Candlelight ceremony during Easter. Cathedral in Vitebsk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Candlelight ceremony during Easter. Cathedral in Vitebsk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Okategoriserade The Covid-19 Pandemic in Belarus: Wither the Social Contract?

As the citizens in this time of crisis have found they have to take responsibility for their own and others wellbeing the social contract could potentially be considered broken, or at least breaking. Perhaps this in fact the reason the Belarusian authorities have found themselves faced with a unique volatile situation as the general frustration over how they handled the Covid-19 situation is spilling over to the ongoing presidential election campaign.

Published on balticworlds.com on June 16, 2020

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Belarus’ Covid-19 Response: Hockey Games, Parades, and Everything in Between

“It is better to die standing than to live on your knees.” This was how the long-term President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka explained to a journalist why he decided to participate in an ice hockey game in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic. This interview where Lukashenka sarcastically pointed out he personally saw no viruses “flying around” in the hockey rink and suggested the cold air in the arena was as like an anti-virus drug[1] went viral. Likewise it has been hard to miss his many other creative recommendations for protecting yourself from Covid-19 – like taking a shot of vodka every day, visiting the sauna[2] and driving a tractor.[3] Besides this the Belarusian authorities have issued few general recommendations. Unlike the Swedish government, which also refrained from a major lock down of the country, barely any public measures have been imposed on Belarusian public life on the national level to ensure social distancing and stop the spread of the virus. In order to save an already struggling economy the Belarusian leaders opted to keep society open: the soccer league kept playing, borders did not close, there were no official restrictions in visiting restaurants, shops, churches or museums. The most astonishing manifestation of this openness was Lukashenka’s decision to go against the stream and not cancel the annual Victory Day Military Parade despite most other post-Soviet states doing so (the only other exception being Turkmenistan). Subsequently some 3000 soldiers, including many elderly war veterans, marched in Minsk to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Nazi-Germany’s defeat in front of tens of thousands of spectators. Overall, Victory Day is one of the most important secular holidays in the post-Soviet space, but more than that the choice to go ahead with the parade is a striking illustration of the vast symbolic significance of the so-called Great Patriotic War in the political rhetoric of the Lukashenka regime. This rhetoric has managed to intrinsically link the Belarusian past with the war and establish it as a corner stone of Belarusian national identity.[4] Tellingly, this issue is often described as taboo in the public discourse and as such has had led to confrontations between the authorities and oppositional actors questioning the parameters of the state’s narrative. In the light of this participants of the parade most likely had little real choice. Even though they might have been reluctant to take part in this event at this time, non-participation is hardly an option for someone in an authoritarian regime who does not want his or her loyalty for the President questioned. Still it appears the symbolism of the event might have come with a cost. Insisting on the parade being held signaled to many the authorities cared more about their own prestige than about protecting the innocent old people who are in fact particularly vulnerable to this disease. Thus, after this event even more Belarusians seem to be openly skeptic to their government’s approach to the crisis. [5]

In Lieu of State Support Citizens Take Responsibility

Although their President’s unique approach to the corona virus seems to have provided every media outlet in the world with blockbusting headlines the citizens of Belarus appear to be less amused. At the time of writing Belarus has reported nearly 55000[6] cases and, just as in other countries, there are many social media testimonies of hospital staff struggling because of heavy workloads and lack of necessary equipment. “Politicians and bureaucrats seem to live in a different reality than the medical staff and people at large  – the one shown on TV where everything is fine and the health care system is working perfectly,” explains Andrei Tkachev, one of the activists behind  #bycovid19 – a crowdfunding platform collecting and distributing protective clothing and equipment to health care workers all over the country.[7] The impression that the state is ignoring the severity of the situation has resulted in a massive mobilization of individuals, businesses and organizations. #Bycovid19[8] is just one of numerous initiatives launched to provide various types of financial, technical and informational support to those who are fighting the virus. The many requests for assistance submitted to these campaigns, as well as the large funds gathered to respond to them, indicates that despite Lukashenka seemingly not taking the Covid-19 crisis seriously – as for example indicated by him repeatedly referring to it as a ‘psychosis’ – the disease is certainly real to the people of Belarus.

Moreover, a large part of the population is not as lax as their president in relation to Covid-19. Many decided to socially distance themselves voluntarily as well as practice other globally acknowledged preventive measures like wearing a mask and use hand sanitizers. A survey conducted in April also indicates many would have like to see tougher measures to stop the spread of the virus, such as a ban on all public events, closing educational institutions, and letting anyone who can work from home. A large majority of those polled expected (correctly it would appear) the pandemic situation to worsen in the near future.[9] To some extent the observation many in Belarus seem to ignore their government and their ‘ideas’ is not exactly something new. Albeit some marginalized groups publically demand reforms the majority of the population simply seems to have accepted the political status quo of the past 25 years – despite certainly being aware they live in an authoritarian state. This passivity has been explained as the result of a Soviet style ‘social contract’ between Lukashenka and the people – offering state-sponsored benefits in exchange for loyalty.[10] Taken to its extreme this means that as long as the citizens stay out of the ‘dirty’ field of politics they are taken care of and do not necessarily even ‘notice’ they live in an authoritarian state.[11] As the citizens in this time of crisis have found they have to take responsibility for their own and others wellbeing the social contract could potentially be considered broken, or at least breaking. Perhaps this in fact the reason the Belarusian authorities have found themselves faced with a unique volatile situation as the general frustration over how they handled the Covid-19 situation is spilling over to the ongoing presidential election campaign.

