Presidential election will be held in Belarus on Sunday, 9 August 2020. At the onset of the election campaign, everyone in the country expected a repeat of the 2015 election with predictable candidates and the outcome Belarusians were used to live with for 26 years.
Surprisingly, the campaign for this election had an unexpectedly lively start with new presidential candidates, unprecedented electoral activity, civic engagement and harsh repressions. As election day approaches, let’s have a look back at what happened in Belarus in the last few months.
The initial challengers – video blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, former top banker Viktor Babariko and ex-diplomat Valery Tsepkalo – were unexpected, to put it mildly. Until a few months ago, it seemed Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking his sixth term in office, would have to compete for votes with three of them, but now none of them are on the ballot.
How did it happen? Long story short, all three were simply barred from the race, with Tikhanovsky and Babariko ending up behind bars, and Tsepkalo leaving the country with his children.
But first, of 55 people who initially submitted documents to enter the race, 15 were given a chance to collect 100,000 votes so that the Central Election Commission (CEC) could later decide who to put on the ballot. Eventually, only five people were registered as presidential candidates.
Andrei Dmitriyev (the co-chairman of the “Govori pravdu” movement), Anna Kanopatskaya (the member of parliament), Alexander Lukashenko (the incumbent president), Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sergei Tikhanovsky’s spouse) and Sergei Cherechen (the chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly) were allowed to run for the presidency.
Belarus’ recent history knows many examples when presidential candidates were sent to jail, as it was in 2006 and 2010. But usually arrests happened after the elections. This campaign will be remembered for detaining the main candidates before they could even enter the race.
Viktor Babariko, the former head of Belgazprombank, the local unit of Russia’s Gazprombank, was seen as the strongest opponent. He collected over 400,000 ballot access signatures exceeding the necessary 100,000 minimum. In June, Viktor Babariko and his son Eduard, who is also his campaign manager, were arrested, accused of financial crimes and tax evasion.
Before that, Belgazprombank offices were raided and several bank employees were detained in a tax evasion case. Shortly afterwards, the Belarusian central bank imposed temporary administration on the bank.
The detention of people close to the Babariko family continues to this day.
Sergei Tikhanovsky, a political blogger who runs the YouTube channel Country for Life, was the first main opponent disqualified from the race. After the CEC refused to register Tikhanovsky’s initiative group to nominate him for the office of the president of Belarus, he headed the election campaign of his wife. In Minsk, Slutsk, Baranovichi, Mogilev and Gomel, people lined up to vote for the Tikhanovskys.
On 29 May, Tikhanovsky was detained during the collection of signatures for the nomination of his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as a presidential candidate. This was preceded by an incident that ended with a policeman falling on the ground. Eyewitnesses described the incident as entrapment, while the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that the detainees used violence against the police officers.
And then 900 thousand dollars were found at Tikhanovsky’s summer house. Meanwhile, the number of detainees in the “Tikhanovsky case” grew more and more, most charged with “organization of group actions that grossly violate public order”. In August, Tikhanovsky, prominent opposition politician Nikolai Statkevich and *33 Russian mercenaries were accused of planning mass riots ahead of the presidential election.
Valery Tsepkalo, who served as the Belarusian ambassador to the U.S. and was the ex-head of High Technologies Park. In June, the CEC invalidated his 100,000 support signatures, which blocked him from continuing in the presidential race. Soon after that Tsepkalo fled the country with his children fearing he would be arrested and stripped of parental rights.
Rights group Amnesty International recognises both Babariko and Tikhanovsky as prisoners of conscience. The arrests and refusal to register Babariko and Tikhanovsky triggered protests across the country in which hundreds were fined and arrested.
Unprecedented electoral activity
To submit the registration of the initiative group, only 100 signatures were required. 8,904 people signed up for the group of Viktor Babariko, for comparison, 11,480 people signed up for the initiative group for the nomination of Alexander Lukashenko. People also lined up to put their signature of support for alternative candidates.
In June, Minsk residents took to the streets en masse when Viktor and Eduard Babariko were arrested. Hundreds came together as a symbol of support to all detainees and a desire for fair and free elections. After that, “chains of solidarity” started to pop up in cities, towns and even abroad. Many of those who took part in solidarity actions were detained and fined.
In July, when the CEC didn’t register Babariko and Tsepkalo as presidential candidates, numerous peaceful protests were held around Belarus, from 250 to 280 people were detained. The following day people lined up at the CEC to file complaints against the decision and were detained too.
Another feature of this campaign is the active position of local celebrities and media persons. Some sided with the incumbent president, others spoke not so much for alternative candidates as against the harsh methods of the security forces. The latter usually had their contracts not extended and were removed from long-planned performances.
This is when another unlikely opposition candidate emerged. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a teacher and housewife, who is standing “out of love” for her jailed husband and sense of duty, took the fight.
At some point, she had nearly been driven out of the race by threats against her family. But Tikhanovskaya didn’t give up, she took her children out of the country and joined forces with Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova (the heads of the presidential campaigns for Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo).
The trio advocate peaceful change and promise to free political prisoners and hold new, fair elections in six months if Svetlana is elected. Their campaign speeches gathered thousands in Minsk and in smaller cities and towns. Tikhanovksaya’s recent campaign rally on July 30 in Minsk gathered over 60,000 supporters (according to an NGO) and even police reported about 20,000 people who attended the event.
However, further attempts to hold rallies around the country were less successful. Coincidentally or not, almost at all sites where electoral meetings were planned, urgent repair works needed to be done, particularly in Slutsk and Soligorsk. On Wednesday, 6 August, Tikhanovskaya had to cancel her big campaign rally in Minsk after being notified that Park Druzhby Narodov is not available – a festive event dedicated to the Day of Railway Troops was held at the same time. The other five sites for holding campaign rallies were also booked.
Other obstacles and anomalies
This year, international independent experts and election watchers were either not invited to observe the elections in Belarus or the invitations were sent belatedly. Thus, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and won’t monitor the presidential election in Belarus.
In several polling stations, curtains were deliberately removed from the vote cabins, leaving them uncovered, independent observers were not allowed to monitor the process of early voting. Some election commission members refuse to let the observers into polling stations.
Several independent observers were detained after documenting numerous violations of the election law. After the second day of early voting in the election, they reported that figures provided by the commissions are usually inflated.