For the average citizen of an EU country, the word “elections” is associated with lively political discussion, rallies and billboards in the streets, heated debates on television, observers, and, ultimately, an honest count of the votes. In Belarus, elections have always been held according to different rules. In 2016 and 2019, independent Belarusian media predicted the future members of parliament with 96 per cent accuracy long before the voting itself took place. But even despite this already very low bar, the 2024 election campaign will go down in history as the most sterile and repressive yet.
In 2011 when criticising the, in his opinion, rampant freedom in the country, Aliaksandr Lukashenka said that Belarus has “had so much so-called democracy that it has made us nauseated”. In an attempt to quell this unpleasant queasiness, the Belarusian authorities have eliminated loopholes in their legislation that democratic politicians exploited during the 2020 presidential election and cracked down on potential challengers.
In 2020, despite large-scale bans, violations, and arrests, Belarusian society managed to collect an array of information about the falsification of the final results and the victory of opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, including photographs of ballots. Since then, Belarusian officials have banned voters from photographing their ballots, made voting booths open, and abolished the turnout threshold. Now, the election will take place regardless of the number of citizens brought to the polling stations by force and threats.
In 2020, at polling stations in Belarusian embassies abroad, Tsikhanouskaya came out on top almost everywhere, from Kazakhstan to the United States, gaining between 52 per cent to 95 per cent of the votes even according to official data. Since then, the authorities have stopped holding elections abroad, apparently not trusting even their loyal diplomats to ensure a resounding victory for the ‘right’ candidates. Predictably, the Belarusian authorities have refused to invite observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to the election in the country.
Belarusian parties have the right to nominate their candidates for elections. However, last year, the regime completed the process of legally liquidating parties they disliked; many of the leaders of these parties are now either in prison or have fled abroad. Of the 16 parties that were officially registered in Belarus before the 2020 election, only four remain, and they compete only in their loyalty to the government and in who will praise Lukashenka more abundantly.
There is still the possibility of nomination by collecting signatures. But this legal mechanism is also illusory given the cruel reality. To be nominated for parliament, potential candidates need an initiative group of at least ten people and to collect at least 1,000 signatures. Those that joined the initiative groups of presidential candidates four years ago faced persecution, with many of them sentenced to long prison terms. Members of Tsikhanouskaya’s initiative group, for example, were sentenced to between five and six years in prison in 2021, and thousands of people who signed for her nomination or that of other opposition candidates were fired or ended up in prison.
When Belarusians exercise their political or civil rights, they risk receiving uninvited guests with machine guns in their homes. The Belarusian political police, GUBOPIK, whose officers have happily compared themselves to the Gestapo, regularly conduct raids on the apartments and workplaces of people they suspect of disloyalty. They have detained people who have previously been election observers and raided the registered addresses of Belarusian politicians who have left the country. In late January, the KGB raided the homes of 200 political prisoners’ relatives who had accepted food purchased for them by the Belarusian diaspora, accusing some of them of “the use of foreign gratuitous aid to carry out terrorist and other extremist activities”.
Political parties are not the only ones to have lost their registration in Belarus. Human rights organisations, associations of lawyers, and even amateur theatres have faced the same fate – in total 971 organisations have been or are in the process of being liquidated. The government, fearing unauthorised citizen activity, subjugates or destroys structures in which public energy could accumulate. The authorities classify the most ‘dangerous’ organisations as “extremist”, and their members are punished with retroactive prison sentences. Today there are at least 169 organisations on the list of “extremist” groups, including independent media. The list of individuals whom the authorities consider extremists already includes almost 4,000 people, three-quarters of whom have been added for political activities in the last three years.
Despite the lack of intrigue about the winners of the election, the campaign is fraught with some mystery. Afterwards, a new government body will be formed – the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (ABPA). The ABPA will formally wield significant power: certifying election results, impeaching presidents, appointing the central electoral commission and heads of the highest courts, and declaring states of emergency. It may become Belarus’s supreme body, with the power to issue and abrogate the decisions of any other government body, except the court; though it remains to be seen whether it will be more than decorative. A presidium of up to 15 people will lead it. While the post of chairman will likely be occupied by Lukashenka, the remaining nine to 14 people appointed will make up the circle of his most trusted associates, from which at some point his eventual successor may appear.
Under the current conditions, the democratic opposition in exile has virtually no way to influence what is happening in Belarus, so they are building proto-state structures abroad. Their system of governance already consists of the presidential administration (Tsikhanouskaya’s Office), the government (the United Transitional Cabinet), and a future parliament (the Coordination Council) for which online elections are to be held in the coming months. This initiative faces enormous opposition from Minsk – future candidates and their relatives are already facing criminal cases, seizure of property, and other consequences. Even voting in this election is risky, likely to be interpreted by the police as extremist activity.
European countries should not expect major political changes in Belarus after the February campaign. The composition of the Belarusian parliament will likely change quite significantly because of the routine rotation approved by the executive branch, but its essence will remain the same. European countries should also not expect political mobilisation of society, protest activity, or other internal upheavals in the country – after four years of the most brutal repression in the history of independent Belarus, these are simply impossible. The campaign of democratic forces with online parliamentary elections in exile also does not promise large-scale success. But this campaign, with all its limitations and shortages, resembles a democratic election much more than that in Belarus. The elections to the Coordination Council will create conditions for representatives to be democratically elected to opposition structures in the future and will provide a formal platform for political discussions among opponents of the Belarusian authoritarian regime. This is a small but important trial of democracy for a nation that has been missing it for decades.
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