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Enemies of Themselves

It’s been years since things looked so good – and so bad – for the opposition in Belarus. A TOL Special Report.

by Rodger Potocki 6 December 2010

As the campaign leading up to Belarus’ 19 December presidential election enters its final weeks, the democratic opposition might seem in a good position to challenge the incumbent, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The country’s authoritarian leader has staked his popularity on promises of “prosperity and stability,” but Belarus has less of both at the moment. Disagreements over economic, military, and foreign policy issues have sparked a crisis in relations with Russia, Belarus’ most important ally and economic lifeline. The global financial crisis, a faltering state-run economy, and cuts in subsidies from Moscow are battering the country. As a result, the president is trying to resuscitate his regime by improving relations with the European Union. The rapprochement has led to limited liberalization and the country’s freest election campaign since Lukashenka came to power in 1994.  


That should be good news for the opposition, which faced harsher realities and repression in past campaigns. Lukashenka has often called them enemies of the people, but these days, the opposition is proving to be its own worst enemy. It has failed to unite around a common candidate or offer a coherent vision for the country. Instead, opposition leaders pursue individual ambitions and partisan interests. While the regime is weaker than it was in 2006, so is the democratic opposition.




The Central Election Commission has registered nine candidates as challengers to Lukashenka, the most ever for a presidential election in Belarus. They include three political party leaders, a former deputy foreign minister, two economists, a businessman, a former youth leader, and a poet. As Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with the Strategy Center for Political Analysis in Minsk, notes, none is known to the general public and their backgrounds and experience offer “little to excite” the electorate.


Their programs span the social, political, and economic spectrums, and tend to be long on promises and short on specifics. The platforms presented via television and radio addresses include a mishmash of populist promises to “prevent Belarusians from becoming extinct,” stop the penal system from turning people “into bandits,” end “the stealing” in the Health Ministry, provide a house for every military officer, block a monastery from being converted into a “brothel,” cease building ice hockey palaces, and bestow a “spoon, pot, and porridge in it” unto all. Two candidates have sworn to stop the killing of cats.


There are, of course, also serious proposals on key issues such as privatization, geopolitical orientation, currency, demographic decline, state subsidies and benefits, and constitutional reform. But the multitude of wannabes and ideas is numbing. Karbalevich suggests that the electorate is “likely to be confused by the large number of contenders and will find it hard to remember who was speaking and what he promised.” A single opposition program offered by a single opposition leader would have been more responsible and effective.




How did the opposition manage to get itself into this surrealistic reality show? The Achilles’ heel of Belarus’ democracy movement has always been its lack of unity and common effort. It has been plagued by divisions over language, age, identity, geography, foreign policy, ideology, and numerous other issues. While splintered oppositions have been the norm across much of the post-Soviet space, this pox has particularly plagued Belarus. And the regime has certainly helped sow the discord. Nevertheless, the opposition has usually been able to come together in some fashion before key elections.


Prior to the 2004 parliamentary elections, for instance, opposition parties and advocacy groups established the People’s Coalition Five Plus and a common platform, “Five Steps to a Better Life.” In 2005, an expanded coalition, the Ten Plus, convened a Congress of Democratic Forces, at which more than 800 delegates representing a wide swath of civil society – political parties and nongovernmental organizations – selected Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a regional NGO leader, as the single candidate for the March 2006 presidential election.


None of these unification processes or coalitions included all of the country’s democratic forces or worked very smoothly. They were hampered by delays, surprise contenders, boycotts, holdouts, competing candidates, apathy, and defections. Each attempt was obstructed by infiltrators and repression from the regime. Nevertheless, the attempts to come together for the good of the opposition and the country did offer an important message, both at home and aboard, establish a certain precedent, and improve with each effort. And in 2006 they produced some success.


The campaign conducted by the United Democratic Forces, which was created at the Congress, was the opposition’s first coordinated national effort. The protests following the flawed presidential contest, in which tens of thousands took part, were the first real demonstrations of public support for the opposition since 1996. The “March events” boosted the opposition’s popularity and stature inside and outside Belarus. In October, Milinkevich was awarded the Sakharov Prize, the EU’s top human rights honor, on behalf of the Belarusian opposition. Given the circumstances, most domestic and international observers considered the campaign and its aftermath a significant achievement.  




