Lukashenko’s puppet games
Excessive numbers of candidates for any office seem to be a healthy symptom of every respectable democracy. This election season, the incumbent president of Belarus running for the fifth term is facing several opponents. However, at least one of them seems to be only a dummy candidate.
Right now, the number of presidential candidates in the United States exceeds 10, and by no means is it a record. The least eye-catching candidates may surprise us with their determination. Not only do they achieve their secondary political goals, such as the promotion of themselves, their parties, or a stronger position in the broadly understood political structures, but they actually win. This took place in May 2015, when Andrzej Duda, who was a rather unknown political figure, was elected the President of the Republic of Poland.
Presidential elections, and in truth any elections – happen in a dynamic and rapidly changing divided scene, where political forces are born and independence is fought for. A new start is a symptom of healthy opportunism, courage, and independent thought. In the end, when all think alike, no one thinks very much.
It seems that the above sentence is an excellent start of a discussion about candidates in presidential elections in Belarus in general – going back to voting in 2006. For more than 15 years, this has also been the case of parliamentary elections. Every election in which Sergei Gaidukevich is a candidate.
For almost 20 years, Alexander Lukashenko has been repeating that "he is not afraid of opposition, and this is an example and a basis for democracy which is the foundation for the functioning of his country". Moreover, he has repeatedly and publicly encouraged others to participate in the elections and meet him in a battle "as equals" (in his own words).
To prove his courage, now – as in the previous years – the procedure of registration and collection of signatures to support candidates is the most transparent element of campaigns in this country. The collection of the required 100 000 signatures is another issue. This turns out to be a rather difficult problem, and the state apparatus is well trained. The necessary numbers are usually secured by "selected" candidates. This was the case in 2006, 2010, and it seems that 2015 is not different.
Gaidukevich, the eternal runner
Sergei Gaidukevich was born in 1954 in Minsk, and almost from the beginning his career was connected with the army. He graduated from the Higher Anti-Aircraft Missile Engineering School, and immediately started his service with the Soviet Army. There, he was promoted to the rank of sub-colonel. One of his main achievements was the position of military advisor in Iraq in the early 1980s. The fall of the USSR and the early 1990s were not the happiest times for Gaidukevich. Until 1994, he held minor positions.
A milestone in his career was the Liberal Democratic Party; he became its leader in 1995. And the association of the name of this party with its Russian equivalent – headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky – is fully justified, as is the political role of the leaders of both groups.
Both parties promote a similar programme, supporting integration within the former USSR, and revisionism. Both are like a well-oiled propaganda machine of large coalition members. All in all, both leaders have the same task: to say the things which the central authorities cannot express, and what some of the more radical citizens would like to hear. Both parties have yet another common denominator. They are not familiar with the term 'diplomacy'. However, the parties differ in terms of the place of their leaders on the political scene. Contrary to Zhirinovsky, Gaidukevich is not well-known for harsh statements; this is the task of other party figures. Generally, his does not stand out. He is one of many devoted members of the apparatus.
Since 2004, when following a national referendum Alexander Lukashenko was given the opportunity to participate in the elections once again, Gaidukevich has been present, on and off, depending on the circumstances and on the need to fight the opposition with fierce campaign rhetoric. He is there for Lukashenko to make sure that the latter would not be a sole candidate.
After the President of Belarus, this is the second person to announce his participation in the upcoming elections. As Lukashenko puts it, "there is nothing wrong with opposition, provided that they know the meaning of wellbeing of the nation and the country and know their place".
The proper care and feeding of dummy candidates
Gaidukevich came on the political scene of Belarus even earlier than in 1995. However, his loyalty underwent the most difficult test in 2006. Two years after the referendum which extended Lukashenko's term of office, the situation in Belarus was the least stable since 1994.
First of all, this was the time of colour revolutions – the situation in Georgia became more serious, and Lukashenko faced a challenge which required him to confirm the legitimacy of the referendum. In fact, it had no impact on the relations with the West, but could have intensified the opposition activities in the country.
Looking back at the events in 2006, Ales Bialiatski, one of the major opposition candidates at that time, as the only person since the Lukashenko-Kebich confrontation, stood a chance (although a slight one) of posing a threat to Lukashenko. In such circumstances, Gaidukevich's role served two purposes. The first one was to separate the image of the Liberal-Democratic Party from the rest of the regime groups. The other one was to take as many votes away from Ales Bialiatski as possible.
Gaidukevich fulfilled his role pretty well. He obtained 3.5 percent of all votes, which is not the worst result in Belarus. At the final stage of the campaign, the Liberal-Democratic Party candidate gave up his fake opposition image and started accusing all of his opponents (except Lukashenko) of acting to the detriment of the state. He was aggressive and provocative. In the last days, this gave Lukashenko the opportunity to build an image of a person who cares about the unity of the nation, is above divisions and strives to maintain the country's independence. Thanks to Gaidukevich, Lukashenko had the political cover. To show that democracy was strong, Lukashenko's supporters started rumours that even the president voted for Gaidukevich as the only reasonable opposition candidate. He was rewarded for that – soon after the elections, he became the MFA Special Representative responsible for communications with EU.
In 2010, his role was much less important. He decided not to run for presidency, but this did not mean that his attacks against opposition stopped. In fact, precisely the reverse happened.
In October this year, Sergei Gaidukevich is going to be a presidential candidate again. This will be his third start, and his fourth registration by the State Electoral Commission. His importance for the electoral process in Belarus is difficult to hide. He is Lukashenko's safety anchor, yet he gets the votes of those who do not wish to support the regime any longer.
Seeking a successor?
In the meantime, the candidacy of Tatiana Karatkevich is already surrounded by rumours and uncertainty. She has been harshly criticised by Mikola Statkevich, a former political prisoner. Karatkevich maintains that she has no association with the regime, although she uses a mild tone in dealing with Lukashenko and the current situation in the country. The question that will linger after the elections is: will she end as a new Gaidukevich, a candidate whose role is to give credibility to the elections in the eyes of observers and the EU states?