Protest rally against Lukashenko, 16 August. Minsk, Belarus. PHOTO: Homoatrox

Protest rally against Lukashenko, 16 August. Minsk, Belarus. PHOTO: Homoatrox

Election The Tsikhanauskaya Effect: How an Accidental Heroine Transformed the Belarusian 2020 Presidential Election.

While in the past there has generally been an atmosphere of resigned acceptance after the election, this time countless Belarusians went out on the streets to contest the results. The dynamics of the protest clearly illustrate its main goal is not to ensure Svitlana Tsikhanauskaya becomes the head of state, but rather to guarantee Lukashenka does not stay in this position. One factor that played a particularly important role was the way that President Lukashenka was handling the COVID-19 crisis. Nonetheless, it was Tsikhanauskaya’s campaign that made people actually vote – because it gave them hope they could influence political affairs.

Published on balticworlds.com on September 7, 2020

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On August 9, Presidential Elections were held in Belarus. To some extent electoral developments largely resembled those of the country’s past five elections, none of which have come even close to being free and fair by international standards. After an election day marred with blatant fraud and many other violations the official results gave Aleksandr Lukashenka 80% of the popular vote, compared to Tsikhanauskaya’s 10%, thus meaning Lukashenka had been reelected for a sixth term in office. However, this is where the similarities with previous elections end. While in the past there has generally been an atmosphere of resigned acceptance after the election, this time countless Belarusians went out on the streets to contest the aforementioned results. Nearly a month later they are still protesting. The question is what made this election so different? The simple answer is there was a candidate, Svitlana Tsikhanauskaya, who arose as the promise of change the Belarusians have been waiting for. Yet, it becomes increasingly clear Tsikhanauskaya was an accidental heroine, and focusing on her persona will not help us better understand this development. Instead we should consider the various factors, which together contributed to making her a serious contender to Lukashenka and by facilitating a ‘political awakening’ of the population.

The handling of the coronavirus

One factor that played a particularly important role was the coronavirus. The way that President Lukashenka was handling the COVID-19 crisis indicated to the Belarusian people he was not taking it seriously. While he was joking about the pandemic and calling it a ‘psychosis’ they saw the virus and its effects as an actual threat. The fact the authorities were perceived as ignoring the situation gave rise to vast community mobilization. Volunteers were not only producing masks, but were also collecting an enormous amount of material and money through various citizen initiatives to support health care workers and others fighting the virus. The bottom line is that people felt as though they had to take matters in their own hands, simply because they could no longer not trust their president and his administration to handle their concerns.[1] It was truly unfortunate for Lukashenka this all happened during an election year. The Belarusian authorities made a – for them – devastating decision not to postpone the election even though it could have easily been done in light of the global pandemic. For good reasons, they expected business as usual, i.e. that Lukashenka would easily secure his renewed term in office without major complications. As we all know by now, they severely misjudged the situation. Traditionally elections in Belarus meant nothing. People in general might not especially like Lukashenka, but they do not trust anyone from the so-called opposition either. The general feeling that there are no alternatives to the current regime has allowed Lukashenka to hold on to power for 26 years, and has additionally kept the autocratic system in place. In this context, another factor that affected the situation and contributed to the politicization of the population was the entry of three new ‘players’ into the ‘election game:’ Viktar Babaryko, the former chairman of the board of Belgazprombank, Valery Tsapkala, earlier Belarusian ambassador to the United States, and the founder of High Technologies Park in Minsk and Syarhei Tsikhanouski, a popular video blogger who ran the YouTube channel entitled: ‘A Country for Life’. When the latter was imprisoned; the campaign was taken over by his wife: Svitlana Tsikhanauskaya.

Commonly collecting the 100,000 signatures needed to register one’s candidacy in the election is described as a tedious process. To the contrary, none of these three had any problem to this end, which can partly be explained by the atmosphere of activism and mobilization that had gripped society in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, to a certain degree, it can be attributed to the fact that neither Tsikhanouskaya, Babaryka, nor Tsapkala were perceived as ‘oppositional’ in the conventional sense. Therefore, their candidacies were seen as more credible – as potentially posing a realistic challenge to Lukashenka. Clearly Lukashenka realized this as well. Babaryka and Tsapkala, who as part of the political elite were seen as most threatening, were barred from contention – their participation in the election was not approved. Babaryka was even imprisoned, clearly on fallacious and fraudulent charges. Tsikhanouskaya was, surprisingly enough, allowed to stay in the presidential race. This is curious since the collection of signatures had made it explicitly clear that she enjoyed large support among the population. All over the country people were lining up in unprecedented numbers to express their support for her campaign. One theory is that: Lukashenka’s administration most likely underestimated her because she was a woman. Being a ‘stay-at-home-mom’ with no prior political experience, previously working as a teacher, they mistakenly thought she would not be able to capitalize on this popular support. Perhaps she would not have been able to on her own, but after failing to register their candidacies Babaryka and Tsapkala’s teams officially joined her election campaign. This is when the Tsikhanouskaya phenomenon really took off. Suddenly, the challenge of Lukashenka’s rule became visual and tangible through the joint efforts of three women: Svitlana Tsikhanauskaya, Veronica Tsapkala (Tsapkala’s wife) and Maria Kolesnikova (Babaryka’s campaign manager). It would not be an exaggeration to say that these women and this campaign came to embody a glimpse of hope for change, something most Belarusian had started to think they would never experience.

