This op-ed is written by Vladimir Novosiad, Chairman of Belarusian liberal Party of Freedom and Progress, deputy of Belarusian parliament in 1995-2004 and the founder of the first liberal youth organisation in Belarus, and Ihar Nikitsin, Vice-Chairman of the liberal youth organisation Civil Forum, youth wing of Party of Freedom and Progress and Member of Board of European Minority Youth Network.
For twenty years, there have been heated discussions within the opposition whether to participate in the elections or to boycott them. Party of Freedom and Progress and its youth wing Civil Forum advocated the idea of participating in all political campaigns. This approach made it possible to involve ordinary citizens in the electoral process at all its stages like signature collection, campaigning and observation. The events of the last election campaign have confirmed the soundness of our long-term route, but what actually happened at the time of these elections?
1. The epidemic as a political test for the sanity of the authorities
The authorities refused to acknowledge the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alexander Lukashenko kept repeating that the main ways to combat coronavirus are a steam bath and vodka. Such a position of the authorities led to a sharp increase in the disease, downfall of business, an exorbitant burden on the healthcare system and increase of political tension in the country. In contrast to the ineffective state, civil society was able to summon up strength. The one in a pickle is the one who's got to tickle. Thousands of people, seeing the indifference to their health on the part of officials, began to sew and distribute masks, help with the delivery of food and medicine to those in need. The epidemic gave impulses for civic activism at the very beginning of the presidential campaign; people lined up in kilometre-long lines to sign up for alternative candidates, and thousands turned up for rallies organised across the country. We had not seen things like this for many years. This is how protest potential was born.
2. Economy without money
The Belarusian budget is 30% dependent on petrodollars, and oil prices have collapsed. In addition, shortly before the epidemic, Belarus came into conflict with Russia over energy prices. Putin did not give in to Lukashenko's persuasion, linking his concessions with concessions on the issue of integration of the two countries which his Minsk counterpart did not allow. The Kremlin responded by cutting off the supplies of black gold. The budget was empty; there were no funds to increase social payments before the elections as the authorities had previously done.
3. Winds of change
During Lukashenko’s 26-year rule, a whole generation of young Belarusians has grown up and this generation wants to live in a democratic country ruled by the law. Lukashenko is rejected by a significant part of citizens, there is no respect for him, there is no fear anymore. With the development of technology and flows of information, the government lost its monopoly in the media space. For a significant part of the society now, their source is no longer TV, but social networks. Such activity became a complete surprise to the authorities. Arrests began, which in fact only organised a spontaneous protest. With this background, the strongest alternative candidate, Viktor Babariko, collected 435,000 signatures (out of 6,700,000 eligible to sign) to be nominated as a presidential candidate, which not only baffled Lukashenko but triggered his panic and a campaign aimed at the elimination of the competitor. He, as well as another influential protest candidate, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested and a criminal case was opened on the articles hastily put together. Valery Tsepkalo was not allowed to participate in the elections. Their crew members were hunted down and more than 700 people were arrested. The protest was left with no leaders. It was then that rebellion began. It does not have a single centre nor a headquarters.
4. Who will guard from the guards?
A few weeks before the vote, the Central Election Commission decided that only five observers were allowed to observe the vote. All five quotas at each voting station were surprisingly occupied by pro-government observers. People received one more proof that Lukashenko does not want transparent elections, as precinct commissions falsified the voting results. This did not stop the Belarusians. They began to observe the elections from courtyards of the polling stations and under windows. It didn't help. The CEC drew a figure of 80% in support of the incumbent president, to whom this percentage is obviously just very appealing and is repeated from campaign to campaign.
This is how the Belarus-of-old ended. Stability, Lukashenko calls it. Stagnation, we call it. This is how the front-line protests began, in which we still live. Realising that we do not have a "militant" leader who will lead and tell what to do, Belarusians act intuitively. They take to the streets themselves, they themselves come up with posters, they themselves create a political agenda. This is a unique experience not only for Belarus, but also for the world. People are not interested in ideological and geopolitical disputes, there is only one slogan and it is against Lukashenko. The authorities scream hysterically about foreign interference, using the rhetoric of the times of Goebbels and Stalin. The actions of the authorities match the words. Lukashenko no longer trusts anyone and, out of fear, changes the government in which every minister is a general.
However, the point of no return has passed. The more aggressive the rhetoric and measures of the dictator are, the stronger the opposition of the society is. Now Lukashenko, in terms of astronomers, is a red giant, burning millions of tons of fuel every second to surprise others with its super-bright light. But the more energy he spends, the more inevitable a supernova explosion is, the sooner it turns into a white dwarf.