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Considering how front and center and ever present the novel coronavirus pandemic has been for months on end, it is rather stunning how the start of the presidential race in Belarus has managed, within only a week, to locally sideline news of the health crisis. This is all the more remarkable since, the outbreak of this dangerous respiratory illness is by no means over for Belarus. The country presently registers over 900 new COVID-19 cases daily, and the overall number of those infected was 38,059 as of May 26 (Tut.by, May 26).
Nonetheless, the campaign has been ramping up. Election officials have already registered the initiative groups (IG) of 15 presidential hopefuls (Onliner, May 20). Though, from the outset, it was unlikely that any more than five of these representative formations will be able to collect the 100,000 valid signatures needed for their candidates to be placed on the ballot, prior to the deadline of June 19. Those include the IGs of Victor Babariko, a former banker; Valey Tsepkalo, the founder of the Belarusian High-Tech Park (see EDM, May 19); Oleg Gaidukevich, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party; Andrei Dmitriev, a co-chair of the Speak the Truth civic campaign; and, possibly, Anna Kanopatskaya, a former member of parliament. Collecting 4,000 signatures per day on average is a daunting task even without the pandemic, during which many people are unwilling to open their doors to strangers.
The lion’s share of attention is currently being paid to the first two potential candidates—potential because only after the requisite signatures are collected and their validity is verified by the Electoral Commission (EC), can they actually appear on the ballot. Well-known Belarusian analyst and commentator Artyom Shraibman recently pointed out that both Tsepkalo and Babariko, who have each already conducted live press conferences to launch their campaigns, maintain a restrained tone, do not criticize the country’s president directly, refrain from answering the question as to what they would do if the authorities dramatically falsify the electoral outcome, and promise to abide by the law. Furthermore, it is not clear what those hopefuls are actually hoping for. Three possibilities are worth considering, according to Shraibman: an electoral win so big that the EC would not take the risk of falsifying it altogether; a rift in the nomenklatura; or earning political capital for the future. It is not yet even clear what the refrain of the incumbent’s campaign will be. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka cannot boast of economic success; and his foreign policy successes are questionable, too, Shraibman argues, as escalated friction with Russia has not been accompanied by particularly crucial accomplishments on Belarus’s western flank (YouTube, May 22).
By most accounts, Babariko attracts noticeably more support than Tsepkalo. The latter comes across as a “techie,” whereas Babariko is folksier and more self-confident. Both presidential hopefuls emphasize the economy, which they promise to manage more successfully than the current leadership. Tsepkalo even took a thinly veiled swipe at the state farm (Sovkhoz) background of the incumbent. The technology entrepreneur emphasized that back in 1994, when Tsepkalo himself was an active member of Lukashenka’s winning electoral campaign, displaying knowledge of how many hens a rooster can service was essential in the eyes of the electorate; but that is no longer the case, he argued. Tsepkalo, however, repelled Belarusian nationalists by denying a division line between Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians and conceding that sacrificing part of the country’s sovereignty to Russia in exchange for economic benefits is reasonable (Reform, May 21).
In contrast, Babariko has managed to earn enthusiastic support from such avowed nationalists as Andrei Dynko and Siarhei Dubavets, despite being most directly associated with Russian big business. According to Yury Terekh, a columnist for Belarus’s major government newspaper Belarus Segodnya, this support is due to crowdfunding platforms that used to operate under the guidance of Eduard Babariko, Victor Babariko’s son; Belgazprombank (which Victor used to head) reportedly serviced those operations. Crowdfunding is increasingly used not only for funding cultural initiatives like publishing books but also for supporting political activists, especially at the present time, with border closures making it impossible to physically bring cash to Belarus. Two parts of Terekh’s investigation into these crowdfunding platforms were published by Belarus Segodnya (Belarus Segodnya, April 23, May 12), but the paper notably declined to accept his third column on the subject, which was instead posted to Terekh’s Facebook page (Facebook.com, May 20). Besides uncovering the financial support system for what the columnist calls the “marginal opposition,” his third part explores the political roots of Babariko’s support. In essence, Terekh insinuates that Babariko’s latent support base consists of retired members of Belarus’s security apparatus who have close ties with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Whether or not this is just a conspiracy theory fed by fear of Babariko’s electoral strength is hard to say at the moment.
In contrast to Terekh, the seasoned Lukashenka critic Valer Karbalevich of Radio Liberty suggests that most reproaches against Babariko are shallow and exhibit the Stockholm Syndrome of Belarusians, who have been corrupted by a quarter-century-long “lack of politics.” After all, Lukashenka is the only leader they have experienced and, unlike Babariko, is a known quantity (Facebook.com/karbalevich, May 21).
Tsepkalo and Babariko also differ in terms of their media strategies employed so far. Tsepkalo has released a series of policy papers, which he posts on his Facebook page, whereas Babariko apparently decided to publish a number of articles focusing on his human side (Zen.yandex.ru, May 22). To be sure, Tsepkalo also showcased his beautiful wife Veronica during his press conference.
On Monday, May 26, Oleg Gaidukevich suddenly withdrew from the race, despite previously boasting that his IG had already collected 30,000 signatures (Tut.by, May 26). Gaidukevich’s withdrawal is perhaps the most definitive, though indirect, confirmation of Victor Babariko’s electoral potential and of the incumbent’s apparent perception of his wobbliness in comparison. To wit, Gaidukevich’s policy positions were no different from President Lukashenka’s; but the former’s participation, while boosting turnout, might have ended up splitting the pro-government electorate. Both implications may not be to the liking of the incumbent. Moreover, there is persistent talk about Babariko’s signature collection proceeding largely through the networks of two banks (including Begazprombank, which Babariko headed for 20 years) and of Cosmos-TV. All three structures notably rely on Russian capital.
In any case, the intrigue surrounding Belarus’s presidential race this year is evidently more genuine than most might have predicted. It remains to be seen how long these fast-shifting political dynamics last.