Elections in Belarus are traditionally administrative rituals. However, amid growing tensions with Russia and increased discussion of a future presidential transition in Minsk, the upcoming Belarusian parliamentary and presidential votes may be the start of cautious political change in the country.
Belarusian elections have long been predictable. This time, however, things may be different, Carnegie Moscow Center expert Artyom Shraibman writes.
In November, Belarus will hold a parliamentary vote and, in mid-2020, President Alexander Lukashenko will be elected to his sixth term.
Minsk finds itself in conflict with Moscow over bilateral integration. Meanwhile, there is the new talk of a change of power after twenty-five years of Lukashenko’s rule. All this raises the stakes of the upcoming elections and indicates that changes may be coming for the country.
How feasible will the political change be?
Such changes won’t be immediately visible, the expert warns. He believes that the opposition has no chance, while election committees “are free to stuff ballot boxes during the five days of early voting and can remove pesky observers from the polls”.
Nevertheless, elections — especially two campaigns in a row — put a serious strain on the Belarusian power vertical.
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,” Artyom Shraibman notes.
One of the main questions is whether more opposition members will be allowed into parliament. Just the presence of two of them in the 110-member lower house “allowed Minsk to unfreeze relations with the EU”.
This will be a logical step for Belarus’ power, according to the expert.
Belarus and the EU are close to signing an agreement on simplifying the visa regime, and EU banks are increasing their investment portfolios in Belarus. Still, the agenda for future dialogue remains unclear.
What can go wrong?
Autocrats don’t always act logically and prefer convenience, Artyom Shraibman explains.
“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,” he suggests.
While the parliamentary election may affect Belarusian relations with the West, the presidential election, likely to take place in April or May 2020, could cause problems for the country’s ties with Russia due to the “complicated dialogue on integration”.
Should that escalation come during the presidential campaign, Moscow may very well attempt to further unsettle Lukashenko, Shraibman writes. This had already happened in 2010 and 2015.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine Russia supporting a candidate other than Lukashenko in the upcoming election. Russia may simply deploy other approaches like spreading fake news about Lukashenko, doing talk shows about anti-Russian nationalism in Belarus, etc.
With the earlier voiced by Lukashenko intentions to bring change to the Constitution and more power to the parliament, 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.
Read the full piece at Carnegie Moscow Centre website.