Wind of Change

The story goes that The Scorpions wrote their rock ballad Wind of Change, that would become an anthem to the fall of the Soviet Union, after their concerts in Sant Petersburg. When the song was released, in January 1991, nobody in the world would have suspected that less than a year later in the small village of Viskuli, Belarus, representatives of hosting Belarus, Ukraine and Russian Federation would sign a treaty dissolving the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The same way, when last year, on the 11th of March, Sergey Tikhanovsky launched his YouTube channel “A Country to Live in”, now with nearly a quarter million subscribers and a total of 30 million visualizations, nobody could tell that the 2020 presidential election in Belarus would go little beyond the traditional make believe ballet that Lukashenko has gotten the world used to.

Tikhanovsky paced up into becoming the megaphone that allowed a part of people the Belarussian people to express their grief concerning their country’s situation. Surfing the wave of protests that arose when in the end of last year Lukashenko simulated a threat to the sovereignty of Belarus, by a deepening of relations with Russia on the scope of the born-dead Union State, the blogger gained followers and Belarusians started to lose fear of speaking out against the 25-year long consulate of the Last Dictator of Europe. In the meantime, the coronavirus pandemic took place and Belarus, to be truthful also conditioned by an economic incapability to react, implemented close to no measures to prevent its spread. This has led to deepen the lack of support of ever-growing sways of the population to the president.

The closing up of the election brought in the traditional opposition movements, despite some novelties like the attempted primary process to nominate a single opposition candidate – a process that is also the reflex of the vacuity of political ideas on a big part of those in opposition. Like recently heard from an expert on Belarus culture and identity: “to be opposition one is required to first have a position”. The process broke up with 3 of the 5 surviving contenders presenting themselves as potential candidates to the August election[1].

Having taken part in the primaries and later outcasted, Anna Kanapatskaya, former opposition parliamentary (one of three in the previous composition of the House of Representatives of Belarus), decided to also present her candidacy having amassed a total of 1314 people into her initiative group. Anna as been running a rather provocative and populist campaign of self-promotion recurring even to border-line sexual innuendo selfies being published on her personal and official social media accounts – which has served the purpose of getting the local press focusing on her. On an aggregated analysis of the online polls conducted by some newspapers, Kanapatskaya gets a support of 2,7%[2].

The movement Tell the Truth proposed the candidate Andrei Dmitriev. In the 2015 election the movement had proposed Tatsiana Karatkevich that had an official voting score of 4.4%, second only to Alexander Lukashenko. The Dmitriev initiative group, headed by Karatkevich, is composed by 2399. It is not a stranger to this quantity of people (the 3rd biggest initiative group) the fact that Tell the Truth has been active for now 10 years in Belarus having members in most of Belarus raions (districts or municipalities). Nonetheless, and somewhat surprisingly, Dmitriev gathers only the support of 0,4% of those answering online polls.

The second biggest initiative group, denoting the capacity of the machine behind it, was that of the Victor Babarika with 8904 members (Lukashenko registered 11.480 members for his initiative group). Babarika was chairman for the Belgazprombank for 20 years up to the day before announcing, 13th of May, he was a candidate for the highest position of Belarus. Coming into the game unexpectedly the truth is that everything points to a long prepared plan – it does not seem realistic that anyone without a political presence would have bene able to assemble an initiative group 8904-strong in just 2 days without some very serious anticipated planning and even the involvement of a team with a considerable size. Babarika’s candidature was, for some time, Belarus most well-kept secret. Babarika gathers, in the abovementioned polls, a support of little over 50%. Lukashenko gathers, interestingly, the support of 4.4% of those answering those polls, the same result Karatkevich, the most direct contendent, “got” in the 2015 election.

One other unexpected candidate is Valery Tsepkalo. Having started his diplomatic career in the Soviet embassy in Finland, Tsepkalo made it through the state administration and diplomatic apparatus all the way up into Belarus ambassador to the USA. His diplomatic career was cut short to be the father of the High Tech Park of Belarus, which he headed for 11 years, until 2017, when he was dismissed by Lukashenko himself without further explanation – either by the authorities or Tsepkalo himself. With a more modest size initiative group of 884 members, Tsepkalo gathered the support of 13% of the polls’ respondents.

Last but not least, in the group of candidates’ worth of some attention, comes Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, wife of Sergey Tikhanovsky. Sergey was intending to run himself, but his arrest as a penalty for having participated in the protests to the deepening of the Union State prevented him from signing the candidature documents. Last minute Svetlana decided to present her candidature to the position of President of Belarus. Sergey’s was never, as it is accepted by local political analysts, a real political candidature. His purpose is perceived as intending to simply acquire another tool to promote is presence in the discussion space of Belarus. Sergey Tikhanovsky is most likely the hare that triggered all the 2020 political commotion in Belarus. Drawing attention to a generalized lack of support towards the present regime, Tikhanovsky created the conditions to convert individual discontent into a collective consciousness, of a rudimentary political kind. Tikhanovsky showed that, despite the repressive reaction of Minsk authorities, fear should be overcome.

