Entirely predictably, the presidential election in Belarus was won by incumbent Alexander Lukashenka, who received almost 83.5% of the votes. Just for the record, he was not the only person running. Belarus’ Central Election Commission announced that four people were on the presidential ballot: President Alexander Lukashenka; Tatsiana Karatkevich, a representative of the opposition movement “Tell the truth!”; Sergei Gaidukevich, leader of the pro-Lukashenka Liberal Democratic Party; and Nikolai Ulakhovich, head of the Belarusian Patriotic Party, who is seen as loyal to the Belarusian authorities. According to the latest results, Karatkevich received 4.4%, Gaidukevich about 3.3%, and Ulakhovich some 1.6% of the votes cast.
The election result was determined by four factors: the weakness of the opposition; the economic crisis in the country; the unstable situation in the region; and the possibility of a return to dialogue with the EU.
Factor 1: The Weak Opposition. This year’s campaign proceeded calmly although the opposition, concentrated around the leaders Uladzimir Nyaklyayew and Mikola Statkevich, decided to organise protests against the construction of a Russian air base on Belarusian territory and conducted a pre-election march on 10 October. While these events attracted some attention, the run-up to the election revealed known weaknesses of the opposition: it is bitterly divided without a single strong leader; it lacks a clear set of ideas or a comprehensive programme for Belarus which could provide backbone to the campaign; and it is not supported by large segments of the population.
Factor 2: The Economic Crisis. Unlike the previous election campaign, the current one took place amid a deepening economic crisis in Belarus. According to the National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus, from the start of this year prices rose by almost 8%, while the population’s income decreased by more than 5%. The state budget is also beset by financial problems, with foreign exchange reserves falling to $4.5 billion, or about $3 billion less than three months’ of imports, an important financial safety benchmark. The situation is exacerbated by the economic crisis in Belarus’ major trade partner, Russia, which is also its biggest investor and lender (Belarusian exports fell by over 27% in January to August 2015 compared to the same period in 2014). The only support that the Russians now can afford to provide is in the form of loans for Belarus to pay off previous commitments. A decision by Russia to grant Minsk a $3.5 billion loan from the Eurasian Stabilization Fund is still pending. That is why Belarusian authorities are now increasingly counting on a loan from the International Monetary Fund – negotiations for which have been underway for several months. That helps to explain why the authorities wanted to make sure that the elections proceeded smoothly and uneventfully, improving the chances of receiving some external support.
Factor 3: Unstable Situation in the Region. For the first time since the 1990s, the security situation in Eastern Europe has become one of the main factors influencing the votes of Belarusians. The possible risk of destabilization in Belarus is very important to the population. According to the latest ISSEPS poll, almost half of Belarusians say peace and stability are the most important factors influencing their vote, while democracy is important to only about 15%. Moreover, Belarusians are very much afraid of a repeat of what took place in Ukraine in 2014. This worked in favour of the incumbent president, who is regarded as a guarantor of peace and stability. It should also be noted that since 2011 the proportion of Belarusians who are against integration with the EU has continued to grow, from 30.5% in March 2011 to 51.9% in September this year.
Factor 4: Future Relations with the EU. At the same time, the Belarusian authorities aim to improve relations with Western countries. This is important not only from an economic point of view but also for political reasons: Minsk genuinely wants to reduce the country’s dependence on Russia. In August this year, Lukashenka released all political prisoners, a move long demanded by the EU countries. Now, after the ‘quiet’ elections are over, confirming his grip on power, he will expect concrete steps from the EU towards normalization of relations.
There are seemingly moves in this direction. On October 12, the EU foreign ministers decided in principle to temporarily suspend sanctions against Belarus. Planning further steps however, a new EU strategy should take into account that the current Belarusian authorities are not interested in fully changing their foreign policy or in a formal association with the EU. Minsk will seek other forms of ‘pragmatic’ cooperation such as investment in infrastructure, economic and cross-border projects and cooperation on higher education issues through the Bologna Process which it recently joined. They are also interested in visa facilitation as well as expanding the range of the MOST mobility program for Belarus. (1)
If the EU decides to cooperate in these areas, it should also continue to support the independent political environment in Belarus, including NGOs and non-government media. It should be underlined to the Belarusian authorities that support for these segments of the society is an important element of the EU’s cooperation with all of its neighbours, thus Belarus should not expect any sort of ‘preferential treatment’ because of the wider political circumstances.
Taking into account the calm prevailing pre- and post-election atmosphere in Belarus, it can be said that the process has met the basic demand of high-level EU officials. The post-election period will be the best moment for the EU Member States to review the bloc’s current policy towards Belarus in line with the two-track policy outlined above. The process of revising the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership may be useful as an instrument when discussing the details of the new approach.
(1) Mobility Scheme for Targeted People-to-People Contacts (MOST), an EU programme that facilitates exchanges between Belarusian professionals and their counterparts in the EU member states.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.