Henry Kirby in London -
Despite what may turn out to be Belarus’ freest presidential election under the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, the electorate of the former Soviet republic looks likely to stick with the status quo on October 11, if recent polls are anything to go by.
Having led Belarus for 21 years, winning four elections by questionable landslides in the process, Lukashenko has agreed to allow election observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to oversee this year’s proceedings.
Lukashenko’s popularity is currently sitting at 38.6%, far shy of the supposed 79% of the vote that won him the 2010 election, but miles ahead of his closest rival, Mikola Statkevich, the recently freed political prisoner and vocal opponent of Lukashenko’s regime, who scored just 6.5%.
Moves such as Lukashenko’s decision to release a number of political prisoners in August have been interpreted by many as a sign of a shift in attitude by the authoritarian regime, paving the way for political and structural reform and, resultantly, a boost in bilateral trade with the EU. More important to Lukashenko, though, is the $3.5bn of much-needed International Monetary Fund cash that a genuine effort toward liberalisation would likely unlock.
While Lukashenko bends to the allure of Western financing, the electorate appears to be looking the other way, with favourable views of Russia a pervasive theme of a June poll by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS).
Over six in 10 respondents deemed Russia’s annexation of Crimea to be "a restitution of Russian lands and reestablishment of historical justice", while 52.8% of Belarusians polled said they would quickly “adapt to [the] new situation” if Russia were to annex Belarus.
A certain irony lies in the fact that Russia’s creeping influence over Belarusians via its RT television network has tempered any dissident murmurings and drives for political change, replacing them instead with a desire for geopolitical stability in the face of ongoing conflict in Ukraine. According to the IISEPS poll, 90% of Belarusians watch Russian state news.
A further irony, albeit one that was lost on Lukashenko, came when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Minsk and was told by the Belarusian leader that his “presidential elections will be held in such a way that you will never be ashamed of cooperation with Belarus”.
Asked how favourably they viewed various world leaders, Belarusians appeared to prefer more authoritarian heads of state to democratically elected ones. 60% viewed Russian President Putin favourably, with 43.7% favouring Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989. US President Barack Obama scored a lowly 13.5%.
The October 11 presidential election could be the first real opportunity for a change of leader in a generation, but Belarusians appear all but certain to opt for more of the same when the polls open.
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