The Belarusian presidential election is over even before polls opened this morning on August 8. A leaked audio from a Central Election Commission (CEC) rehearsal revealed that the state has already decided that Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko will win 67%, former housewife and now leading opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya will get 7.5% and “against all” will take 17% of the vote.
Lukashenko is clearly nervous as he faces unprecedented opposition to his rule as he attempts to win the presidential election for the fifth time.
The centre of Minsk has been closed off and barricades have been erected in front of the main public buildings. Belarusian troops have been deployed in the capital and APCs and Chinese-made Humvees are guarding the roads into Minsk.
Social media networks have been shut down and VPNs blocked. Random detentions of normal Belarusians simply wearing the white arm bands of the opposition or honking their car horns were still being arrested on Saturday night on the eve of the elections.
And several leading opposition figures were detained, while Tikhanovskaya herself went into hiding for the last 24 hours before the poll.
In her last comments before the polls opened, Tikhanovskaya went on social media and called for: security forces to disobey “illegal orders;” for the school teachers who run polling stations to ignore pressure to rig the count; and for her supporters to stick around after voting to keep counts honest.
Polls actually opened at the start of the week for the five days of early voting – authoritarian leaders' favoured way for fixing results – and the CEC said on August 8 that 41% of ballots had already been cast. A record high for Belarus.
“Belarusian election commission claims that half the voters have cast their votes already during early vote, even though polling stations were completely empty. Wonder what they are going to do now that actual people started showing up in their hundreds. A queue in Minsk right now,” Tadeusz Giczan tweeted, a PhD candidate at University College London School of Slavonic & East European Studies who follows Belarus.
Tikhanovskaya called on Belarusians to vote later in the day on Sunday to make vote rigging more difficult and long queues were already forming in Minsk by lunchtime, as well as outside the Belarusian embassy in Moscow and other capitals across Europe.
“Massive people's mobilisation all over Belarus. I don't think there's ever been anything like that before, the queues I mean. Earlier this week the election commission stole hundreds of thousands of votes, now people are coming to claim them back,” added Giczan.
The opposition are planning a rally at 10pm this evening in the main square in Minsk after the polls close, which is expected to kick off mass demonstrations that will be the true test of Lukashenko’s rule.
Opposition leader arrested and released
Tikhanovskaya's campaign manager, Maria Moroz, was detained the night before the elections; her second detention in as many days. The team says she'll be held over the weekend. Previous she was warned by police for organising “illegal gatherings.”
Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of Valery Tsepkalo who was barred from the race and fled the country with their children, was also arrested on August 7, but police quickly released her, saying there was a “mix up” and they had been looking for someone else that “looked like Tsepkalo.”
Observers speculated that the arrest was a trial balloon intended as both a warning to the other opposition leaders and also to test the water of public reaction to the detention. As soon as the news broke there was an outburst of condemnation on social media that would have quickly led to a protest if she had not been almost immediately released.
Belarusian authorities also detained Vitali Shkliarov, a well-known political analyst who was born in Belarus and worked on the US presidential bids of Bernie Sanders and advised the Russian opposition. His lawyer said on Saturday that Shkliarov had been charged with helping organise mass unrest in Belarus and faced up to three years in prison, if convicted.
Tikhanovskaya herself went into hiding on August 7 after she says she spotted government security officers hang around outside her apartment. However, she made it clear that she would vote on Sunday.
Tikhanovskaya and her team have been touring the country for the last fortnight and were met by euphoric crowds everywhere they went.
A rally in Minsk last weekend drew an estimated 63,000 people on July 29 – the biggest political rally since the country’s independence. When the authorities tried to block a repeat rally in Minsk a week later by holding a concert in the same park, Tikhanovskaya simply hi-jacked the event.
The two DJs played “Changes” by Soviet-era legendary singer Viktor Tsoi that is the anthem of the opposition campaign and raised their arms with the clenched fist and V sign of the campaign. They were both arrested for “hooliganism” and “failing to obey police orders” and jailed for 10 days. Belarusians responded by raising $35,000 in a day from crowdsourcing sites.
"I don't need power, but my husband is behind bars. I've had to hide my children. I'm tired of putting up with it. I'm tired of being silent. I'm tired of being afraid,” Tikhanovskaya said in an interview on August 7 as she went into hiding.