The united opposition’s success in 2006 was, however, a primary reason for its unwinding afterward. In a country where democratic civic society is split between political parties and NGOs, 2006 turned out to be a temporary truce. While there were policy differences within the United Democratic Forces, they were trumped by personal battles. Some party figures never accepted Milinkevich as the legitimate leader, believing that the Congress was stacked in favor of representatives from the third sector. In a coalition dominated by political parties, they were unwilling to be headed by an NGO leader. Following the March events, party leaders became jealous of Milinkevich’s sudden domestic and international status. Active in the democratic struggle since the 1990s, they viewed Milinkevich as a parvenu from the regions and were threatened by his growing popularity, decision to establish his own power base, and access to resources and foreign leaders.


In March 2007, these party bosses convened a second Congress of Democratic Forces. With the delegates lined up in their favor this time, they removed Milinkevich as leader. While Milinkevich also played a negative role during this period, Andras Racz, of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, could only wonder at a coalition that chose to split itself and demote its most popular leader. The second congress precipitated a series of unfortunate events in which Milinkevich and his supporters broke with the union, leading to the its decline and the weakening of several of its founding parties.


The first harbinger of today’s “mess” was the 2008 parliamentary elections. While the declining democratic forces put together a common slate and election message, they proved unable to hammer out a common platform, get candidates to focus on common issues, or spread their message outside of Minsk. In terms of working together, the coalition offered little incentive, encouragement, or example. Each candidate ran his or her own campaign and focused on local issues; some boycotted. In a critical analysis, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies correctly predicted that the opposition was on the verge of finding itself “in the deepest moral and organizational crisis ever” before the next presidential election.




Rather than coming together behind a single candidate in time to prepare for the presidential election, as in 2005, opposition leaders spent most of 2009 forming or maneuvering within different groupings to bolster their chances of becoming a candidate. Following local elections in spring 2010, opposition leaders began making the obligatory statements about the need to unite, but time was running out. Despite dozens of meetings, they could not agree on a process to select a single candidate. Journalist Pavel Sheremet said the failure marked “the collapse of the democratic forces.” The Council of the Belarusian Intelligentsia, which held a series of unification roundtables, called it “a betrayal of the interests of the Belarusian people.”


Vladimir Niakliaev
It is not as though there hasn’t been a long-term and broad consensus on the need for the Belarusian opposition to offer a united front. Numerous European leaders, Western specialists, and Belarusian experts have called on the opposition to rally around a leader. Milinkevich cited a lack of unity as a reason for withdrawing his candidacy. Most of the nine presidential hopefuls themselves say they favor agreeing on a common candidate. Perhaps because he has emerged as the front runner, Vladimir Niakliaev has been the most emphatic about the need to unite.


Ales Michalevich
The candidates’ promises have not been matched by deeds. Instead they have slogged on, attempting to justify their individual campaigns. Ales Michalevich, the first opposition figure to break ranks and declare his candidacy, said it was too late to select a single candidate: “We should have done it two or three years ago.” Jaroslav Romanchuk, the United Civil Party’s
Jaroslav Romanchuk
candidate, and Vital Rymashevski, the candidate of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party, suggest that different political views will appeal to different audiences, thereby strengthening the opposition. Alexei Yanukevich, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, defends its candidate, Rygor Kastusev, by claiming that only their party defends Belarus’ national interests.


rymashevsky_100Vital Rymashevski
But behind the political rhetoric, experts see a healthy dose of opportunism and ambition. Several of the candidates, such Andrei Sannikau and Mikola Statkevich, have track records of being unable to work with other parts of the opposition. Many in the opposition do not really believe that Lukashenka can be challenged this time around, despite the favorable circumstances. As a result, some believe it makes more sense to use this election as an opportunity
Rygor Kastusev
to build their own name recognition, rather than that of another opposition leader. This strategy is inspired by the example of Milinkevich, who rose from obscurity to the most recognized opposition politician at home and abroad after his 2006 bid.


Similarly, some party leaders have decided to run candidates from their own organizations. Not believing in victory, they conclude that it makes more sense to promote their own parties’

Andrei Sannikau
interests rather than a coalition candidate who would likely be a political opponent. These practical if somewhat cynical strategies have not gone without
Mikola Statkevich
comment by the candidates themselves. Statkevich described his counterparts as "extras in this theatrical performance." Michalevich said that he did not want to take part in a “TV competition of pre-election promises.” Milinkevich described this “political game” as a “beauty contest.”




