Belarus: Unprecedented protests contesting the results of the presidential elections
According to official figures, Alexander Lukashenko – who has ruled the country since 1994 – won the presidential election by a landslide. His main challenger – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – contested the results and fled the country. In the meantime, many protesters have taken to the streets of Minsk and other cities peacefully to contest the election outcomes. Protests have been met with police brutality. The internet connection – used among others by protesters to rally people – suffered serious disruptions. While mass protests continue, workers at some state-owned enterprises across the country – a traditional support base of President Lukashenko – went on strike and four state-media presenters resigned. More than 6000 people have been arrested and two deaths have been reported, a situation condemned by the United Nations human rights chief. In a bid to quell the protests, the authorities pledged to release all protesters amid mounting evidences of beatings and mistreatments in the detention centres.
The elections were held in a very challenging context of rising social discontent exacerbated by the stagnant economy and Lukashenko’s handling of Covid-19 as he considered it as a psychosis treatable by drinking vodka, going to the sauna or driving a tractor. The real GDP is expected to contract by 6% this year amid low oil prices, oil dispute with Russia and the fallout from Covid-19.
Moreover, for the first time, three credible challengers – Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular anti-government blogger, Viktor Babariko, a former banker and Valery Tsepkalo, an ex-diplomat who created the Belarus Hi-Tech Park – attempted to participate to the elections, highlighting that there are alternatives to Alexander Lukashenko. However, they were barred from running in the elections. The first two are still in jail while the third one fled the country. As the three challengers of Lukashenko were barred, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya decided to run instead of her husband. Two other women joined her in her campaign team: Tsepkalo’s wife and Babariko’s campaign manager. Her only pledge was to organise free and fair elections. She succeeded in attracting an unprecedented large number of people to her rallies. Hence, some realised that they were not alone to favour political change.
Over the last few years, Belarus has tried to improve its link with the West, which had been strained following the imposition of sanctions by the EU due to the post-election crackdown in 2010 (that were removed following the release of political prisoners). The ongoing post-election violence may jeopardise Belarus’s attempt to improve its relationship with the EU. Depending on the evolution of the situation, the imposition of new EU sanctions cannot be ruled out even if such a decision requires unanimity and Hungary seems to oppose the move.
On the other side, Russia – its traditional ally – congratulated the President for his re-election, called to reactive the plan for more integration between the two nations and condemned the violation of public order as a clear attempt of foreign interference. Over the last two years, Belarus’s close relationship with Russia has deteriorated following the change in oil taxation in Russia (the so-called tax manoeuvre) that has had a large negative impact on Belarus’s public finances and current account balance. Moreover, the two countries took a while before finding a compromise on oil prices, which is very important for the Belarusian economy that rely on cheap Russian oil, which is refined and re-exported to EU.
In this tense context, it is very difficult to predict how the political crisis will end. However, an imminent regime change doesn’t seem the most likely scenario given the lack of protesters’ leaders, the lack of oligarchs and the solid security structure. What is clear is that the authorities have more limited elbow room amid a dare economic situation, rising unrest, difficult attempts to improve ties with the West and a more strained relationship with Russia. In this context, Credendo is carefully monitoring the situation. However, no change in country risk classifications is foreseen in the coming days as large protest following the contested elections was to be expected.
Analyst: Pascaline della Faille - P.dellaFaille@credendo.com