Birth of a true statesman. Interview
Presidential elections in Belarus are approaching rapidly. Igor Sokołowski, author of a popular book “Belarus for beginners”, explains the context in an exclusive interview for Belarus Votes blog.
What kind of role the elections are playing in the Belarusian political system? What significance they have for an authoritarian regime?
Theoretically, according to a popular opinion in western Europe, elections in Belarus are established to show the democratic face of a non-democratic state. Politicians, experts and commentators in Europe used to believe it a play staged almost exclusively for them. But in my opinion it is a wrong approach. Elections in Belarus are used as a tool in internal policy. Official results confirm Alexander Lukashenko’s unquestionable leadership and position in the state’s political hierarchy, perfectly demonstrating the impotence of Belarusian opposition’s. Democratic communities, while facing the need of choosing a joint candidate, usually divide into fractions, which is convenient for the president.
Is a replay of the violent scenario of 2010 even possible?
The elections in 2010 were very specific. I found Lukashenko’s reaction irrational and inadequate to what has actually happened. Dispersal of demonstration in Minsk as well as repressions against opposition candidates were like bringing a gun to a knife-fight. It was an unnecessary mistake. Lukashenko again revealed his dictatorial face gained nothing that he couldn’t get by other non-violent means. During these elections the president will prevent such accidents. I also doubt that the opposition is strong enough to set a demonstration as powerful 5 years ago. Repeating the 2010 is hardly possible.
Is there anything significant change in Belarusian governance system over last 5 years?
Absolutely nothing has changed in Lukashenko’s perception of internal policy. Eventual corrections in the state’s policy are triggered by temporary needs and do not indicate any fundamental change in the logic of the Belarusian system. Lukashenko is still an undisputed leader and the political system is still vertical – a pyramid with a president on its top. The state substance remains intact.
Apparently, this year's elections will be held in a shadow of events in Ukraine. Would they affect the whole procedure?
Events in Ukraine have dramatically changed Belarusians’ view on international relations, especially among their closest neighbors. Firstly, a significant part of the society started to treat Russia a as potential aggressor. Secondly, Lukashenko’s promises to preserve peace, previously ridiculed by the West, proved to be quite sound. While Europe praised Ukraine for another revolutions (which actually only weakened the country), Lukashenko has been consistently implementing his so-called “stabilization policy”. In the end, he managed to keep peace having a state in war as a neighbour. Belarusians in majority appreciate that and understand that a stable system under Lukashenko’s rule is the best guarantee of avoiding catastrophe.
Lukashenka has proven to be a visionary politician and right now he is on his way to be remembered in history as a true statesman. Moreover, he played a significant role in peace talks concerning Ukraine. Belarus did not cease diplomatic contacts with Kyiv and therefore Lukashenka is now the only European politician who keeps good relations with both presidents – Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin.
Minsk used to be a city with a very little meaning to the West – now eyes of entire Europe are focused on the Belarusian capital as the centre for negotiating place. Paradoxically, Lukashenka has become the biggest winner of this conflict without being directly involved in it. This will also impact the Belarusian discourse on current elections.
How the present situation inside the Union State of Russia and Belarus can influence the elections? Will both sides try to play their own games?
Yes. For example, Moscow used to hint about its readiness to support some of opposition candidates. Meanwhile it would delay its decision to officially support Lukashenko. During last elections there were rumours that Vladimir Nieklayev was to receive political and financial backing from Kremlin, followed by publications deprecating the leader of Belarus in Russian media. Yet right before the elections Russia dispelled any doubts and officially went back to supporting the incumbent president.
Are we to witness a similar scenario?
Russian ambassador in Belarus has officially announced Kremlin’s support for Lukashenko at the very beginning of the campaign. Russia, however, still has some tools to exert pressure on Belarus…
And how would the elections affect relations between Belarus and the European Union? Shall we expect “a new opening”?
Yes we shall, but not in a form of revolution. I would rather say that we will face a rerun of Belarusian–Western cooperation – sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but always dependent on Lukashenko’s current needs. The same story goes with the Belarusian – Russian relations. If we presented both relations on a graph, we would see 2 perfect sinusoids always travelling in opposite directions. When Lukashenko’s relations with Putin deteriorate – he turns Europe. When Europe starts to raise demands which are inconvenient for the Belarusian president – he goes back to Russia. That is the one thing that we can predict for the voting and the post-election periods.