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Issue #1928      August 17, 2020

Belarus votes for Lukashenko amid destabilisation efforts

Belarus, a former Soviet republic in north-east Europe, held a presidential election on Sunday 9th August on which incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected with 80.08 per cent of the vote. His closest rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, wife of a prominent opposition blogger, received 10.09 per cent.

President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected with 80.08 per cent of the vote.

After the election, which Lukashenko called his “toughest one yet” in an interview with BelTA, violent protests broke out in several cities, including Minsk, the capital. These protests were condemned by both main candidates. In a video message released on her social media on Tuesday 11th August, Tikhanovskaya thanked those who participated in the election and asked her supporters not to take part in the protests.

“I urge you to be prudent and to respect the law,” said Tikhanovskaya in the video message. “I don’t want blood and violence. I ask you not to confront police and not to take to the streets.”

Earlier, US government broadcaster Radio Free Europe noted that “she does not really want the job [of President] and [vowed] to relinquish it quickly” if she “somehow” was elected.

Spokesperson for the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus Olga Chemodanova said in an official statement that the riots, which featured attacks on Soviet memorials and civic buildings, began after incitement from various “internet resources.”

The Communist Party released scans of several of these documents from accounts on Telegram, a popular social media app. These called for a “Minsk Maiden,” in reference to the 2014 far-right coup d’état in Ukraine, instructed protesters to carry out such violence as to push the country “past the point of no return.”

Various Belarusian websites, such as news agency BelTA, the Communist Party of Belarus, and the Central Electoral Commission were also targeted with DDoS [distributed denial-of-service] and other cyber-attacks designed to bring them offline during the election and in days following.

The roots of the political conflict

While like many countries, Belarus has a National Assembly and a President, the country is quite unique as it lacks a strong Party affiliation. Lukashenko is an independent, along with 89 out of 110 members of the House of Representatives and 46 of the 64 members of Belarus’ upper house, the Council of the Republic. The Communist Party of Belarus, the main political party, holds the powerful Education Ministry as well as 11 of the remaining 21 National Assembly seats and 18 of the remaining 19 Council of the Republic seats.

The political conflict in Belarus at its core is not about this year’s election but the post-Soviet trajectory of the country. Stanislav Shushkevich, the Belarusian leader who signed the Belovezha Accords and tore apart the Soviet Union was removed during a corruption scandal in 1994 amidst widespread rejection of the bourgeois privatisation and de-Sovietisation process occurring in Belarus. Lukashenko, who had been the only Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Byelorussian SSR to vote against Shushkevich’s Declaration of Independence, was elected President of Belarus on a policy programme of stopping privatisation and continuity with the Soviet era.

One of Lukashenko’s first acts as president was to change the policy for the sell-off of state assets to require permission from the state-owned enterprise up for privatisation as well as government approval. This resistance to privatisation has continued to this day, with the World Bank estimating in 2018 that forty-seven per cent of Belarusian GDP and seventy-five per cent of its industrial output comes from state-owned enterprises, as well as half of the country’s jobs. The Soviet system of collective farms, or kolkhozes, also continues, with all agricultural land except for household plots being state owned.

This system has been described as “the mini-USSR” or “market socialism” and this is not without reason. Not only has the economy remained largely in state ownership, but the social values and welfare system of the USSR have been in large part preserved. Belarus has the most hospital beds per capita out of any country in the world, and unemployment hovers at around 0.5 per cent with a strong social security system.

More than ninety per cent of Belarusian workers are in trade unions, compared to only five per cent of workers in Estonia, eight per cent in Lithuania, thirteen per cent in Poland. Speaking at the 8th Congress of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus in February, President Lukashenko emphasised that “the trade union movement is a full-fledged participant of the country’s development […] and the protection of rights of working people is a priority of our national development.”

Adding to the quasi-Soviet image of the country, a referendum passed in 1995 with seventy-five per cent support which changed the flag and state emblem to their current designs reminiscent of the Soviet-era symbols: a red flag with traditional Belarusian ribbon; and an emblem surrounded by ears of wheat with a red star.

Belarus’ different path of development compared to the rest of the former Soviet republics has made it a continued target of the United States and monopoly capital, who wish to bust its state economy and buy up privatised assets like they did in Russia, Serbia, Poland and other former socialist countries.

The US State Department “Belarus Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet 2020” records that official US policy towards Belarus is focused on “promoting a market economy.” The report continues, “Belarusian authorities are reluctant to undertake systemic economic reforms necessary to create a market-based economy, with seventy per cent of the economy still under government control.”

The small domestic opposition, including Tikhanovskaya, openly back this mass privatisation. In a pre-election interview with Radio Free Europe conducted on 5th August, Tikhanovskaya criticised the “poor economic management” in Belarus, saying that she would bring in a “free” economic system.

If Lukashenko can be said to be the last Soviet president, Tikhanovskaya and the opposition also hail from Soviet times – except from the other side. Opposition rallies always feature not the national flag but an old flag, a tricolour of white, red, and white. This flag, used briefly before the Great October Socialist Revolution, became infamous during World War II under Nazi occupation as the flag used by the puppet collaborationist government which annihilated entire villages and killed over one million Belarusians.

Therefore the political conflict in Belarus is not over an ordinary election campaign but a conflict between social systems and in whose interest Belarus is run. The widespread support for Lukashenko and the socioeconomic policy followed since 1994 comes from not only the benefit it gives working Belarusians, but who the opposition is. The socio-economic decline of Russia in the 1990s, and even more clearly, the civil war and fascist resurgence of the current Ukrainian government, which uses comparable symbols to the Belarusian opposition, further emphasise the benefits of the current course.

Communists urge steady course

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus (CPB) issued a statement welcoming the election result, praising that “Belarusian voters voted for Belarus, for their own future and the future of their children, the prospects for sustainable development of the social state, strengthening its economic potential, for social stability, peace, and the well-being of people.” The CPB also noted that the election was conducted in a fair manner.

Before the election, the leaders of the Communist Parties of Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation had issued a joint statement in support of Lukashenko highlighting the different path Belarus took after the dissolution of the Soviet Union compared to other republics.

Lukashenko and the Belarusian political path were also praised by Cui Qiming, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Belarus. In an interview with BelTA earlier this year the Ambassador praised the “everything for the people” policy of the Belarusian Government, noting that it “adheres to the socially oriented policy of development and puts the care for the welfare of its citizens at the top of its national development”. Ambassador Cui also praised the “clear focus and continuity” of Belarusian state policy, noting that the country has not abandoned its social and political traditions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was also the first world leader to congratulate President Lukashenko on his re-election. Belarus-China ties have increased significantly in recent years, with Xi Jinping praising the two countries as “iron brothers.”

While the situation in Belarus is still developing as of time of writing, the protests have calmed dramatically and there is no evidence to suggest they pose a sustained or significant threat to workers or social progress in the country.

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