October 21, 2020

Lukashenko battles coronavirus, protests and Russia tensions


Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of opposition figure Valery Tsepkalo, who was barred from running for presidency, presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova, Viktor Babaryko’s campaign chief, pose during a press conference in Minsk on July 17, 2020.

SERGEI GAPON | AFP | Getty Images

The most competitive presidential election campaign in Belarus for decades has seen a wave of discontent against the eastern European country’s authoritarian leader coincide with a dramatic escalation in tensions with Russia.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, 65, is seeking his sixth term in office having been in power since 1994.

The opposition has united behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, 37, who despite initially being reluctant to stand after her husband was barred from running and jailed by authorities, ultimately decided to challenge Lukashenko.

The Belarusian Electoral Commission blocked two other political rivals from being able to run against the president. One of them, Viktor Babariko, 56, was imprisoned on what his supporters say are fake charges.

The other, Valery Tsepkalo, 55, fled to Russia after alleged reports from security officials suggested he may soon face arrest and be stripped of his parental rights.

Voters will cast their ballots on Sunday.

“It deserves attention because a similar situation in Ukraine resulted in a global geopolitical confrontation,” Christopher Granville, managing director of EMEA and Global Political Research at TS Lombard, told CNBC via telephone.

The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a visit to No 3214 Unit of the Internal Troops of the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs two weeks before the 2020 Belarusian presidential election.

Nikolai Petro | TASS | Getty Images

The “big difference” between Belarus and Ukraine, he argued, is that when Kyiv endured a strongman leader teetering amid a lack of popular support in 2014, Russia was acutely aware of the diplomatic language used in a 2008 NATO summit communique that stated Ukraine and Georgia would go onto become members of the military alliance.

“Therefore, the signal for Russia was very clear that, at the first opportunity, the Americans will bounce Ukraine into NATO,” Granville said. “And that was why when you had violent regime change in Ukraine six years later, in 2014, Russia moved extremely fast to secure what it considered to be its vital interests.”

While the context of NATO is not the same when it comes to Belarus, Granville made clear the upcoming election “could end pretty badly.” He warned it was “absolutely realistic” to foresee a scenario in which Lukashenko would falsify the result of the vote to claim victory and orchestrate a “brutal” response by security forces to suppress mass protests.

“You could be looking at a full-on revolution in central eastern Europe,” Granville said.

The Belarusian government did not respond to a request for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Wagner military group

Ahead of the vote, Belarusian authorities arrested more than 30 suspected Russian mercenaries accusing them of plotting terrorist acts to destabilize the country.

Russia has dismissed the allegations, demanding that Belarus immediately release the security contractors.

The Belarusian State Security Committee said on Wednesday that it had detained 32 employees from the secretive Russian private military group Wagner outside Minsk, with one other person detained in the south of the country.

The state TV channel Belarus 1 broadcast footage of the Russians being arrested near the capital city last week.

The head of Belarus’ security council also said authorities would search for another 200 Russian mercenaries believed to have entered the country to stir civil unrest ahead of the election.

Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (front) talks to reporters outside the office of the Belarusian Central Election Commission. Belarus is to hold a presidential election on 9 August 2020.

Natalia Fedosenko | TASS | Getty Images

“The vote has become unexpectedly competitive due to widespread popular discontent with the economy and Lukashenko’s mishandling of the coronavirus,” Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and principal Russia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC via email.

As a result, McDowell said Lukashenko has made “increasingly strident claims of foreign interference, leading to thinly-veiled threats of mass repression as his grip on power has become less steady.”

The long-time leader of Belarus — sometimes described as “Europe’s last dictator” — has refused to implement lockdown restrictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, he reportedly told Belarusians to drink vodka, go to saunas and return to work. The president also claimed other countries had imposed restrictive measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 as an act of “frenzy and psychosis.”

Lukashenko said last week he caught Covid-19 and recovered without displaying any symptoms.

To date, more than 68,000 Covid-19 infections have been reported in Belarus, with 567 related deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Analysts told CNBC that while a lack of available polling data made it difficult to understand the consensus of the electorate, there was substantive evidence that the government’s response to the coronavirus was one of the main drivers of civil unrest.

‘All you have to do is call us’

“It’s all very murky,” Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, told CNBC via email.

He argued frosty diplomatic ties between Washington and Minsk had been “warming” in recent months, highlighting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Belarus earlier this year.

It was the first time a U.S. secretary of state had visited the country of roughly 9.5 million people for 26 years. In a joint press conference with Belarus’ Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei on February 1, Pompeo said the U.S. was willing to provide Minsk with all the oil it needs. “All you have to do is call us,” he said at the time.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gestures as he speaks during a joint news conference with Belarus’ Foreign Minister in Minsk on February 1, 2020.

KEVIN LAMARQUE | AFP | Getty Images

Pompeo stopped short of lifting sanctions on top Belarusian officials during his visit. The measures were put in place in 2006 amid concerns about free and fair elections and human rights violations.

Belarus’ relationship with its traditional ally Russia, however, has soured. Ahead of the vote, Ash said it appeared Moscow was backing the opposition in order to oust Belarus’ long-time leader.

In the event Lukashenko ensures the opposition lose the vote, Ash queried whether the prospect of subsequent protests might see Moscow take the side of the demonstrators while the U.S. could end up inadvertently backing Lukashenko.

“The world truly is upside down,” he said.



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