By David R. Marples
The 2010 Belarusian presidential elections had been relatively peaceful prior to the day of voting. Ten candidates had gathered the requisite 100,000 signatures and had been allowed to campaign in relative freedom around the country. The tolerant nature of the campaign reflected President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s wish to assure the European Union that he was meeting the conditions for closer engagement and a promised substantial loan of around $3.9 billion.
On December 9, the situation changed after a surprise private meeting between Lukashenka and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. To that point in the campaign, Russia had been an angry critic of the Belarusian leader and his methods. A documentary on NTV called The Godfather, had described the kidnappings and elimination of his opponents in the past, and the two neighbors were at odds over a number of issues, including has prices, plans for the Customs Union, which also includes Kazakhstan, Lukashenka’s refusal to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetiya, and others.
After the meeting, that impasse ended. Customs duties were removed from imported oil to Belarus and the danger of a massive increase in the price of Russian gas in 2011 ended. Lukashenka agreed to a common economic space, meaning that the Russian ruble will become the sole currency of the two states on January 1, 2012. Lukashenka could approach the coming election with new confidence in the knowledge that Russia would recognize it as free and fair. In brief, the need to satisfy the Europeans receded.
The consequences of this change in status quo were soon evident. The presidential agency EKOOM, which poses as a research institute conducting opinion polls, began to speak of a sweeping victory with about 80% of all votes cast for Lukashenka, a figure picked up quickly by supposedly responsible Western agencies. Other polls had suggested a more realistic figure was between 30 and 38%, with votes for the opposition totaling about one-third of those polled and the remaining one-third undecided.
Most of the nine opposition candidates had agreed to meet on October Square in Minsk at 8pm on December 19, when polls closed. The authorities turned the square into a skating rink with music blaring from speakers, and Uladzimir Makey, chairman of the presidential administration warned that a gathering on the square would face criminal proceedings. Two of the leading candidates, Uladzimir Nyaklayeu, a poet and leader of the ‘Speak the Truth’ campaign, and Andrey Sannikau, leader of European Belarus and a co-founder of Charter-97, were the main coordinators.
Prior to the vote, a third opposition candidate, economist Yaraslau Ramanchuk, announced that he had been approached to join the government after the election. He appeared noncommittal about the proposal. Vital Rymasheuski, candidate of the unofficial Christian Democratic Party, was also committed to action on the square.
On Sunday, the voting appeared to go smoothly, though observers noted a number of violations. About 25% of the voting had taken place early, with the encouragement of the government. Many factories pressured workers to vote for Lukashenka. The subsequent events are only now being pieced together with the assistance of reports from Minsk, mobile phone videos, and reports from foreign news services. My comments represent an attempt to put these together.
The number of protesters at October Square gradually increased. At some point, a decision was made to march to Independence Square, a distance of about one mile down the main street of Minsk. The latter square houses the parliament building, which serves as the headquarters of the Central Election Commission (CEC). Nyaklayeu did not get that far. En route to join the main demonstration with some 70 supporters, he was attacked by riot police and beaten senseless. He had to be carried to a van, which had been badly damaged, and taken to hospital.
Eventually some 40-50,000 demonstrators had assembled on Independence Square, a large Stalinist complex with a large statue of Lenin as its main feature. Sannikau, Statkevich, and several other presidential candidates were present. A few protesters tried to break into the parliament building. Some observers maintain that they were agents provocateurs working for the government, perhaps KGB agents. The response was brutal: hundreds of arrests, thousands beaten and badly injured, including Sannikau who was left injured on the ground. It was the worst violence seen in Minsk in the independence era.
EU leaders and the US Embassy roundly condemned the brutality. President Medvedev decided it was an internal affair of Belarus and said he hoped that the country would progress on a democratic path. The OSCE clearly took it into account when it declared that the election had not been free or fair. Many European statespersons were clearly shocked by the events. But there were several more shocks to come.
Lukashenka was declared the victor of the election with an implausible vote total of almost 80%. No other candidate broke 2%, according to the CEC. Ramanchuk blamed the excesses on Sannikau, Statkevich, and Rymasheuski, whom he claimed, had staged a provocation to ensure that Belarus-European relations were broken. Reaction to his statement on Facebook indicates that many of his “friends” regard his statement as a crass betrayal of his principles.
Nyaklayeu was forcibly removed from his hospital bed by security forces and taken away. The offices of Charter 97 were raided. Sannikau’s apartment was broken into by the KGB—his wife Iryna Khalip, had also been arrested during the protests. Seven presidential candidates were in detention the morning after the election.
What has changed in Belarus? Essentially, it seems, nothing. The regime has engineered another victory for the president, quashed opposition with exceptional ruthlessness, and cajoled an opposition leader to switch sides. Belarus under Lukashenka is neither in the camp of Europe nor Russia, though it has inclined clearly once again toward the latter. The main opposition candidates, badly beaten, are in the hands of the KGB. It is a disgraceful end to an election, by any standards.
The opposition has begun a campaign for new elections “without Lukashenka.” But the anti-government movement is obviously in turmoil. The beacon of light in this dark picture is the courage of the demonstrators: on a -12C (10.4F) night, over 40,000 people came out to protest their lack of choice, despite official warnings, the imposing presence of police vans and Spetsnaz troops, and the unlikelihood of success.
The EU now faces a decision whether to continue its policy of engagement with a leader who has only contempt for his opponents, for freedom of assembly, and indeed for anyone who dares to challenge his authority. By 2015 an entire generation in Belarus will have grown up knowing only one leader, the former state farm chairman and KGB border guard who is the only European statesperson with an apparent mandate of ‘president for life.’
David R. Marples is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta and President of the North American Association for Belarusian Studies. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own.