Whatever the logic behind the decisions, the regime has artfully manipulated the opposition’s divisions. Unable to agree on a single candidate early enough so that person could consolidate his position, develop an effective platform, and reach out to the public, opposition leaders sought to peg the decision to certain campaign milestones. The plan as announced was that the single candidate would be chosen from among those who could assemble the largest initiative groups, those who were able to gather the required 100,000 signatures, or those who ended up being registered by the Central Election Commission. In response, the regime unexpectedly accepted almost every initiative group, signature, and candidate registration. Unlike in 2001 or 2006, there has been little pressure from the security services. Just about anyone who wanted to become a candidate became a candidate, including a few suspicious characters. Journalist Alyaksandr Klaskouski called it “theater of the absurd.”


This strategy has both foreign and domestic dimensions. It is the centerpiece of the regime’s decision to allow limited liberalization in order to improve relations with the West. While the mostly cosmetic thaw has proceeded in fits and starts since the EU-Belarus dialogue process began in fall 2008, European leaders have identified the presidential election as an important litmus test. The EU has declared that “clear and visible progress in the conduct of the election would give new impetus to the European Union’s engagement policy toward Belarus." Therefore the regime is permitting as many people as possible to take part in a staged democratic show. It is a more Euro-friendly version of the “counter-revolutionary technology” or “preemption” used to hobble the opposition in the past. Unable to agree on a single candidate, the opposition is dutifully playing its role.


On the home front, the regime’s strategy is to try to ensure that there will be no new face of the opposition for a dissatisfied public to rally around, as was the case in 2006. Rather than helping to create a new Milinkevich, the regime is angling for a return to the pre-2006 period, when the opposition was run by a committee of relative unknowns. A large field of contenders discredits the notion of an alternative to Lukashenka and makes it harder for an electorate that is seeking change to lodge a protest vote. As Russian commentator Denis Lavnikevich pointed out, “The decision to register almost everyone was not random. This makes it possible to ‘drown’ the stronger candidates among the weaker ones.” Against the backdrop of this “scattering of forces,” the incumbent occupies center stage.


Neither of these scenarios would play out as scripted if the opposition could get its act together. Showcasing a single candidate or even a joint message would portray strength and purpose. But Lukashenka knows his cast of characters well. With every “successful step” in the electoral process, the contenders have been encouraged to continue campaigning. Each candidate is being led to believe he is making an impact. As Lukashenka predicted, "hopes that the opposition will choose a single candidate … and squash the incumbent president are illusory."


Moving to Plan B, the candidates have adopted an increasingly minimalist strategy of common action. They have agreed to cooperate with one another, refrain from criticizing one another, and take part in an election day protest against what is expected to be a rigged result. But they have failed to honor even these promises. While Niakliaev and Sannikau held a press conference to announce a “Belarusian tandem,” the cooperation hasn’t extended much beyond the photo-op. The candidates have frequently attacked one another  and will debate one another – without Lukashenka present. Finally, for a 24 November protest that was described as a “dress rehearsal” for the 19 December opposition demonstration, only three of the candidates showed up. It seems clear that the opposition is aiding and abetting Lukashenka’s game plan. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Jan Maksymiuk calls it a “B movie comedy.”




The regime’s strategy has proved especially effective this year because the West has adopted a hands-off approach. In the past, foreign diplomats, donors, and groups active in Belarus have played a key role in smoothing over the divisions within democratic forces. In 2001, Western diplomats had to intercede and help negotiate the selection of Uladzimir Hancharyk as the common opposition candidate. Foreign groups worked closely with the opposition in brokering coalitions in 2004-2007, selection of a single opposition candidate in 2006, development of common opposition platforms, and creation of a common candidate list in 2008.


The outcome of the second opposition congress and withering away of the United Democratic Forces, however, have led to a decline in foreign interest in and support for a broad-based coalition. Dialogue with the EU and atomization of the opposition have resulted in closer Western ties to the regime and less faith in the opposition. In the run up to the 2010 election, changes in the assistance strategies of Western donors further reduced efforts and incentives to foster unity. There was no Western backing or push for a unified candidate process. At the same time, Russia apparently began supporting certain segments of the opposition. The inability of the democrats to come together and the lack of interest in Western partners to make it happen have produced some difficult moments in which candidates themselves have pleaded with foreign donors to force the issue. 




