Will the Orange spark ignite in Belarus?

The single candidate's chances at the 2006 election

12 December 2005
Read in:
In the Belarusian elections in September 2006, the Lukashenko government is likely to employ a number of tactics to defuse the force of the opposition. This may include setting up an artificial third candidate that makes the incumbent regime appear the lesser evil, or exploiting anti-Polish sentiment against the opposition candidate Aliaksandr Milinkevich. But the Orange spark may still start a fire, says Andrew Wilson. Russia's support for Lukashenko is waning, while the opposition will receive the support of the US and the EU, above all from the new members bordering Belarus. Even if it fails to replace Lukashenko, the opposition can prompt the gradual liberalization of his regime.

The united opposition in Belarus now has a single candidate: Aliaksandr Milinkevich. Or does it? What are the opposition’s prospects for the elections in 2006? First, some important weaknesses need to be frankly admitted. The Belarusian opposition has benefited from the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, but its baseline prospects are much lower. Milinkevich is not a popular former prime minister like Viktor Yushchenko. He has no equivalent of Tymoshenko at his side. The “national-democratic” opposition that supports Milinkevich in Belarus has not undergone the long process of reinvention that Yushchenko managed so successfully in 2001 to 2004. Yushchenko’s unheralded success was to transform the regional nature of Ukrainian politics, creating a new alliance between west and central Ukraine, as well as appealing to sufficient numbers of civic-minded voters in the east and south, in other words, those voting negatively against the corruption of the old regime. There has been no such reinvention in Belarus, where the opposition is still lopsidedly dependent on radical shock troops in Minsk. Any protest movement in Minsk against a stolen election in 2006 would not enjoy the same hinterland of support as that in Kiev in 2004.

Another key difference is that Ukraine in 2004 had a hard core of businessmen who were already quasi-independent of the authorities in the early 2000s, and stuck with Yushchenko when their interests came under pressure after they first backed him in 2002. Belarus has no equivalent of men like Davyd Zhvaniia, Yevhen Chervonenko, and Petro Poroshenko, and has had no equivalent of the Yushchenko government of 1999 to 2001 that brought such men into being (Zhvaniia), or the Gongadze affair that forced others to jump ship (Poroshenko). It should also be remembered that significant support from business was a crucial factor in Belarusian president Lukashenko’s original victory back in 1994 (the ill-fated Mikhail Chihir and Belahroprombank, Aliaksandr Samankov, even Aliaksandr Pupeiko and Pushe).

Belarus has not had a domestic demonstration effect equivalent to Our Ukraine’s strong showing in the 2002 Rada elections and the “Ukraine without Kuchma” campaign of 2001. The situation in Belarus is more like the situation in Ukraine in the winter of 2000 to 2001, when the opposition was demoralized by Kuchma’s private promise to introduce the “toughest possible order” after his re-election in 1999, and proved unable to mobilize effectively when the Gongadze scandal broke. Moreover, “administrative” conditions in Belarus are markedly tighter than they were for the last presidential election in 2001. They may be a little bit looser than for the parliamentary elections in 2004, which, thanks to draconian control of candidate registration, were over before they started. But conditions in Belarus in 2006 will be nothing like as loose as they were in Ukraine in 2004, when in any case a key factor in allowing conditions to be relatively free was the authorities’ over-confidence of victory. Lukashenko may already have decided his margin of victory for 2006; unlike the authorities’ support for Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2004, this is a decision that is more likely to stick.

