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A changing Belarus? The country in the eye of the storm

Ahead of the 9 August election, is Belarus finally ready for a change? Elena Korosteleva shares her first-hand experiences in Minsk and discusses the possibilities in the upcoming election.

30 July 2020 – It is a remarkable day for Belarus as it prepares for the presidential election to be held on 9 August. It rained almost continuously for the past few days, drowning Minsk, the country’s capital, in the deluge of water, wind and lightening. It felt close, dark and heavy, almost suffocating, as if to mirror the prevalent public sentiments. Indeed, since the first inaugural election in 1994, all the subsequent ones resulted in the same ‘predictable vote’, this year heralding President Lukashenko’s 26 year in power. The forthcoming election is not expected to be any different.

And yet, the Great Meeting which took place on 30 July in Minsk, attracting over 60,000 people, seems to have challenged what once seemed pre-ordained. The gathering was called by the three remarkable women depicted above – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a presidential hopeful, who joined forces with Maria Kolesnikova, campaign manager of the arrested candidate, former banker Victor Babariko, and Veranika Tsepkalo, the wife of the barred businessman Valeriy Tsepkalo. Their rise to politics has been accidental, and yet their appeal has been astounding. Precisely on that day, the 30th of July, the sun was shining uncompromisingly, gathering an unprecedented crowd of peaceful protesters, allegedly for the first time of that size in the modern history of Belarus, to celebrate people’s will for change.

So, is Belarus changing? When I arrived in Minsk almost a week ago, there were no signs of brewing change. In fact, it all looked too familiar to the many previous electoral occasions happening every five years or so. I saw a chain of police forces stretched all the way from the airport stopping cars and people at will. I felt their palpable presence on the streets of Minsk too, reinforced by tangible avtozacks – anti-riot vehicles to counter peaceful mass protests. Passers-by, if unlucky, were detained and questioned; shops selling national paraphernalia were raided and shut. Above all, I saw on the streets all-too-familiar faces of the weary and goaded people: their non-smiling, contact-avoiding eyes, hurrying steps and hushed voices – it felt almost as business as usual.

There were hardly any reports on state TV channels about the forthcoming election, let alone broadcasts of political campaigning by the presidential candidates. Instead, the focus was on good harvesting, newly erected buildings here and there, and the WWII films continuously showing the engrained normality of suffering. The otherwise fairly dull TV was only once disrupted, by breaking news concerning ‘alien presence’ of the Wagner special forces – ‘Russian mercenaries’ whose sole purpose (at least according to the authorities) was to disrupt the forthcoming election. All presidential candidates were immediately summoned by the Central Election Commission to be warned about the impending security measures and if necessary, a possible cancellation of election, should any provocations take place. Incidentally, no international observers have been invited – for the first time in Belarus’ electoral history, as remarked by an EU official. Many international media representatives were denied their accreditation. It felt like Belarus has been forgotten once again in its struggle for change, until the Great Meeting day in Minsk, when all Western media erupted with news about the country.

Belarus is awakening: the whiff of change is becoming so palpable that every rally since 30 July reports continuously growing numbers of people in hitherto sleepy towns of Belarus, gathering crowds of all ages and walks of life – Molodechno, Mozyr’, Grodno, Volovysk, Slonim. It is surprising that the Great Meeting on 30 July was not cancelled, in the midst of growing scaremongering, Russian mercenaries, and the fear of provocations. People were flocking to a remote parkland – ironically called Druzhba Narodov (Peoples’ Friendship) – an officially designated meeting place by the authorities, from every corner of Minsk and beyond, after work, study or home, tired but committed.

By 20.00 the numbers became so overwhelming – by some accounts nearly 60.000 and growing – that the surrounding traffic had to be stopped, and security metal detectors ceased temporarily.  What people came to hear were personal stories of the three remarkable women who found themselves at the centre-stage of Belarusian politics almost by accident, and yet, they were willing to commit their lives to restoring justice and giving people hope for real democracy. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the housewife, had to step up to replace her imprisoned husband as a presidential candidate. She was joined by Maria Kolesnikova, who was a musician only three months ago, and Veranika Tsepkalo, a progressive entrepreneur, was a mother of two.

Each of them told their heart-breaking stories of abuse and suffering, publicly denouncing the regime for its cruelty, and calling people for peaceful change, using their electoral vote, exactly on 9 August, and not before, and registering it with various IT platforms and public voluntary observers for exit vote counting. Judging by civic response, Belarus is no longer a ‘forgotten’ country in the heart of Europe: it is a ‘country for living’ (Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s strapline), and not a country for leaving, which is annually deserted by 40,000 young people, as Veronika Tsepkalo claimed the meeting.

All three women stood by a simple manifesto of change as they declared at the Great Meeting: to free all political and economic prisoners of regime; to return the 1994 Constitution limiting presidential powers and terms in office; and finally, to call new election in six months-time to give people the real opportunity to vote for the candidates of their choice. All these were new, just like back in 1994—the year of the first presidential election—when people wanted change and they voted for change, although the latter has been long coming.

It rained the next day, skies were heavy and grey again, and the smiles vanished off people’s faces once more. However, there is a certain feeling that Belarus is now somehow different, freer, stronger and more determined than ever before, to make history on 9 August. Even if the outcome were all the same, the people, with their remarkable resilience – living through ‘officially unrecognised COVID’, roaming ‘mercenaries’, impending economic calamity and oppression – are already different, renewed, and believing in a better tomorrow. This is worth fighting for, and this has been achieved by the simple courage and humility of the three extraordinary women – strangers to politics, they became the ‘darling buds’ of people’s hope.

Elena Korosteleva is Professor of International Politics and Jean Monnet Chair of European Politics, at the University of Kent. Elena is a Principal Investigator to the GCRF UKRI COMPASS project (2017-21) and LSE IDEAS Dahrendorf Professorial Fellow.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.