In his 1891 essay The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde discussed the political situation of England. He tells us that “the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it”. In other words, by making the conditions of slaves slightly more bearable, it was easier to ignore the overall system of injustice connected to the practice. Of course, this is not to say that the slave is personally satisfied with their subdued condition. However, the result is that the slave could end up in a comparatively worse situation should demands for freedom be made. In relation to Belarus, what these past few weeks have shown us is that the country’s “enslaved” also appear reluctant to unchain themselves from the autocratic regime of Lukashenko.
This year’s presidential election in the country has been a matter of discussion for a long time. Despite this, it appears that no-one had anticipated the level of politicisation that we are now witnessing. For the more attentive eye, however, “the waters around were growing” for quite some time. In May last year a new YouTube channel titled A Country to Live in emerged in Belarus. After facing troubles with his country’s bureaucracy during attempts to reconstruct an old house and convert it into a tourist attraction, Sergey Tikhanovsky, the author, used the channel to voice his frustrations. His channel quickly evolved into something quite different.
The channel started to gain followers as he travelled through Belarus to promote people’s issues with the system. This led to the emergence of a new political consciousness. For now, Tikhanovsky’s channel has around 250 thousand subscribers and a total of 30 million views, with some videos viewed over one million times.
Another consequence of Wilde’s “gentle slave-owner” is that no slave will ever dare discuss with other slaves their true feelings. Of course, this could result in them losing their meagre benefits. This silence in relation to the slaves’ true conditions prevents the formation of a collective consciousness and a shared will for change. What Tikhanovsky did for Belarusian society, even if on limited scale, was to raise the level of this collective awareness. Questions remain whether this awareness, and the willingness to act upon it, has or ever will reach critical mass.
It is not clear when Viktar Babarika, the former head of Belgazprombank (the Belarusian sibling of Russia’s Gazprom bank), decided to run for president. It is also uncertain if he really believes he can win. However, it appears that he does. He quit his job and the next day announced that he is running for the highest job in Belarus. Babarika is well known for his philanthropy. For example, he helped ‘return’ a series of paintings created by Belarusian artists that were scattered across the world. With regards to the election, the former banker quickly became the centre of events due to his outstanding ability to mobilise people. In just two days his initiative group, those who collected signatures for his candidacy, grew to 8904. Only Lukashenko had a bigger support group, at around 11,500 people. In comparison, the other 13 initiative groups at this time had a combined total of 10,822 people. Besides Lukashenko and Babarika, the “surviving” four initiative groups have amassed just over 5,000 members altogether.
Babarika appears as the “capable” candidate. In a country where the state is always present and where political activity is restricted to the presidency, it is not easy for individuals to present themselves to the public as new potential leaders. The former head of a private bank, however, has the power to do just this. Furthermore, Babarika has come to represent a group of entrepreneurs who, as state actions against Belgazprombank and Symbal.by have shown, live in fear of the state interfering in their business. The unjustified level of “brutality” seen in the Symbal.by case is a good example of what can happen to those who step out of line.
The level of professionalism displayed by Babarika’s campaign up to the time of his arrest was impressive. This image was reinforced and promoted by a group of independent news portals eager to spot and promote political opposition. Most of those working in these media outlets represent Babarika’s new constituency of voters. This is made clear in the results of a few opinion polls conducted by some of these portals. Whilst groups such as TUT, Nasha Niva, Telegraf and Onliner have found that 50-55 per cent of the population support Babarika, the Cold War relic Radio Svaboda gave the banker a much more modest score of 30 per cent, with rival candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya receiving over 50 per cent. Besides the other opposition candidate Tsepkalo, who has been pushed out of the race, no other contender had a combined score of over 5 per cent. This includes Lukashenko. The ‘everlasting’ president of Belarus, who of whom it is worth noting abstained on the vote for the dissolution of USSR held in Belarus parliament, had a combined score of three per cent. Another thing that these polls show is the complete rejection of the established opposition by those who took part in them.
But the size of the candidates’ initiative groups does not tell us everything. The ability of these groups to gather signatures tells a whole different story. At the same time, it should be noted that working with political stats from Belarus is not an exact science. Still, it is not possible to find alternative information.
This being said, it is clear that Babarika was the candidate able to amass the largest initiative group. Meanwhile Tikhanovskaya, who took over her husband’s candidacy since he could not sign the required documents to be in the race whilst under administrative arrest, represented the smallest group. When discussing the number of signatures collected by each of the candidates, there is no alternative but to believe those presented by the candidates themselves. Babarika’s initiative group was the least “productive”. His large group only managed to gather an average of 41 signatures (out of a grand total of 361 thousand) per member. Meanwhile, each of Tikhanovskaya’s team members on average gathered around 445 (total 110 thousand). The blogger, via his proxy candidate, seems to be have been much more effective on the ground than any other participants in this ‘pseudo-election’. It is also worth noting that Tsepkalo was second in this count, with 181 signatures collected by each member for a total of 160 thousand. This was followed by Lukashenko (174, 2 million), Cherechen (94, 143 thousand), Kanapatskaya (84, 110 thousand) and just above Babarika, Dmitriev (45, 107 thousand). It is an interesting coincidence that four out of six opposition candidates seem to have collected enough signatures to just make it over the threshold of 100 thousand. Of course, “hurricane” Babarika and former apparatchik Tsepkalo are exceptions to this trend.
