Hotspot - Belarus

President Lukashenko and his son on a visit to Ukraine President Lukashenko and his son on a visit to Ukraine Slavko Sereda
23 Nov
Klaus Dodds casts a geopolitical lens over Belarus, the country known as Europe's ‘soft dictatorship’

If I ever stood for election, I might do worse then take advice from President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. He has won every presidential election since Belarus secured independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991: five times and counting. In October, he triumphed with 84 per cent of the vote and it is becoming unthinkable that he might ever lose.

In the latest election, the incumbent prevailed over four opponents who together collected the necessary 100,000 signatures to register their candidature. Four other potential contenders failed to secure the necessary nominations and fell by the electoral wayside.

The campaign itself was slightly different from previous ones. President Lukashenko released several political opponents from prison prior to the election and even allowed opponents to hold an opposition rally in Minsk. It was made clear, however, that protests and opposition rallies would not be tolerated once the president had been announced as the winner again. In other words, no one really expected the elections to be free and fair and shortly after the result was revealed, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus (Professor Miklós Haraszti) came to this conclusion. Haraszti also concluded that electoral observers were not in a position to verify the voter turnout (86 per cent) and high endorsement of the presidential incumbent (84 per cent). A British prime minister could only dream of such figures.

Lukashenko is the longest serving political leader in Europe, and only Vladimir Putin gets close to his popularity ratings

Appointed in 2012, the Hungarian-born Haraszti has had a largely thankless task. As a writer, academic and advocate of human rights, he is well placed to explore what the recent Belarusian Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, describes as a ‘soft dictatorship’. For the last three years, Haraszti has offered recommendations for Belarusian democratic practice, including ballot voting management, independent election commissions, public debates among candidates and ensuring that the electoral campaign was not characterised by intimidation and fear. While Haraszti acknowledged that the 2015 elections were largely free of violence (and certainly an improvement on March 2006 and December 2010), political opponents know it does not take a great deal to end up in prison.

The Special Rapporteur was not alone in harbouring doubts. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe observation mission also concluded that Belarus fell well short of conducting free and fair presidential elections. The long-term head of Belarus’ Central Election Commission, Lidiya Yermoshina, countered that the election was ‘civilised, cultured and calm’. She has been saying that kind of thing for nearly 20 years.

Things are somewhat different in Belarus compared to those heady days in 2006 when some dared to dream that the country might have its own ‘Orange Revolution’. Nearly ten years later, Belarus remains a close ally of Russia (gas supplies from Russia are crucial to the Belarusian fuel economy), but unlike Ukraine, it is not consumed with civil war and the prospect of territorial collapse. But Belarus still needs to be careful. Russian geopolitical strategy is premised on Belarus being part of its ‘sphere of influence’. Re-electing Lukashenko will unquestionably be seen as reassuring evidence of political continuity and the geopolitical status quo.

Will he lose next time around? I wouldn’t bet on it. He managed to change the Belarusian constitution to enable him to keep standing indefinitely. He was elected president when he was 39 and is only now in his early 60s. Things can change of course, as other long-term presidents have found to their cost. But for now he is the longest serving political leader in Europe, and only Vladimir Putin gets close to his popularity ratings.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

This article was published in the December 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.

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