The machine Babarika shows up into the political playground fully oiled: dedicated headquarters, telegram channels as well as presence in “all” social media, high quality graphical line, etc. The fact of him, as he puts it, being “a very rich man” explains the quantity and quality but prior preparation was still necessary. This was not a coup de cœur, but a well-planned action. This is why it is to be expected the existence of a plan that lies a few steps ahead of the happenings. Has he claimed himself during a recent interview: “everything is ready to continue to work remotely and even if I’m nowhere to be found”. Local analysts, nonetheless, claim that nothing points out to the possibility of Babarika being a Russian front-man for this election.

One of the most system-disturbing actions conducted by Tikhanovsky and his YouTube channel was the tour he made throughout Belarus doing live videos on the public space with residents of different cities and towns, providing an open microphone for the common people’s anguishes and revolt. This furthermore added to the loss of fear that has been patent throughout the country. This loss of fear is visible from the adherence of people into the support of candidates. Although the final number of support signatures to each candidate will be known only on July 4th, the numbers provided so far indicate that nearly a million people (excluding the million and half signatures “collected” by Lukashenko) mobilized themselves to leave their name and identification supporting the 7 “biggest” candidates. In a country that had, for the parliamentary election of 2019, near 6 million and 900 thousand electors, of which only 5.3 million voted (against the 7 million electors and 6.1 million voters for the presidential election of 2015). Knowing this logical jump is not clear, we could, in abstract, assume that for the upcoming August 9th election although Lukashenko can still “get” the traditional 80-85% of the votes such a score will become harder to swallow for a more awake population.

But, most important at this stage, 15% of the electorate of Belarus took into their hands to explicitly support alternative candidates. Knowing that most of these signatures are collected in pickets held in public spaces this confirms the growing loss of fear. This has been noticed by Babarika, that has been closing some of his daily messages encouraging people not to be afraid: “we are in this together”. In fact, his messages have been rising the confrontational level to the present regime. From announcing he would join those protesting against eventual electoral fraud, into claiming that he is sure of police being faithful to the laws and constitution of the country and, therefore, not passible of shooting into those raising themselves against the manipulation of results.

This patriotic conscience and respect for the written rules seems to be more than a rhetorical proposition of the banker turned politician. Telegram is one of the favorite tools for those opposing the regime in Belarus. Among the most read Telegram channels is one titled NEXTA. This particular channel seems to be well supplied on what concerns informants from withing the Belarussian administration and police forces, sharing, regularly, copies of internal official documents. Recently a letter from a fonctionnaire for the Ministry of Internal Affairs that claim to not support, as so do many of his colleagues, Lukashenko’s regime. The author, naturally anonymous, recalls the oath law enforcement agents take, upon their integration on their specific services, of protecting Belarus’ constitution and laws, and “to protect the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of citizens, society and the state from criminal and other illegal encroachments”. This follows an appeal to the members of the special security forces not to obey if order to shoot against the inevitable rise of the Belarus people that will follow the August election. “How will you face your children and parents? Or do you think that no one will find you and will not know about your actions? Who is he who rules you against this law and the justice that ordinary laborers need?”

Present day Belarus is a country changing fast. The concurrence of events has, I believe, brought the country to the brink of a change. There is no doubt the system will react, and will, or at least try to, react hard. No system goes down without a fight. Or maybe it will. Sometimes, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez reminds us on his The Autumn of the Patriarch, the system is no longer alive. The only thing granting him the appearance of being alive is the fear people have.

“(…) at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur. Only then did we dare go in without attacking the crumbling walls of reinforced stone, as the more resolute had wished, and without using oxbows to knock the main door off its hinges, as others had proposed, because all that was needed was for someone to give a push and the great armored doors that had resisted the bombards of William Dampier during the building’s heroic days gave way (…)”

The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

[1] To be a candidate one needs to collect the support signature of 100.000 people; this recollection is made by an initiative group that needs to beforehand be registered – done up to May 15th, 7 days only after the announcement of the election day

[2] Social inquiries are not free in Belarus, requiring that the organization conducting them has been previously authorized. Despite this, newspapers conducted online polls inquiring their readers’ preferences for a candidate until they were deemed illegal. The audience of online newspapers is highly divided per social groups, which leads to the outcome of having polls that reflect the opinion of a very politically homogenous audience.