One would think that a man of such posture like Lukashenko hardly needs an election strategy. Rigged electoral machinery, supressed political opposition and vanquished civil society create very favourable conditions for a landslide victory. Add more than 21 years of (mostly) unchallenged reign to this mix and one can imagine Lukashenko sitting back and planning how he is going to spend his next five years in office.
However, this year Lukashenko finds himself in a very peculiar situation. On the one hand, he has Russia breathing down his neck with demands to take a more active (read, pro-Russian) stance on Ukraine. On the other hand, Belarusian economy is doing really bad. In Lukashenko’s own words, “the economy is in the state of war”. Alienated from Belarusians as much as he is, Lukashenko has some explanations to make; more so, since presidential election is a rare time where we can see regime imitating accountability.
As it was pointed out recently, Lukashenko’s election strategy to win hearts and minds of Belarusians will centre on these two issues – economic downturn and war in Ukraine. No doubt we will see a lot of fearmongering about Belarus descending into “Ukraine-style chaos” if anyone but Lukashenko takes office. With even less doubt, we can be sure that those external forces responsible for the economic downturn will be named and shamed. In other words, his domestic election strategy has not changed: Lukashenko is portrayed as infallible leader, taking credit for everything good that has happened or is happening in Belarus, while blaming internal enemies and malevolent external forces for any bad luck that befalls his country.
However, Belarusian election has a quite prominent foreign dimension too, and Saturday’s release of six political prisoners was meant for a quite different audience than Belarusian voters. The EU has already praised the release of the prisoners as ‘progress towards the improvement of relations between the EU and Belarus’. Brussels insiders also hinted at possibility of suspending EU sanctions. At the same time, the US Department of State called the prisoners’ release ‘an important step toward normalizing relations with the United States’. Russia, unsurprisingly, has not uttered a word.
Due to aforementioned conditions Belarus finds itself in, Lukashenko needs Western support and, especially, money now more than ever. As Mikalai Statkevich, one of the six freed prisoners, said immediately after his release, “The regime ran out of money. They can even go as far as to actually count ballots [for elections to be recognised as legitimate] to imitate democracy”. Failure to be recognised by the West as having won elections legitimately has haunted Lukashenko for as long as he has been in power.
However, it seems unlikely that the regime will take such a leap of faith and hold free and fair election with an actual vote count. What regime is willing to do is to make certain “concessions” to the West hoping to get some benefits out of it or even… hold your breath… be recognised this time.
Moreover, in 2015 Lukashenko has a unique selling point – he needs support from the West to remain geopolitically neutral in the face of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Fears of Russia are running high in Europe and Lukashenko’s appeal may find certain degree of support in the EU capitals.
Now much depends on Minsk’s assessment of Western reaction to the release. By all means it has been more than favourable. By does it warrant further concessions? How far should we go and how much are they willing to give us?
Surely we will see a lot of back and forth movement between Minsk and EU capitals in the following two months before the polls. The extent to which Lukashenko is willing to change is questionable, and Europeans know that. But at the same time, 2015 was marked by a shift from isolation to inclusion – Iran and Cuba being primary examples. With inclusion occupying greater space in foreign policy mindsets, who knows how far the West will be willing to go to embrace Lukashenko and his regime.