For twenty years, there have been heated discussions within the opposition whether to participate in the elections or to boycott them. The Party of Freedom and Progress and its youth wing Civil Forum advocate participating in all political campaigns. This approach, the party’s leader Vladimir Novosiad and Vice-Chair of the liberal youth organisation Ihar Nikitsin write in this op-ed, make it possible to involve ordinary citizens in the electoral process at all its stages like signature collection, campaigning and observation. But what actually happened in these elections?
We all know the story: Alexander Lukashenko refused to step down after losing against the opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Since then, citizens not just in Belarus but also across Europe have been protesting against his regime. But what led to the protests can be summarised in four key pillars:
1. The COVID-19 epidemic was a political test for authorities
The authorities in Belarus refused to acknowledge the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alexander Lukashenko kept repeating the main ways to combat coronavirus are a steam bath and vodka. This led to a sharp increase in the number of infections and in the number of struggling businesses. It also placed an exorbitant burden on the healthcare system and increased political tension in the country. But where the state failed, the civil society showed strength: thousands of people began to sew and distribute masks and help with food and medicine deliveries. The epidemic pushed people for civic engagement from the very beginning of the presidential campaign and thousands turned up for electoral rallies organised across the country, and since then have joined the protests. We had not seen things like this for many years.
2. We have an economy without money
Almost one third of the Belarusian budget depends on petrodollars and oil prices have collapsed. Moreover, shortly before the pandemic started, Belarus came into conflict with Russia over energy prices. Putin did not give in to Lukashenko’s persuasion, instead linking his concessions with concessions on the issue of integrating the two countries, which his Minsk counterpart declined. The Kremlin responded by cutting off the supplies of ‘black gold’. The budget was empty and there were no funds to increase social payments before the elections, as the authorities had previously done.
3. Winds of change are here
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 no longer respected or feared by a large part of the citizens, and because of new technologies the government has lost its monopoly of information. When the arrests of other candidates began, this only encouraged more spontaneous protests on the streets. The success of Lukashenko’s strongest competitor Viktor Babariko caused panic in the presidential palace and he along with other key opposition leaders were arrested or not allowed to run as candidates. It was then that the rebellion began, without a single centre or headquarters.
4. Who will guard from the guards?
A few weeks before the election day, it was decided that only five observers were allowed to observe the vote – and all five were pro-government. This was further evidence that Lukashenko does not want free and fair elections, but it did not stop the Belarusians. They began to observe the elections from courtyards of the polling stations and under windows – to no avail. The figure of 80% support of the President is obviously very appealing and is repeated from campaign to campaign. This is how the ongoing front-line protests began, creating a unique experience not only for Belarus, but also for the world. People are not interested in ideological or geopolitical disputes; there is only one slogan and it is against Lukashenko. The more aggressive the rhetoric and measures of the dictator, the stronger the opposition of the society is. Stability, Lukashenko calls it. Stagnation, we call it. The point of no return has passed.