Tsikhanousky  and the ‘Stop the Cockroach’ campaign

The brilliant visualization and clever framing of Tsikhanauskaya’s campaign is yet another significant part of the success story. Seemingly, the campaign appears to have capitalized on a growing gap between an open-minded population ready for transformation of Belarusian society and an archaic president who is afraid of change and progress in any form.[2] Both the official campaign material and ‘unofficial’ material flourishing online convincingly presented the three ladies as beautiful, strong, smart and invincible. This imagery reinforced a notion that this time the challenge of Lukashenka’s rule might, actually, be successful and lead to real change. As for Lukashenka, the internet, exploded with images that portrayed him as being out of touch, weak and lacking popularity, which was quite a contrast from Tsikhanauskaya. It started with Tsikhanousky making ‘Stop the Cockroach’ the slogan of his election campaign. The background was his interview with an angry old lady comparing Lukashenka to a cockroach, stating that “the only way to get rid of such pests was to slap them with a flip flop!” This conceptualization continued to be important and many even brought flip flops or slippers to rallies. After independent Belarusian media published the result of informal election polls, suggesting Lukashenka’s support among the population might be extremely low, this gave way to a range of hugely popular memes mockingly referring to Lukashenka as: “Sasha 3%” (Sasha being short for Aleksandr). Although nobody truly believes 80 percent of the population voted for Lukashenka; there is little trustworthy information about precisely how unpopular the authoritarian system actually is. To this end, memes such as these were not only a way to make people laugh, they were also spreading the message Lukashenka’s supporters were in minority. In this sense they contributed to making political change appear possible and within reach, which certainly strengthened Tsikhanauskaya’s position.

In general, it was an unusually active election campaign, both online and offline, that featured several interesting initiatives. Voters were, for example, encouraged to register their vote on the platforms Golos (Vote), Zubr, Chestnye Liudi (Honest People), to later be able to compare this outcome with the official count. Likewise people tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to get selected to local election commissions to document and prevent electoral fraud. What is specifically striking is the participation in these initiatives of large numbers of Belarusians who previously were apathetic about elections and politics. The same can be said for the prodigious electoral rallies in support of Tsikhanauskaya. In what has been called a ‘summer of protests’ an unprecedented number of people joined these spectacular events, which took place all over the country. When over 60,000 people gathered in Minsk’s Park of Peoples’ Friendship on July 30, this was possibly the largest political event Belarus had seen since 1991. After this event, the authorities put a stop to these assemblies using a variety of excuses. In Minsk, they simply replaced the remainder of her rallies with government-organized events. When Tsikhanauskaya’s supporters, who were not discouraged, crashed one such government event, one of the most powerful campaign moments was generated. On their own initiative the event’s two DJs started to play the song ‘Peremen’ [Changes] by the Soviet rock band Kino, which had become the anthem of the ‘summer of protests.’ Thousands of people in the crowd sang along with the chorus as one of organizers desperately tried to pull the plug to the speaker to stop the music:

“Changes!
It’s the demand of our hearts.
Changes!
It’s the demand of our eyes.
In our laughter, in our tears, and the pulse in our veins.
Changes!
We wait for changes…[3]

 

This extraordinary electoral participation persevered on Election Day as well. In an attempt to make it more difficult to falsify the results, Tsikhanauskaya’s supporters had been encouraged to vote as late as possible. Thus, towards the evening, long lines to the polling stations began to form in numerous Belarusian cities, as well as abroad in front of embassies. Several of those waiting were wearing a white bracelet – a symbol for Tsikhanauskaya’s campaign. Needless to say, at the end of the day the official result did not at all reflect the huge support for Tsikhanauskaya. Unsurprisingly Lukashenka was declared the winner. There were no independent international election monitors present, and national monitors in many cases were not even allowed inside the voting locations, officially because of the coronavirus pandemic. Still, there is no doubt massive election fraud was, as usual, conducted. The fact many polling stations closed while  voters were still lined up outside is just one indication of the election´s poor quality, as well as the myriad of other additional violations that were reported.

