka to be registered as a candidate, but given that the number of signatures are not the sole requirement, this does not guarantee it. Vitally though, the invalidation of signatures stirs up public dissatisfaction, as people’s voices are essentially being ignored.

Viktar Babaryka gives an interview to Anastasia Barentseva | Source: YouTube

Valery Tsepkala has submitted 160,000 signatures, but more than half of them have been deemed invalid too. Unlike Babaryka, this leaves Tsepkala virtually no chance of registration – appealing decisions of the electoral committees is notoriously fruitless. Further, Belarusian law enforcement has initiated an inspection of Tsepkala’s affairs after accusations emerged of financial irregularities over a high-profile IT incubator in Minsk.

In addition to the pressure put on potential presidential candidates, more than 600 citizens – including political activists, bloggers, members of the initiative groups and participants of legal pickets – have received administrative arrests or fines, or have become subjects in criminal prosecutions. According to Viasna human rights centre, there are currently 22 political prisoners in Belarus – one of the highest numbers in the state’s history.

Whereas an active government response to the rise of civil society is indeed unusual, perhaps more so is its effect. After a suspected provocation at a legal picket in the city of Hrodna put blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski in custody, the queues of people willing to give their signatures in support of his wife Sviatlana have only risen. When an investigation into Babaryka’s former bank emerged, the banker’s support rating spiked to around 70%. (Babaryka has become one of the most popular people in the country – at least according to number of Google searches.) The further detention of Babaryka and his son gave rise to “chains of solidarity” actions – perhaps the largest acts of public protests in Belarus since 2010. Overall, the more the government has suppressed resistance, the more it has backfired.

Detention of Siarhei Tsikhanouski in Hrodna, May 2020

This pattern in Belarus does not look surprising in view of a recent article by Daniel Treisman, “Democracy by mistake: How the Errors of Autocrats Trigger Transitions to Freer Government”. As the title suggests, the study aims to explain how mistakes helped democracies to emerge. Treisman considered all democratisation processes since 1800, and concluded that only one third of them occurred due to deliberate choice. Two thirds, he claims, were the outcome of mistaken strategies which autocratic leaders adopted in their attempts to maintain power.

Lukashenka has clearly been making mistakes. The first and most fundamental is what Treisman calls “election mishandling”. The incumbent president decided to run a presidential election right at the moment when his approval rating dropped to a supposedly all-time low in light of the largely unpopular response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, Lukashenka could have run this election in 2019, but instead chose to proceed with a traditionally more calm and insignificant parliamentary election. Should Lukashenka have run for president last year, he would likely have found himself in less stressful circumstances. Unfortunate election mishandling, according to Treisman, is one of the most common mistakes that brings democratisation – this factor accounted for around 22% of the cases studied.

The second mistake was “enforcing counterproductive violence” – the reason for another 22% of regime changes. Lukashenka personally initiated the arrest of Siarhei Tsikhanouski, after which police found $900,000 in cash behind the sofa at his home – yet suspiciously only during the third house search (which happened at night). Many Belarusians do not believe this money really belonged to Tsikhanouski or his family. The case against Viktar Babaryka fostered public disagreement too, as his supporters started a petition asking for his immediate release. Furthermore, the investigation process involved a highly controversial confiscation of valuable pieces of art from his former bank’s collection – paintings of Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine and other prominent painters connected to Belarus. The total value of the collection is believed to be around $20 million. As in Tsikhanouski’s case, Amnesty International considers the arrest of Babaryka politically motivated.

But while prominent bloggers have also been arrested, what’s important is that not only civic activists and politicians are among those detained. Random passers-by at protests have been fined and subject to administrative arrest. For example, one case that caught the public eye involved an oncology surgeon in Minsk receiving a fine for “participating in mass protests” while merely chatting with a friend. Many people have been detained while queuing for a shop that sells clothes and products with national Belarusian symbols, Symbal.by. These events prompted many famous figures, unusually including state TV hosts, to speak out against police brutality and political repression. Some of them have faced sanctions at work or lost their jobs completely.

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