The election which took place on Sunday in Belarus was watched closely in Warsaw. The campaign preceding it and the fall-out from it may have serious consequences for the region.
According to an exit poll on state TV President Aleksandr Lukashenko won the election with almost 80 percent of the vote with Ms Cichanouska receiving just seven percent. The exit poll was greeted with disbelief and protests. The authorities made internet connections difficult and the police and the military were out in force across the cities to curb protesters.
An undemocratic election
It was never going to be an election that could qualify as a democratic one. No observers allowed. The count was tightly controlled by the authorities. Pre-poll voting was totally under government control too. Several opposition candidates were under lock and key.
A typical Belarusian election in which as comrade Stalin used to say, what mattered was not who voted but who counted the ballots. However, there was one difference this time. The public mood. The pandemic and continuing economic problems had turned worked against the incumbent.
He tried to ingratiate himself with the voters by posturing his independence of Moscow over oil imports. He even had some Russian mercenaries arrested for allegedly planning to destabilise the country. When that failed to convince he made threats about what would happen if he was deposed.
All to no avail. Dissatisfaction grew and with it the size of opposition rallies. An opposition which after years of ineffectiveness suddenly found an audience and a voice.
The gambit of one of the candidates, who was not allowed to register and was arrested, the wife stood and got the other women associated with other unregistered or imprisoned candidates worked well, attracting huge interest on social media and beyond Belarusian borders. Svetlana Cichanouska became a focal point for protests that grew by the day and forced President Lukashenko into repressive actions against opposition supporters and organisers even ahead of actual polling day.
Poland and the EU’s dilemma
The problem Poland and the EU has with reacting to events in Belarus is that to look the other way means condoning a dictatorship. But to impose sanctions, as was the case in 2010 when Mr Lukaschenko used brutal force against demonstrators protesting the result of a rigged election isolates Belarus and drives it into the arms of Russia.
Another problem is the fact that to encourage the Belarusians to rise up only then to leave them to face either a crackdown by the dictator or a Russian intervention that would put paid to both Mr Lukaschenko’s reign but would also be the end of democratic dreams is also not an enticing option. And if such an uprising was unsuccessful Mr Lukashenko would have a clinching argument to use in Moscow and back at home that the west was attempting to depose him.
This is why Polish President Andrzej Duda and the president of Lithuania Gitanas Nauseda issued a joint statement in which they called for respecting human rights and for dialogue between the authorities and the opposition. But the statement kept the door open to dialogue with Belarus over improving relations with the EU and on a bilateral level.
Poland’s balancing act
Poland has been treading very warily with Belarus for the last few years. It funds TV Belsat and provides sanctuary for Belarusian opposition leaders, it provides work for many Belarusians. But it has not launched any diplomatic offensives against Mr Lukashenko and has been open to economic cooperation with the country.
Poland remembers how supporting radical opposition figures during the time of the last Civic Platform (PO) government achieved nothing. This choice of backing radicals was puzzling given the fact that many PO figures had themselves participated in the compromises of Poland’s Round Table process in 1989. While there was little chance of repeating that in Belarus, there seemed even less point in backing radical forces that drove Lukashenko into the arms of Russia.
The regime falling would not necessarily be a good scenario for Poland. It is not the case that Moscow is capable only of dealing with dictators. It has moved with skill in Armenia and Moldova, both countries which are democracies and in which Russia has considerable influence. It would not be a major surprise if Moscow found it easier to deal and secure its interests with a government led by the opposition than the Mr Lukashenko regime.
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Not like Solidarity nor Ukraine
One of the problems is that neither Poland nor the EU has strong links with the Belarusian opposition. Totally unlike the situation in Poland during communist times, or even Ukraine during its two revolutions. Belarus, unlike Poland during communist times, does not have a powerful church, independent trades unions, or strongly pro-western intellectual elites.
Poland with its track record in Ukraine and other east European states will not be the partner of choice for Lukashenko, should he finally get around a table with both his opposition and European powers. As in the case of Ukraine back in 2014, when Russia successfully vetoed any Polish participation in talks with the EU over the armed conflict it had unleashed.
There seems little evidence that the rest of the EU has any appetite for trying to reorientate Belarus from east to west. But it does not want it totally under Russia’s thumb either. The EU may have some leverage with Mr Lukashenko because of the parlous state he and the Belarusian economy find themselves in.