 The population reacted strongly to the fraud-ridden election

A preliminary exit poll at 21 Belarusian embassies, surveying over 8,000 people on how they would vote, shows Tsikhanouskaya getting just over 80 percent of the votes.[4] Similarly, data from the aforesaid monitoring platforms, indicate a majority of Belarusians did, in reality,  vote for her.[5] The strong reaction of thepopulation to the fraud-ridden election  can be seen as indicative of her definite achievement. Despite the harsh responses from the authorities (including; police violence, mass arrests, torture and even murders), people are continuing to take to the streets to protest the results, and subsequently show that they are not accepting Lukashenka’s illegitimate presidency. Every week a new record regarding the number of participants taking part in these rallies seems to be set. It is certainly not the first time there has been protests against election fraud in Belarus. The largest such demonstrations took place after the 2006 and 2010 presidential elections in Minsk. However, these were much smaller both in terms of number of protestors and geographical spread compared to 2020 protests and were therefore rather easily dispersed by the excessive force used by the police. This time the election is contested not only in Minsk, but in a number of cities, towns, and even villages, all over the country. Several enterprises, among them some large state-owned factories, have joined a nationwide strike in support of the protests. A major difference from 2006 and 2010 is that the backbone of earlier protests was the opposition, or in any case the opposition-minded people who traditionally have been the only ones to publically challenge the authoritarian government. This time the situation is clearly different. The traditional opposition has kept a surprisingly low profile and instead parts of the population who previously never took part in any political activism drive the mobilization.

Moreover, a further distinction is that while previous elections were no doubt fraudulent, they were unlikely to have featured a serious challenge to Lukashenka. The reason for this is purely that elections were conventionally seen as something only ‘the opposition’ bothered with. People, in general, did not care about politics and therefore did not necessarily vote, hence the massive increase in political participation generated by Tsikhanauskaya’s candidacy was truly exceptional. People voted, and the fact they did is what has made the protests so intense and so resilient. Since they voted the population knows their votes were definitely stolen. It is important, however, to keep in mind Tsikhanauskaya is a rather coincidental heroine. She took over from her husband. She was the only one left in the race. She has consistently said she does not actually want to become president – she wants her husband to be released from prison and she demands democratic elections. Neither she nor any of other two women who led the campaign has been ‘on the barricades’ to lead the charge. Since the first day, the movement has been largely leaderless and as a result Lukashenka’s attempt to crush the dissent by forcing Tsikhanauskaya to leave the country fell flat. In fact, the dynamics of the protest clearly illustrate its main goal is not to ensure she becomes the head of state, but rather to guarantee Lukashenka does not stay in this position. Nonetheless, it was Tsikhanauskaya’s campaign that made people actually vote – because it gave them hope they could influence political affairs.

No matter how the current events, sometimes referred to as the ‘flip-flop’ or ‘cockroach’ revolution unfolds, the 2020 election turned out to be the most serious threat Lukashenka’s regime has faced in a long time. Over the past 26 years, the authoritarian regime in Belarus, has become deep-rooted in the political system. While formal institutions, such as elections, have been portrayed by the regime as a manifestation of popular democracy both state and society informally have shown them complete disregard. ‘Politics” has been largely perceived as ‘somebody else’s business’ and as such has been of little interest to most. Albeit some marginalized groups publically have been demanding reforms, the majority of the population simply seems –until now– to have accepted the political status quo – despite being acutely aware democratic standards are lacking in their society. This is likely to have been one of the most important reasons the authoritarian regime could survive for this long. If politics does not matter, changing the government becomes a non-matter and the system is safe for the duration.[6] Interestingly research on the Bolotnaya Square protests in Russia in 2011 show this event led to politics, in a sense, becoming ‘rehabilitated’ in the Russian context, at least on a local level. [7] It is likely the 2020 election will be Belarus’ ‘Bolotnaya moment’ by way of getting ordinary people to participate in electoral activism and realize that politics is not ‘bad,’ but in fact an important and essential part of life.

 

References

[1] For more about Belarus and Covid-19 see Bedford, S.  The Covid-19 Pandemic in Belarus Wither the Social Contract, Baltic Worlds 16 June 2020

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

[2] Moshes, A. and R. Nizhnikau. Belarus without Lukashenko: How it became a realistic scenario, FIIA Comment 15, 10 August 2020, https://www.fiia.fi/en/publication/belarus-without-lukashenko

[3] The Djs were arrested and sentenced to 10 days in jail each accused of “minor hooliganism and disobeying police. The translation for Peremen  is borrowed from the Instagram account @highlightbelarus where more information about this incident is also available: https://www.instagram.com/p/CEm4IKIoePY/

[4] https://www.svaboda.org/a/30774496.html

[5] https://newbelarus.vision/explainer-elections/

[6] Bedford, S. 2017. “The Election Game:” Authoritarian Consolidation Processes in Belarus, Democratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 25.4.

[7] Zhuravlev, O. N. Savelyeva & S. Erpyleva. 2019. The Cultural Pragmatics of an Event: The Politicization of Local Activism in Russia, International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society

  • 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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    Baltic Worlds is commenting on the parliamentary and presidential elections taking place in countries around the Baltic Sea region and in Eastern Europe. The comments and analyses present the parties, the candidates and the main issues of the election, as well as analyze the implications of the results.

    Sofie Bedford, member of the scientific advisory board, is since 2015 arranging the election coverage.

    Contact: sofie.bedford@ucrs.uu.se