It’s a safe bet that the opposition will emerge from this election weaker. While a few of the candidates and their followers may benefit in the short run, the democratic movement as a whole seems to have regressed to the sad state of the late 1990s. The 2010 election presages the end of the United Democratic Forces and further decline of pro-democratic political parties, which have never been popular in Belarus. Less than 10 percent of the Belarusian public claims affiliation to parties and fewer than 1 percent are formal members. A June 2010 survey found that only 14 percent of respondents trusted opposition political parties, which ranked the lowest of 26 government and public institutions. As sociologist Oleg Manaev has noted, “their trust index has never been so low.”


Some observers argue that parties have been reinvigorated by the 2010 campaigns and are gaining valuable experience for the future. But with so any contenders and platforms, it is hard to see how individual parties can make their mark, especially since they remain based on personalities rather than ideas.  


A second problem for parties is that this year, as in 2006, the most popular, effective, and best funded opposition candidates are leaders of non-party civic movements. Recognizing this, many rank-and-file party members and even party leaders are actually working for these civic candidates rather than those from their own parties. There has been a sharp debate within the Belarusian Popular Front and United Civil Party over how to deal with these “party rebels.”


The third sector has also been divided and weakened, however. In past presidential elections, politically active NGOs generally united behind a candidate from their own ranks. A united third sector was the most active part of Milinkevich’s 2006 campaign. But with his decision not to run this year, many NGO activists are either sitting the election out or working for different candidates. At least three of the candidates come from NGOs, but none of these organizations has been able to unite the third sector behind its champion. A particularly divisive role has been played– perhaps deliberately – by Niakliaev’s Tell the Truth civic movement, which has attempted to buy the loyalty and services of other NGO and party activists.




A more dire consequence of the 2010 election may be a still further decline in public interest in the democratic opposition. Due to the regime’s repression and the opposition’s poor performance, the democratic movement is already almost invisible to the general public. In 2001 and 2006, a united voice at least offered a clearer choice. Even if Lukashenka allowed the registration of several real or false challengers prior to each election, the option was obvious: the candidate of the united opposition versus the incumbent.


This time, with nine challengers and several favorites, the picture is more clouded. While it is difficult to evaluate the impact of the candidates’ media appearances and debates, nine voices are bound to dilute any message beyond “Lukashenka must go.” The public appears to be following the “carnival-like campaign” with fascination, but it is doubtful whether the spectacle will translate into more support for the opposition as whole. You can hear complaints to the effect that there are nine candidates and no one to vote for. Media monitors report that, even as the campaign enters its final weeks, less is being written about the election in the independent media.


Outside of the narrow circle of opposition leaders, the domestic and international assessment of this campaign has been largely negative. Privately, activists admit their embarrassment and disillusionment with party leaders and opposition elites. While other sectors of civil society, such as the independent media and human rights community, have managed to work together and produce results, the politicians have reverted to the barren days of the 1990s. Although a single opposition candidate might be best for those seeking change in Belarus, it suits neither the opposition nor Lukashenka. For opposition figures, this election is about the future of leading the opposition, not about leading the country into the future.


Before this campaign has even ended, candidates are talking about the 2012 parliamentary elections.




With the opposition on course to hit rock bottom, there are some signs that something positive could emerge from this morass. The end of the United Democratic Forces, decline of political parties, failure of party leaders, and ineffectiveness of minor movements might spur changes within parties and across the political landscape. There is a real need for new leaders, the consolidation of groups, and the emergence of a more natural set of coalitions based on ideology.


This process has tentatively begun. On the left, five parties and trade unions have come together and developed a joint program. While the “Left Forces” have yet to find a candidate to support the program, they might after the election. On the right, a similar process has started. While sitting this election out, Milinkevich is building a coalition of parties and movements under a common platform for future reform.  


The opposition’s foreign partners must also rethink their strategies for Belarus. On an official level, governments should use the limited liberalization to push the regime to resume registering parties, NGOs, trade unions, and other independent structures, which will reduce the current infighting and help the opposition to break out of its “democratic ghetto.”  In terms of civil society, donors and groups working in the country should help strengthen political party and other opposition structures in ways that will build cooperation rather than competition. No unified opposition or single candidate is likely to emerge in Belarus without Western assistance.


Despite the opposition’s miscues, the regime is unlikely to benefit substantially from this election, even if it is judged to be an improvement by the EU. Lukashenka’s dance with Europe, disputes with Russia, and declining economic fortunes will continue. The question isn’t if the regime’s problems will offer further opportunities, but whether the opposition can mend its ways and take advantage of them. Coming up with a common post-election response would be a nice first step.

Rodger Potocki is director for Europe at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C., where he also oversees the NED’s Belarus program. TOL receives some grant funds from the NED.

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