Overall, it is not even clear that the opposition can safely assume that it starts at the 15.4 per cent that Uladzimir Hancharyk won in 2001. America may try and take up the slack, playing in Belarus in 2006 the role many Western critics mistakenly thought it was playing in Ukraine in 2004. Condoleezza Rice’s statement in April 2005 that Belarus was “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe”, followed by her call for “democratic development […] there are organizations there and civil society groups that are crying out for the rest of the world to acknowledge them and to give them a place to make a home”, effectively prejudged the result, and indicated that America wanted Lukashenko out regardless of whether he might win the election or not.1 As Lukashenko will not allow Western sponsorship of local NGOs, Washington will not be able to state, as it did in Ukraine in 2004, that its main aim is to support due process. The extent of covert funding for the opposition is therefore likely to be higher than it was in Ukraine. Washington may also find itself supporting protests against Lukashenko using administrative resources to convert a plurality of votes into a majority. This is indeed fraud, but it will not have the same moral force as being able to claim that your candidate actually won. The fact that Yushchenko obviously had won in November 2004, and the obvious nature of the crude last-minute fraud against him, is what brought so many people on to the streets, changing the character of the demonstrations from particular protest into genuine popular revolution. And Lukashenko has no incentive to accept a mission from the likes of Kwasniewski and Adamkus. In Belarus, heavy-handed intervention led by the US may well backfire, providing Lukashenko with another card to play, and another means of discrediting the opposition.

A further factor in Belarus is that much real politics takes place elsewhere. Lukashenko’s speciality is not so much playing divide-and-rule with the local opposition as with the local nomenklatura. Bureaucrats are never allowed to settle into cosy sinecures. Yahor Rybakov, former head of Belarusian TV, was sentenced to eleven years in February for grand larceny; Halina Zhuraukova, former head of the Presidential Administration’s Property Management Department, got four years in 2004. Institutions are also set against one another; the Interior Ministry versus the KGB, the KGB versus Lukashenko’s own mini-security service. Kimitaka Matsuzato has ably demonstrated how Lukashenko also shuffles regional officials to prevent the formation of regional komandy, as in Ukraine.2 This, in turn, makes it difficult to replicate another of Yushchenko’s achievements in opposition: building bridges with elements in the Kuchma regime, which was sufficient to ensure a negotiated settlement on 8 December 2004, although arguably also led to too much compromise with the old guard. Ultimately, the system built by Lukashenko may therefore prove more fragile, capable of holding power but not so capable of evolving, but that is another matter.

As yet, there are therefore few signs of internal splits in the Belarusian regime. There may, however, be splits in the opposition camp, whether real or artificial. Belarus may well use administrative technology to fix the 2006 result, and traditional authoritarian methods to cow the population beforehand. But the traditional electoral arithmetic provides one opening for rather different methods of political technology. Since Lukashenko normally scores between 40 and 50 per cent, and the traditional opposition never more than 15 per cent, there is plenty of room for a “third force”. Traditionally, “third forces” have been manipulated by political technologists for one of two reasons. In the first scenario (as in Russia in 1996 or Ukraine in 1999), the incumbent is unpopular, so his technologists seek to guarantee a confrontation with an even more unpopular opponent (in both cases the Communist leader). Potential “third forces” (Yavlinskii-Fedorov in 1996, Oleksandr Moroz in 1999) must therefore be weakened to make sure the election remains artificially polarized.

In Belarus in 2001, the strategy was basically the opposite. Lukashenko was the genuine choice of a plurality of voters, if not necessarily a majority. However, Lukashenko wanted to avoid a polarized election that would encourage all the potential anti-Lukashenko voters to congregate at one pole. Artificial third forces such as Haidukevich were therefore promoted to keep Hancharyk’s vote down to 15.4 per cent. Lukashenko in 2006 is not as popular as he was in 2001, but is still far ahead of the opposition. According to IISEPS, Lukashenko’s popularity was down to 41.7 per cent in June 2005, but Milinkevich’s was at only 0.8 per cent.3 Any “third force” project in 2006 is therefore likely to more closely resemble the second scenario than the first.

Currently, that role is played by Aliaksandr Kazulin, the former rector of Belarusian State University, who seems to be somebody’s “project”. The fact that he concentrates most of his fire on others in opposition suggests he is a relay runner for Lukashenko; his robust Russophilia suggests Kremlin support. Siarhei Haidukevich stands in reserve to play Zhirinovskii’s role as jester-cum-hired-gun in the “middle ground”. The renaming of Prospect Masherava may have been a warning that his daughter might disappear equally quickly, but it is not beyond the bounds of imagination to imagine her being pressed into service as well – though, again, potentially by Russia too. At least it would not be unimaginable if Russian political technologists, for whom no project is too cynical, were running the campaign.

