As independent candidates garner support, calling for ‘slippers’ to “stop the cockroach”, the incumbent Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is facing dissent and a possible election defeat on August 9. Who is running against the authoritarian leader, and what does it mean for Belarus, the EU, and Lithuania? Dzmitry Mitskevich reports from Minsk.
Surveys by the country’s leading non-state media have revealed three front-runners of the presidential race: Viktar Babaryka (around 50 percent), Siarhei Tsikhanouski (around 20 percent) and Valery Tsapkala (around 17 percent).
Lukashenko, meanwhile, polled at just 3 percent. In response, Belarusian authorities banned independent opinion surveys, spawning viral memes nicknaming the president “3% Sasha” – short for Alexander.
Now, Lukashenko is becoming increasingly agitated. Despite the falsified results in all previous elections, he still scored more votes than his opponents – at least those who evaded arrest and could run for president.
Today, the situation has changed dramatically.
Uzbek experience for reforming Belarus
The first to declare his presidential ambition was Valery Tsapkala, a member of Lukashenko’s team back in 1994. In 1997–2002 he was Belarus' ambassador in the US, later advised Lukashenko on science and technology.
From 2006 to 2017 he headed the High Technologies Park in Minsk to make it one of the headliners of Belarusian economy, exporting products worth more than 1 billion US dollars annually.
After being fired from his position in 2017, Tsapkala started as a consultant on innovation, working for the new Uzbek authorities on mass reforms after the death of dictator Islam Karimov.
In his speeches, Tsapkala supports good relations with Russia and radical reforms to build effective market economy.
While restraining from harsh criticism of Lukashenko, he is widely considered to be a ‘spoiler’ candidate – the one whom Lukashenko will need to create the impression of political competition during the election. Lukashenko has publicly admitted that special services have compromising material on Tsapkala, but claimed he doesn’t want to reveal them for now.
Supporting Belarusian culture with Russian money
Viktar Babaryka has no connections to state service at all. For the last 25 years, he has been the head of Belgazprombank, the Belarusian branch of the Russian bank owned by Gazprom.
Babaryka resigned the same day he registered as a presidential candidate, an unexpected move to most Belarusians.
Often called the “agent of Russia” by his opponents – even by state propaganda – Babaryka was previously famous for championing Belarusian culture.
Belgazprombank sponsored a wide range of cultural events, bought paintings of famous Belarusian-born artists across the world, including Mark Chagall and Chaïm Soutine, and organised exhibitions.
An experienced banker, Viktar Babaryka has often openly criticised Belarusian authorities and advocated for free market reforms.
He has an image of a successful manager and a self-made man. Lukashenko, meanwhile, said “this banker should think where he will work after this presidential campaign”.
Belarusian presidential candidates are required to collect 100,000 signatures in order to register for the election. Babaryka’s staff have already cleared the benchmark, but say they will collect 1 million signatures – this way, it would be harder for the authorities to ban Babaryka from running.
Lukashenko’s main opponent
The current public enemy number one for state propaganda is Siarhei Tsikhanouski, who is not even a candidate himself. He is a video-blogger whose YouTube channel Strana Dlia Zhizni (Country for Life) has more than 200,000 subscribers.
In his videos, he criticises the authorities and personally attacks Lukashenko, giving a voice to people in the Belarusian provinces who speak about poverty and the absence of rule of law.
A businessman and video producer, Tsikhanouski planned to run for president, but was arrested – for taking part in protests in December 2019 – just a couple of days before the application deadline and could not register.
His wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, registered as a candidate in Siarhei’s place. She is not a public figure and hadn’t given interviews to the media before.
At the same time, her signature collection stations all over the country attract crowds of people, some of whom travel from other cities to wait in kilometre-long queues to sign for her candidacy.
The main slogan of Tsikhanouskis’ campaign is “Stop the cockroach!”, in a reference to Lukashenko’s moustache. The symbol of the campaign is a slipper, which is often used to kill cockroaches.
Since May 21, Tsikhanouski has been travelling around the country and organising events to collect the signatures for his wife’s candidacy. But he was once again arrested on May 30 in Hrodna.
Belarusian Interior Ministry has launched a criminal case, claiming Tsikhanouski and his activists attacked a Belarusian police officer.
On June 4, the police reported finding 900,000 US dollars in Tsikhanouski’s cottage during the third search since his arrest. Undeterred, people started queuing to sign for Tsikhanouskaya’s candidacy in even bigger numbers.
Speaking on May 30, Lukashenko said women candidates had no chance to win the election.
“Our society has not matured in order to vote for a woman. Because under our Constitution, the president has strong power,” he said.
“We are not like Lithuania. Dalia Grybauskaitė was the president there, she came, she smiled, she sat and went. She’s not responsible for anything because Lithuania’s a parliamentary republic. We are not. The man will be the president, I’m absolutely convinced of that,” he added.
There was no official reaction from Lithuania.
EU and Lithuania warn Lukashenka to play ball
For now, it seems that the EU is only partially interested in what is happening in Belarus.
According to the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies director Piotr Rudkouski, gone are the days when Western powers were invested in presidential or parliamentary elections in Belarus.
“Now it is very simple: we cooperate with Belarus on pragmatic terms – that is, we cooperate with those who exercise real power, of course taking into consideration some deviations,” said Rudkouski. “Which means that the EU will not support things that go against its core values: human rights, presence of political prisoners.”
This approach is clearly illustrated by the reaction of Peter Stano, a spokesman for the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell.
Stano stated that Tsikhanouski, opposition politician Mikalai Statkevich, and other civic activists detained during peaceful protests “should be released immediately and criminal and administrative prosecution against them should be stopped”.
“Recent events in Belarus have raised serious questions about the authorities’ respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of their citizens,” he said in an interview to Radio Liberty on June 2.
On June 4, Lithuanian MEP Petras Auštrevičius, together with his Polish colleague and chair of the EP’s delegation for Belarus Robert Biedroń, signed a letter condemning the repression of political opponents in Belarus.
“We will see no other option but to seek for a review of the European Union’s policy towards Belarus, including new sanctions targeting the officials responsible for these actions,” the statement read.
Meanwhile, the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry told LRT English in a written statement that ensuring free and fair elections and peaceful electoral campaign would pave the way for closer cooperation in the future.
“Our overall objective is sovereign, prosperous and democratic Belarus,” the ministry said, and “we expect Belarus to start systemic political and economic reforms”.
Sasha the three percent and his dilemma
Lukashenko still has a legal way to delay the election by introducing a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some experts think that Lukashenko can go for such an option in order to calm the protest down and wait for better moment.
However, this is unlikely to happen for a couple of reasons.
First, calling the state of emergency would cost money that Belarus doesn't have. This measure will also go against Lukashenko’s previous bravado and rhetoric dismissing the Covid-19 threat – and the Belarusian ruler never admits his mistakes.
At the same time, experts forecast an extreme slowdown in the Belarusian economy this autumn. According to BEROC Economic Research Centre, around 30 percent of Belarusians may become unemployed.
SATIO analysts in Belarus report that around 50 percent of Belarusians have already seen their income fall, most of them by about 30 percent.
Delaying an election amid an economic crisis is extremely dangerous even for more stable and authoritarian regimes than the current one in Minsk.
Dzmitry Mitskevich is a journalist at Belsat TV, analyst of Belarus Security Blog, editor-in-chief of Varta – a Belarusian annual magazine on national security. His fields of interests include information warfare, propaganda, international politics and fighting terrorism.