Belarus’s parliamentary elections, held on 17 November, were predictably non-transparent, with numerous violations. The regime of Alexander Lukasheka allowed no opposition candidates as members of parliament – in contrast to the previous parliament, in which there were two opposition MPs. While this might seem to be a return to ‘business as usual’, three key takeaways from the elections highlight a shifting political and social landscape.
1. Lukashenka is appeasing his ruling cadre by promising to increase their role in the political system.
With several influential officials becoming new MPs, it is more likely that parliament will be more involved in any forthcoming discussion of a new constitution. Lukashenka has been promising constitutional reform for several years; he has said publicly that it will lead to an increased significance of government agencies as well as parliament. The aim of this is to keep them more engaged and on Lukashenka’s side.
In terms of the composition of the new parliament itself, there are some key differences with previous years. It is no longer a comfortable place for officials to while away their pre-retirement: many MPs are now in their fifties or younger, and have plans for careers beyond parliament.
It also looks as if small steps are being taken towards the emergence of a party system in Belarus. The leader of Belaya Rus, a pro-government association of Belarusian officials, got a seat in parliament for the first time, increasing the likelihood of it becoming a political party. The number of MPs from different parties has increased to 21 (out of 110 in total). Although these still all broadly support Lukashenka, they can differ from the president in policy positions. For example, the Labour and Justice Party, with 6 seats in parliament, supported the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Change, of course, may not necessarily be in a pro-Western direction.
Moreover, the newly elected members of parliament look more like real politicians. They go to debates, speak to independent journalists and have their own social media channels. Some have even felt able to criticize the actions of the authorities.
Similar changes have been taking place in other institutions in Belarus. The government is now more competent than it has ever been. The National Bank has managed to carry out macroeconomic stabilization on one of the most unstable currencies in Europe, while the ministries responsible for the economic development have implemented certain small-scale reforms. The Minister of the Interior has even acknowledged mistakes made by his department (under his predecessor), and undertaken to make improvements.
This has resulted in a near-comical situation, whereby the Belarusian non-state media outlets have an increasingly positive view of some state officials, such as Prime Minister Siarhei Rumas, while the state media has been scaling back its coverage of him to ensure he does not become too popular.
2. Belarus has less need for the West and is reluctant to make even small concessions.
Since the slight warming of Belarusian relations with the West in 2014, Lukashenka has been having more meetings with prominent Western officials. Western institutions began trying to cooperate more closely with Belarus, but soon saw that it was not very interested. In 2018, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development allocated €360 million to Belarus. However, it is now considering a reduction, as reforms in Belarus have not, in its view, gone far enough. The European Union has also committed considerable time and money to regional authorities, but this has not brought any significant changes to Belarusian local government.
The absence of opposition candidates also demonstrates that the Belarusian authorities are prepared for a new deterioration of relations with the West. The authorities could certainly have afforded some opposition in parliament, especially since they themselves choose whom to appoint. Given that they did not, they either do not consider worsened relations a problem or are confident that the West will continue to cooperate with Belarus in order to limit Russian power, regardless of its violations of the rule of law.
3. There is growing popular dissatisfaction with the current regime, but the state has no good plan for how to deal with it.
Parliamentary election campaigns in Belarus are traditionally low-key, but this year they were particularly muted. The authorities tried to ensure that people knew as little about the election as possible. Campaign posters appeared on the streets just two weeks before polling day. It seems the authorities were reluctant to politicize society, as further resentment at autocratic rule is brewing.
Many Belarusians who previously supported Lukashenka now have a very critical opinion of him. Take political blogging: the most popular political blogger in Belarus is a 22-year-old man who goes by the name of NEXTA. He produces low-quality videos which are highly critical of the authorities. A film by him about Lukashenka, released a month ago, has already received 1.8 million views, even though there are only 9.5 million people in Belarus.
The authorities are not in a concessionary mood. The presidential elections in 2020 will also likely be a sham. If the authorities’ grip over the country is weakened, they will fear an outbreak of anger, resulting in widespread protests which the regime might once again have to meet with violence.
Ryhor Astapenia, Academy Robert Bosch Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.