Russia may, however, find its influence limited, as there is little room for “independent” political technology in Belarus. Russia needs the right vehicle – as shown in the failure of the two-pronged attack on Vladimir Voronin’s Communists (46 per cent) in February’s Moldova elections. Not on the Left, where there was a clear political space for Patria-Rodina (5 per cent) that arguably could have been made more of, but with the centrist Democratic Moldova (28.5 per cent). The latter’s inexplicable success in simultaneously selling themselves as an “alternative” to the West demonstrated they were no more than a motley crew of firefly opportunists. As yet, it is not obvious that even Kazulin would be the right vehicle.

The manipulation of dramaturgiia is another way for the authorities to try and make sure the election does not settle into a dangerously polarized referendum on Lukashenko. One lesson from the 2004 Ukrainian campaign is that Yanukovych’s political technologists failed to play the “scarecrow” [pugal] card. There was no obvious internal or external “enemy” to force voters to back Yanukovych as the “lesser evil” (the Ukrainian nationalist bogey was too obviously artificial). Indeed, Sergei Markov openly regretted the failure to play the “Polish card” more vigorously before the second round: “I told them [the Yanukovych team] to use anti-Polish rhetoric”.4 Lukashenko has taken up the challenge. Indeed, the authorities’ anti-Polish project seems to have been predicated on the assumption that Milinkevich would be the main opposition candidate. Milinkevich is not just from western Belarus, but from Hrodna, also home to the headquarters of the ZPB and epicentre of recent events. The fact that he is from a traditional Orthodox family will probably not stop the Lukashenko camp’s attempts to depict him as a stooge for Poland and the Vatican.

On the other hand, the opposition has some reasons for optimism. The Orange spark may still start a fire. The international context is different. Russia seems fated to support Lukashenko unless an obvious alternative emerges, which Lukashenko has striven hard to prevent. But its support will be relatively lukewarm. Lukashenko is not guaranteed the critical but uncritical backing from the Russian mass media that he received in 2001. The West’s attitude is also significantly different. In 2001, useful efforts to help consolidate the opposition were led by America, but in an inappropriate attempt to recreate the conditions that had helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. In 2006, America may again be overestimating the strength of the opposition, but this time its efforts are joined by those of the EU, the new members in particular, who have a more pragmatic attitude towards goal setting.

And the opposition may have more opportunities than it thinks. A united opposition is a good thing. A single candidate is not necessarily an equal blessing. A sole opposition candidate risks being boxed in to its traditional minority ghetto; whereas a second candidate in tandem might be able to concentrate on reaching out to the middle ground. It might even make sense for the opposition to steal a trick from Russian political technology and set off its own “relay runner” [naparnik, estafeta], who then hands over his portion of the electorate to Milinkevich – or vice versa.

And even if it cannot hope to win, the opposition can hope to change the mood. If politics is “the art of the possible”, a campaign that raises the level of civic activism will redefine the practical parameters within which Lukashenko operates. He has no compunction in using “traditional” authoritarian methods where necessary: cowing the population, imprisoning the opposition and stuffing the ballot box. But Belarus is not Uzbekistan. Lukashenko may not be as risk-averse as Kuchma, but he will prefer a low-cost victory if he can get one. The opposition can also hope to encourage Lukashenko’s gradual metamorphosis into an eclectic “Soviet Belarusian” nationalist, and even a pragmatic politician who takes account of Belarus’ post-2004 position as a border state to the “New Europe” of the expanded EU. Much is at stake in 2006.

  1. See her remarks to CNN, 20 April 2005, at http://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/europe/04/20/rice.dougherty/index.html.
  2. Kimitaka Matsuzato, "A populist island in an ocean of clan politics: the Lukashenko regime as an exception among CIS countries", Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 56, no. 2 (March) 2004, 235-61.
  3. See www.naviny.by/ru/content/rubriki/0-ya_gruppa/tema/09-06-05-1/
  4. Cited in Francesca Mereu, "Spin Doctors Blame Yanukovych", The Moscow Times, 30 November 2004.

Published 12 December 2005

Original in English
First published in Arche 6/2005

Contributed by Arche
© Andrew Wilson/Arche Eurozine

PDF / PRINT

recommended articles