Election during a Pandemic: Unexpected Candidates and Unusual Participation

Elections in Belarus are usually of little interest to anyone. Subsequently, when the Belarusian authorities decided not to postpone this year’s presidential elections, but even hold them two weeks ahead of schedule – on August 9, they probably expected business as usual, e.g. that Lukashenka would easily secure his 6th term in office with any major complications. None of the election held since Lukashenka came to power in 1994 has been described as “free and fair” by international standards and among the populations elections are largely seen as a game or a play starring only state- and oppositional actors. Just as politics is seen as ‘dirty,’ the phenomenon of ‘opposition’ has also become contaminated in this context. A weak opposition is held responsible for missing the window of opportunity of the ‘color revolution era,’ and as such has become discredited. The general feeling among the population there are no alternatives to existing arrangements contributed to the resigned acceptance allowing Lukashenka to hold on to power for 26 years. Therefore the large number of representatives of the ‘traditional opposition’ among the 15 contenders currently collecting signature to eventually register as presidential candidates did not render neither surprise nor excitement. Yet, the decision of Viktar Babaryko, the former chairman of the board of Belgazprombank, and Valery Tsapkala, earlier Belarusian ambassador to the United States, and the founder of High Technologies Park in Minsk to join the 2020 Election Game became breaking news. Being seen as part of the ‘establishment’ rather than the ‘opposition’ appears to make these two alternative candidates the most convincing electoral challenge to Lukashenka the Belarusians has seen in many years.

To officially register for the presidential race the nominees must collect 100,000 signatures in support of their candidacy by June 19. While typically the collection of signatures is a tedious procedure, especially in the early summer months when people would rather enjoy the nice weather in their gardens than being bothered to think about pointless elections, this year it is said to be fast and painless. Babaryka in particular has reported huge successes and is expected to be able to easily present the requested number of signatures – and more. In addition, when video blogger Syarhei Tsikhanouski in early May announced he would also run for president his campaign, with the slogan “Stop the Cockroach,” quickly became vastly popular. Not surprisingly he was arrested on bogus charges shortly after leaving his wife Svyatlana to register in his place. In an amazing turn of events the previously apolitical Belarusian voters have been lining up in unprecedented numbers all over the country to sign for her candidacy and show their support for the campaign[12], many carrying flip flops symbolically used to ‘kill the cockroach’.

Similar to Babaryka and Tsapkala, Tsikhanouski is not perceived as ‘oppositional’ in the conventional sense. Prior to announcing his candidacy he was travelling around the country collecting stories about what ‘real people really thought about their country’ posting them on them on his YouTube channel ‘A Country for [Real] Life’.[13] The messages he broadcasted were ripe with frustration and resignation. People was seemingly silently suffering from the country’s economic problems, likely to get worse as relations with Russia deteriorates, but having no hopes anything could be done to change their situation.[14] Interestingly still, a protest spirit appears to have been brewing in certain parts of the Belarusian society for some time. Recent years have seen as a number of influential local protests occurring against specific issues such as the so called ‘parasite tax’ (a tax on unemployment) and the construction of a Chinese-funded battery factory in Brest. While these protests have shown at least parts of the population are not willing to accept any kind of behavior from the state they have so far not turned into electoral participation on any larger scale. To this end it does appear the Belarusian government’s irresponsible handling of the Covid-19 crisis became the catalyst, albeit one that was made possible only by new players, considered more credible by the voters than the usual suspects, entering ‘the election game.’

Is the Covid-19 Situation Threatening Lukashenka’s Rule?

More than one observer has predicted the Belarusian authorities handling of the Covid-19 pandemic might be a ‘Chernobyl moment’ for the regime. By sticking their head in the sand and not accepting the severity of the threat from the virus they risk ending up with a much bigger crisis on their hands. The already strained economy will suffer if the humanitarian crisis escalates. This will weaken the system enough for ‘external forces’ wanting to gain influence to potentially get easy access. Likewise it will be hard to fend off domestic challengers as they can easily point to the inefficiency of the current policies.[15] Seemingly the latter is already happening. However, despite the energetic campaign atmosphere it still of course remains to be seen who will eventually be on the ballot in August. After June 19 it is up to the Central Election Commission, chaired by the notorious Lidziya Yarmoshyna, who has been on her post almost as long as Lukashenka has been in power, to determine the ‘legitimacy’ of the signatures and decide who is ultimately allowed to run in the elections. Cynics already predict only ‘safe’ (and according to some ‘fake’) opposition candidates will be registered like Andrey Dzmitryeu, co-chairman of the movement ’Tell the Truth,’ and Hanna Kanapatskaya, former member of the United Civic Party who was ‘selected’ for the Parliament in 2016.[16] Others have drawn parallels to the 2010 presidential election when a large number of alternative candidates were allowed to register but Lukashenka, of course, won nonetheless.[17] Although this is equally likely to be the outcome in 2020 hopefully there will be no repetition of the disastrous 2010 Election Day leaving six hundred people arrested, including seven of the nine candidates, and many badly injured as the police violently dispersed the protests against the election results.

