Encroaching economic crisis prompts Belarusian authorities to schedule presidential elections in October
Amid deteriorating economic environment and growing social tension due to reducing wages and mass layoffs, the Belarusian authorities are pondering about holding the presidential elections in October. President Lukashenka has enlisted the Kremlin’s support and non-interference with the presidential campaign. In addition, he is counting on the absence of serious criticism from Western capitals for the elections’ organization. Earlier election date would somewhat complicate campaigning for the opposition, however, some opposition organisations have already stated their readiness to start the campaign.
After a meeting with the president, CEC Chairman Lydia Yarmoshina said that she proposed to hold presidential elections in Belarus on October 11th, 2015.
De jure, the presidential election in Belarus should be held no later than November 21st, 2015. Previously, the CEC talked about November 15th as the possible election date. Should the authorities decide to hold the elections on October 11th, the Parliament may declare the start of the campaign on June 30th.
Formally, the CEC has explained the rescheduling of the elections to an earlier date by the desire to announce the elections during a regular parliamentary session and by compliance with some norms of the Constitution.
Meanwhile, many experts agree that the elections may be held earlier due to the lack of resources to support people’s well-being and socio-economic development, as well as due to growing tension in the society amid lower salaries, stoppages, reduced working hours and layoffs.
Despite the fact that President Lukashenka noted the lack of additional funds for the presidential campaign, he assured voters that “[elections] shall be worthy, as before”. In fact, the state has some internal reserves to buy the loyalty of the population before the elections, which have been saved by the Government and the National Bank through tight fiscal and monetary policies in H1 2015. The Finance Ministry reported, that as of May 1st, 2015, the state budget surplus totalled BYR 15.4 trillion rubles, or 6.1% of GDP.
Prior to the CEC statement about the possible election date, Belarusian Foreign Minister Makey visited Moscow and met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. During the visit, he once again reassured the Kremlin of Belarus’ support at the international level and of a strategic partnership within the framework of the Belarus-Russia Union State. In response, Russian Ambassador to Belarus Alexander Surikov confirmed that he saw no alternative to Lukashenka and assured of support for him during the elections: “as citizens of a different country we have no right to campaign for him, but we shall support Lukashenka”.
President Lukashenka also requested the government to open the electoral process to domestic and international observers, however without changing the established election practices, which ensure his presidency: “We will not refuse anyone to observe the elections, including domestic and external observers. I would only ask not to make promises we cannot keep or experiment outside the legal field”. According to CEC Chairman Lydia Yarmoshina, after the election date is approved, Belarus would invite international observers from the OSCE, CIS and the Council of Europe.
Earlier election date would somewhat complicate campaigning for the opposition parties. One of the most important election stages, i.e. collecting signatures in support for the nomination of presidential candidates, would be held in August, which is a holiday season in Belarus. Candidates, such as Tatsiana Korotkevich from the ‘People’s Referendum’, Anatoly Lebedko from the United Civil Party and Sergei Kaliakin from the ‘Fair World’ party, would be the most prepared for the elections, since they have already started the preparations.
Overall, the Belarusian authorities aim to keep the elections low-profile and not to politicise them too much, which would create unfavourable conditions for alternative candidates. In addition, official Minsk anticipates keeping the campaign under control without undue violence against opponents, especially on the election day, thereby hoping that international observers would recognise some progress in the election process.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.