‘It is the most significant and severest shaking of Lukashenko’s chair in 26 years’

Political strategist Vitaly Shklyarov on the probability of a Maidan in Belarus

‘It is the most significant and severest shaking of Lukashenko’s chair in 26 years’
Photo: twitter.com

The last week was very hot for Belarus — Belgazprombank employees were arrested in Minsk on suspicion of money laundering and taking $430 million abroad, while former Board Chairman of the bank Viktor Babariko who is the main opponent of Aleksandr Lukashenko at the presidential election scheduled for 9 August was arrested a few days later. On Thursday and Friday, the country’s cities hosted protests against the arrest of the opposition candidate, while the Central Election Commission of Belarus accepted all signatures collected both for Babariko and the current president on Saturday. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, political strategist Vitaly Shklyarov Lukashenko pursue a hard line against his opponents many of who have already refused a fight, and if a Maidan was possible in Belarus.

Lukashenko isn’t going to play democracy and liberalism”

Did the chair of the Belarus president begin to shake seriously if we see the arrest of his main opponent and the protests against such a decision, and not only in Minsk but also in several cities of the country?

We will see how seriously it began to shake on 9 August. Personally, I don’t think that Lukashenko’s chair began to seriously shake. But given that Mr Lukashenko has been securely sitting in this chair for 26 years already, it is the most significant, severest and biggest “shaking” of Lukashenko’s chair and career over all these years.

What does the fate of Lukashenko’s chair depend on? Does it depend on if his opponents are registered or other factors?

I think that everything depends on how Mr Lukashenko himself will behave in this situation. Look, Viktor Babariko collected signatures — it is a fact. It is also a fact that he collected 500,000 signatures instead of 100,000 that are necessary. It is also a fact that another three strong candidates collected 100,000 signatures each. And there is a question — what should the president and his administration do with these facts? And a lot depends on if Lukashenko permits his opponents to stand for election.

According to election rules, Lukashenko must permit all candidates to stand for election, and if he does it, it will be one story. If he decides to exclude the opponents for some reasons — no matter if they are legal or illegal — it will be another scenario. If Lukashenko permits one or two of his three-four opponents, it will be the third scenario. It is hard to say which scenario there will be, everything will be clear next week by the deadline for registration of candidates by Belarus’s Central Election Commission. After that, we will see which strategy Lukashenko chose.

Photo: tut.by
Viktor Babariko (photo) collected signatures — it is a fact. It is also a fact that he collected 500,000 signatures instead of 100,000 that are necessary. It is also a fact that another three strong candidates collected 100,000 signatures each. And there is a question — what should the president and his administration do with these facts?

Can the arrest of Babariko and his son on the case on money laundering and taking it abroad speak about a harsh scenario?

In any case, the scenario will be harsh enough. Lukashenko isn’t going to stand on ceremony with anybody, share power and play democracy and liberalism like he hasn’t done for 26 years of his rule. But millions of signatures for Mr Lukashenko’s opponents won’t disappear either, neither will disappear the people’s discontent about Lukashenko’s power. This is why his decision on the election won’t be peaceful and easy.

Can’t the decision be peaceful because Lukashenko is afraid to lose everything? Because the loss of power will mean to him a probable political end and perhaps some problems.

I don’t think he will lose everything. When such a formula is used, this means a Soviet birth injury, Soviet determinism, which says that a person loses everything when power changes. People who step down easily say goodbye to power, they lose nothing. Look how easily Yeltsin resigned in 1999, how Gorbachyov resigned without problems in 1991, Saakashvili and several Ukrainian presidents resigned calmly and relatively without big problems. Yes, it is thought among authoritative leaders that if you give up, this is the end. But I think it is wrong. They can make up transition options with a calm security guarantee. This refers to Lukashenko too, if only he wanted it.

Yes, now he can make up a story “everything or nothing”, “white or black”, and then, of course, he can do nothing but grip the power by all means. Such an approach can work because he worked in the political bureau of the Central Committee of the CPSU, but it can not work too, and we saw it in the coup in 1991 and in Armenia in 2018. This is why the first approach doesn’t have guarantees, a desire to grip the power is playing with fire in this case if your country has at least 10% of people who are against the power of one person. Judging by the number of signatures put for three or four opposition candidates, there are enough protest voters in Belarus.

Photo: aa.com.tr
Yes, it is thought among authoritative leaders that if you give up, this is the end. But I think it is wrong. They can make up transition options with a calm security guarantee. This refers to Lukashenko too, if only he wanted it

Masks also unite people against Lukashenko who refused to recognise the coronavirus”

How many Belarusian really support their long-term leader? The mass media published results of surveys where from 3 to 7% are ready to vote for him, over 50% are for Babariko, over 70% of the country’s voters want Lukashenko to resign. Should we trust this data?