As expected, many candidates’ signatures were refused by local electoral commissions. There are reports that full lists of signatures supporting both Babarika and Tsepkalo were refused in some municipalities. The two candidates saw more than half of their signatures refused, which led to the exclusion of Tsepkalo from the race. Tikhanovskaya, a political newcomer, saw 95 per cent of her signatures validated. Dmitriev, with the support of the 2010 election surviving civic movement Tell the Truth , which he co-heads with 2015 candidate Tatsyana Karatkevich, reached 99,85 per cent, which was even more than Lukashenko’s 97. However, these numbers do not tell us much in reality. Both Cherechen and Kanapatskaya saw 135 and 133 per cent of their signatures validated by the authorities. No, this is not a typo. After confirming the collection of 106 thousand signatures, Cherechen noted that the electoral authorities claimed that it was actually 143 thousand. Kanapatskaya delivered 110 thousand and saw 147 thousand approved. While Kanapatskaya seems to have been distracted by attempts to explain this bizarre happening, Cherechen reported that he was being pressured to say that he made a mistake and offered a more diplomatic explanation: “The number of signatures collected, verified and submitted by us is enough for registration. The 143,109 signatures left after the CEC verification are also sufficient for registration.”
An essential piece of information related to the true nature of this election was recently revealed by the head of the CEC herself, Lidia Yermoshina. In an interview published in June by Komsomolskaya Pravda, she was confronted with the statement that “A change of power is probably normal at the time of an election”. She, quite assertively, replied that it is not normal, adding that “[elections] are a constitutional transition of power, but not a violent change.” Of course, this seems self-evident in any normal democracy. However, it does have a very special meaning in the context of Belarus. Yermoshina, clearly not on purpose, was actually hinting at the only way the population may actually achieve what it desires: elections will not change anything. There is no alternative but to agree with her, especially after all of the ways that the state has attempted to influence the vote.
In a book published last year, Erica Chenoweth analyses protest movements that either failed or succeeded in their desires to change the status quo. The first of her conclusions is that nonviolent campaigns are more likely to achieve success (53 per cent against 26 per cent for violent campaigns). Non-violent struggle also attracts more people for obvious reasons. This may lead to the understanding that people are not often interested in radical political shifts but rather prefer smoother changes. Perhaps the most interesting conclusion presented in the book, however, refers to the number of people necessary to achieve the desired changes. The threshold is believed to be when 3.5 per cent of the population actively engaged in coordinated action. In plain words: when 3.5 per cent of Belarus’s population goes onto the streets it is certain that change will follow. For a country the size of Belarus, this all important 3.5 per cent represents 330 thousand people. This is half of the validated signatures for all five opposition candidates. In other terms, this would amount to around one sixth of Minsk’s population. Despite this, analysts on the ground claim that a much lower number of people concentrated in Minsk could force change.
The capability to force political change comes not from the size of the movement alone, but also from the perception that there are other people who would support the same ideas. Chenoweth is clear when she says that 3.5 per cent of the population, who are actively engaged in their respective movement for change, is needed for success to be assured: “do I, part of the 3.5 per cent, perceive that there are 3.49 per cent more out there?” Of course, supporting one, or multiple, presidential candidates in a phoney election is not the same thing as marching on the Avenue of Independence. But small protests, such as queues to sign candidate lists, or even more covert forms of opposition, like the anonymous sharing of support photos by members of the police, as NEXTA Telegram channel has been doing, may help to strengthen the perception that collective action could succeed.
By creating his blog, Tikhanovsky has shown that there is a significant number of disaffected people in Belarus. Even when his wife’s collection of signatures became flashpoints for police confrontation, people continued to come and sign. Babarika could have likely replicated these scenes if he was not arrested. This leads us to Babarika’s ‘Plan B’: the collection of signatures for a constitutional referendum. Obviously, it makes sense to believe that if elections are forged then so would a referendum. But Babarika, despite the low levels of ‘productivity’ amongst his initiative group members, showed that a mass signature collection is possible. A constitutional referendum will have more difficulty attracting people. However, with an agreement of principle with the other political forces present in this eleciton, it may be the unity call that is missing.
The political tipping point in Belarus could really be anything. It could be a police detention with fatal consequences or the “rescue” of a detainee from the police during a protest. Simultaneously, it could be the population’s refusal to accept results during or immediately after the election. Either way, it does seem clearer that changes are going to happen in Belarus. The million dollar question remains: What will encourage the people to finally believe that they have more to gain than lose by confronting the “gentle slave owner”? What can ultimately speak to the soul of Belarusian people and lead them to take the next step?