There are signs Lukashenka becoming increasingly aware of his potential vulnerability and is taking measures to protect himself from ‘electoral surprises.’ Not only has he, yet again, stated there will be no coups or ‘Maidans’ in Belarus,[18] he has also effectively banned online election polls – after getting notoriously low ratings.[19] Since May a large number of protesters, bloggers, journalists and other government critics have been arrested, including Tikhanovsky and many of his supporters. As Babaryka has been gaining popularity Lukashenka has been publically accusing him of corruption at the same time as the offices of the local Gazprombank unit, of which Babaryka was previously the head, were raided in a sudden tax evasion case.

As for Lukashenka’s approach to Covid-19 he has conspicuously toned down his rhetoric recently. There are no more jokes and sarcasms and he has even taken to confessing that the Belarusian healthcare system is in fact struggling, but that the authorities are taking all possible measures to address the issues identified as problematic.[20] Nevertheless he cannot let go of the idea that the pandemic is not only a disease but has equally as much to do with politics. [21] In a recent interview he went as far as suggesting Belarus is currently experiencing four “pandemics” – in healthcare, economics, politics, and in the information field.[22] For an outside observer it appears the two latter are less pandemics than nails in Lukashenka’s eye. It is on the aspiring political scene citizens are increasingly striving to hold the president and his regime accountable for an approach to the current crisis they see as unacceptable. The informational sphere is in important tool in this process and it is also fueling citizen mobilization and collaboration in response to the insecurity of the times. Eventually this development could be what breaks the already fragile social contract as Lukashenka is loosing whatever credibility he has left in the eyes of the people. Keeping in mind this kind of political change in hegemonic authoritarian regimes like Belarus is unlikely to happen overnight the recent increase in both political participation and civic activism should be seen as a positive sign. Sound, visible, continuous political activity is crucial for countering political apathy and – ultimately – challenging the long overdue status quo.

References

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BahmPnzBkr4

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqH41yL64m8

[3] https://youtu.be/zRaCyohCsto

[4] Rudling, Per. ““For a Heroic Belarus!”: The Great Patriotic War as Identity Marker in the Lukashenka and Soviet Belarusian Discourses.” Sprawy Narodowościowe 32 (2008): 43-62.

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08fdwxb.

[6] https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/belarus/. I am merely giving this number to illustrate the existence of the virus in Belarus in rather large numbers and am not trying to suggest for example it is higher there than anywhere else. Corona data has shown extremely hard to compare as it depends on testing patters and other factors. Moreover, it is believed doctors in Belarus out of fear for repercussions underreport both the number of infected and number of covid-19 related deaths, thus many take this figure, just as all official statistics in authoritarian states, with a grain of salt.

[7] https://p.dw.com/p/3bBqa

[8] https://bycovid19.com/eng/

[9] https://satio.by/novosti/issledovanie-kak-zhiteli-belarusi-reagirujut-na-koronavirus/

[10] Klymenko. L. & S. Gherghinab. 2012. ”Determinants of Positive Attitudes towards an Authoritarian Regime: The Case of Belarus.” The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review 39.

[11] Bedford, Sofie. “” The Election Game:” Authoritarian Consolidation Processes in Belarus.” Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 25.4 (2017): 381-405.

[12] https://belsat.eu/en/news/hundreds-line-up-all-over-country-to-sign-for-candidates/

[13] https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFPC7r3tWWXWzUIROLx46mg

[14] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/04/belarus-protest-vote-lukashenko-stop-cockroach/

[15] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/12/opinions/vitali-shkliarov-belarus-covid-19-chernobyl/index.htmlhttps://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/belarusians-left-facing-covid-19-alone

[16] https://twitter.com/TadeuszGiczan/status/1270690548937080832

[17] https://twitter.com/mattchik/status/1268832079044894723

[18] https://belsat.eu/en/news/lukashenka-vows-to-prevent-coups-or-maidans-in-belarus/

[19] https://nn.by/?c=ar&i=252844

[20] http://president.gov.by/ru/video_ru/getRecord/705068/

[21] http://president.gov.by/ru/news_ru/view/poseschenie-minskogo-traktornogo-zavoda-23712/

[22] https://www.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-my-pokazali-chto-belarus-stojkaja-mudraja-i-mozhet-spravljatsja-s-pandemiej-393754-2020/

 

  • by Sofie Bedford

    PhD in Political Science from Stockholm University. Researcher at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University (IRES) and a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, Vienna University.

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