Without independent observers the opposition set up the “Voice” platform where voters could register their vote online that would be verified by uploading a picture of their ballot paper, as a way to making an independent check of voting results. More than a million people register for the site ahead of the vote, more than 15% of voters, but it was closed down by the authorities ahead of the poll.
Although opposition sites are obviously populated by opposition voters, the fact that so many people had registered for the site means even with its political bias, the simple number of votes for Tikhanovskaya the site could have recorded would have made a mockery of the 17% she is expected to get in the official tally.
Plan of action
The opposition distributed two plans of action for the aftermath of the elections using the super-secure Telegram channels that have been a thorn in the side of Russia’s FSB, which has tried to ban them.
Plan A: if no state of emergency, vote late to avoid fraud, demand open and honest counting of votes. Rallies begin in big public spaces in Minsk & other cities from 22:00.
Plan B: if state of emergency is announced: Big city rallies to focus on metro stations, car parks and smaller squares; General strike all day Monday; and in the provinces, protestors asked to gather outside local government offices and demand officials defect.
The scene is set for a big showdown between the security forces and the Belarusian people beginning this evening.
The authorities are making it as hard as they can for the opposition to co-ordinate their actions. On the eve of the election another 34 independent election observers were detained by police, who are hacking their phones and deleting their social media chats where they have been recording the election violations. Most of the chats in Minsk have already been deleted this way, reports Giczan.
“Minsk. We receive multiple reports of VPN connection problems starting at 8am,” tweeted Franak Viacorka, a Belarusian journalist in Minsk.
Others reported that services from BeltelecomBy, Belarus MTS and A1 Belarus, owned by A1 Telekom Austria Group, were all disrupted. In addition the ZUBR оnline platform endorsed by Tikhanovskaya's campaign for monitoring of the elections is being blocked.
The Minsk authorities are clearly anticipating trouble and were putting up barricades in front of the important public buildings ahead of the expected demonstrations that will start this evening.
EU is “deeply concerned”
Tensions are high, as clearly there are going to be large demonstrations that will start as soon as this evening. The EU is watching closely and the German foreign ministry issued a statement expressing “concern” on August 7.
The comment was met with a certain amount of derision by observers, as during the Euromaidan the EU issued a string of statements of “deep concerned,” “grave concern,” “extreme concern,” and so on at each new escalation of the violence but the demonstrators complained that the EU didn't actually do anything.
The battle was also taken to social media, where Lukashenko hit back with a campaign advertisement that was heavily pushed on the social media site inside Belarus. The video showed scenes from the Ukrainian Euromaidan revolution in 2014 where over 100 died in the violence at the end, before going to extoll the social gains Lukashenko has delivered on during his time as president, including Belarus’ famous tractors.
Russia also came to Lukashenko’s aid a few days before, with its state-controlled media, widely watched in Belarus, reporting an investigation that found Ukraine, backed by NATO and the US, was trying to interfere in Belarusian elections.
Russia is the real winner
Whatever the outcome, Russia is likely to be the winner in these elections. The West has been warming to Belarus in the last year, hoping to drive a wedge in between Moscow and Minsk that have been rowing over energy subsidies.
The US has re-opened its embassy in Minsk after leaving it empty for more than decade, and appointed a new ambassador in April. The EU has also eased some of the sanctions on Belarus as Lukashenko attempted to play the two sides off against each other.
However, a crackdown will bring this warming to an end and leave Lukashenko isolated and entire dependent on Moscow for help in dealing with Belarus’ escalating economic crisis.
Moscow and Lukashenko have been pushing for closer integration between the two countries in a “Union state” – something the opposition have strongly objected to – but now Lukashenko's negotiating position has been severely weakened.
Lukashenko's neo-Soviet system has delivered real stability and has been a boon for the poor and old as it continues to provide many of the perks the Soviet Union did. However, without the Russian energy subsidies – Russia has sent Belarus an estimated $100bn in the last decade – Lukashenko’s system will break down. He has already been forced into co-operation with the local oligarchs as he becomes increasingly desperate for cash. If the EU withdraws and sanctions on Belarus, which is highly dependent on exports to both the EU and Russia, are tightened, then an already difficult economic situation will become dire.