PGI INSIGHT: Belarus – July 2020

- In-depth insight - Intelligence

31-07-2020


Lukashenko to continue crackdown ahead of August presidential election

In brief

  • Protests over the presidential elections have been ongoing for two months amid record low government approval ratings and a crackdown on political opponents and activists.
  • The crackdown is likely to stoke further demonstrations, rather than quell protests ahead of the vote. Economic stagnation and a severe coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak may contribute to wider unrest.
  • Increased government repression risks weakening relations with the West. This could lead to the reintroduction of sanctions and make Minsk more reliant on Moscow.

Background

Belarus has seen widespread unrest since May, when the government announced that elections would take place on 9 August. President Alexander Lukashenko is seeking a sixth consecutive term in office amid record low approval ratings, estimated to be between 3-30 percent. These low ratings are largely due to protracted economic stagnation and a botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lukashenko has cracked down on the media, political rivals and protests to ensure his re-election. Authorities have detained at least 780 people since the unrest began, but the protests have continued.

Crackdown to intensify anti-government unrest

Lukashenko’s crackdown on the opposition is likely to worsen unrest ahead of the vote. Government repression, bouts of civil unrest and reprisals by security forces will worsen in the coming months and could galvanise support for Lukashenko’s rivals. On 14 July, rallies broke out in Minsk after the election commission removed Lukashenko’s main challengers, Viktor Babaryko and Valery Tsepkalo, from the ballot. Protests had also erupted in June after Babaryko was jailed on suspicion of money laundering. Court rulings on imprisoned opponents may trigger further rallies.

Both the crackdown and unrest are likely to continue after the election, which Lukashenko is likely to win given his main opponents are in prison. Previous elections, notably in 2006 and 2010, saw protests continue after polls concluded.

Worsening economy, COVID-19 response to exacerbate unrest

An ineffective government response to COVID-19 and a worsening economy will likely exacerbate anti-government unrest in the coming months. As more people are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic crisis, protests denouncing government mismanagement could grow. Media reports have highlighted that many of the protesters are formerly Lukashenko supporters or not previously politically active.

  • Economic situation: Since 1994, Lukashenko’s authoritarian government has retained control by maintaining acceptable living standards, but these are now at risk amid an intensifying economic downturnDisruption to subsidised energy supplies from Russia and the COVID-19 pandemic will cause the economy to contract by 4-6 percent this year, according to the World Bank. There is a precedent of deteriorating socio-economic conditions leading to protests, as seen after the 2017 tax reforms.
  • COVID-19: Lukashenko’s government initially downplayed the virus and refused to take action, allowing it to spread rapidly. The president had promised no one would die from COVID-19 in Belarus, but over 67,000 cases and more than 500 related deaths have now been reported.

Crackdown threatens ties with West

Lukashenko’s crackdown also risks undermining Belarus’s improved relationship with the EU and US. Brussels removed sanctions on Belarus after the 2015 presidential election passed with limited protests. Similarly, Washington restored its ambassador in April and has begun to sell oil to Minsk to loosen its reliance on Russia. An election widely seen as illegitimate will likely reverse any warming of ties with the West.


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