I wouldn’t trust these surveys, a link to them meant they were carried out online. Online surveys are like those done by phone and show only a certain part of the population. A lot turns on the selection here, on questions asked and so on. And we shouldn’t forget that Lukashenko has support in his country, and it is obviously higher than the claimed 3,5%. Another thing is that this support is now lower than it has always been, and I believe it too. But it is hard to say more precisely whom to trust in surveys. Sociological surveys in Belarus are forbidden, this is why few agencies can provide accurate numbers in this respect. And the situation is unfolding in a way that it is hard to provide accurate statistics and analysis.

What did the kilometres of queues to put signatures to support the Belarusian president’s opponents mean?

Any normal person is emotionally tired of the same leader of the country for 26 years, no matter how good he is. But in case of Belarus, the economic instability that was caused by both the coronavirus and economic problems appeared in Belarus because of him played a role too. And they, first of all, are linked with economic problems in Russia, gas and oil prices. And here he has met his match — people who are tired of the life they have fear the future the least. Of course, they are afraid of it on the one hand, but the coronavirus and change of life in all senses after self-isolation showed that the fear disappeared.

And the very form of the protest — mask wearing, which symbolically covers the face and makes a person braver, anonymous, louder — also played a role because this looks contagious and spectacular. One shouldn’t forget that the “uniform” wearing is identified as the union of people, and when people wear masks, this also unites them, in this case, it unites against Lukashenko who refused to recognise the coronavirus, which looked like the last straw for people.

Photo: sputnik.by
One shouldn’t forget that the “uniform” wearing is levelled as the union of people, and when people wear masks, this also unites them, in this case, it unites against Lukashenko who refused to recognise the coronavirus, which looked like the last straw for people

“Culturally and emotionally Belarusians are closer to Ukrainians”

Why aren’t Lukashenko’s opponents from the right — “Westerners” in the news? Because in 2006 the name of Milinkevich was heard a lot — he is a candidate with a European way of development of Belarus, there were enough people in 2010 too.

Actually, there are a lot of candidates with the right agenda in Belarus, while the campaign itself is very politicised on the opposition of the West and East. The “Westerners” of Belarus are against the Anschluss of Belarus and Russia, and many candidates back this position and set a national, right agenda, if you like, they are for a special way of Belarus, though even with economic cooperation with Russia, but not as the 86th governorate of the Russian Federation. It is important to notice that almost all candidates have this western vector and voice it in one way or another.

Does Babariko have this vector too?

Like every candidate, Babariko has some programme points why he is standing for the presidency — mainly it is an economic agenda, that’s to say, the country’s exit from the crisis and changeability of power.

Belarus is the country whose residents treat Russia better than others, even if they anyway want to live separately from it. Who do you think Belarusians are closer to according to their character — Russians or Ukrainians? And can a Maidan like the Ukrainian one in 2004 take place in Belarus?

Belarusians are a special people, but both culturally and emotionally it is closer to Ukrainian. It is seen both in linguistic links of the peoples and cultural links. Ukraine is closer to Belarus in character and spirit than Russia, though it is also people that are close in cultural spirit and code.

As for Maidan, again, in this case, it depends on what strategy power will choose and how it will treat protesters. If people feel it didn’t hear them, events like Maidan can unfold. If the authorities manage to go on the razor’s edge, do it smartly without creating an alarming, explosive situation, there won’t be any Maidan in Belarus.

Moreover, everything will depend on opposition leaders and what will happen to them, if these candidates will be ready to mobilise people in case they aren’t registered or are arrested. Different things can happen, this is why both the situation is serious and Lukashenko’s choice is tough.

Babariko has already said he will support performances of people if they go to protest against violations in the election.

I think he will be ready for it as a candidate. Why can he do if he isn’t registered or will be trumped up a case?

Photo: kremlin.ru
I don’t know if there will be a bid, but a lot depends on this meeting. Lukashenko will do right if he goes there, and I would do the same if I were him

Lukashenko is going to Moscow to Victory Parade on 24 June. What does the meeting with Putin there depend on? Will there be the next bid because of the events around Belgazprombank that belongs to Gazprom?

I don’t know if there will be a bid, but a lot depends on this meeting. Lukashenko will do right if he goes there, and I would do the same if I were him. If the Belarusian president talks with Putin, I think many issues will be discussed there. Of course, they will discuss the situation with Belgazprombank, the situation with Sberbank, gas whose supplies Gazprom threatens to stop on 1 July. He should go and talk.

By Sergey Kochnev