Belarus, a small state on the edge of Europe, rarely makes it to international headlines. However, starting August 9, astonishing hard-to-miss protests sparked in the country following the presidential election results. As in 2011 elections (and the ones earlier), opposition activists pointed out deliberate falsification of vote counts, which would enable the current president Alexander Lukashenko to govern for yet one more term in addition to his 26-year-long rule.
When Alexander Lukashenko embarked on his first term, he seemed like a progressive anti-soviet leader, but the impression has worn off quickly. Already within the first year, decrees issued by the parliament began clashing with the president’s, and the overall hostility towards Lukashenko among fellow government members was slowly rising. He was harshly criticized for his attempts to assume extensive legislative power and gain control over appointing ministers and judges to the Constitutional Court, as well as for his pro-Russian stance. Allegedly, Lukashenko’s fear of the parliament’s proposal to eliminate the institution of the presidency forced him to find ways to limit the legislative body’s power and make it disintegrate. Not ready to give up the power so easily, Lukashenko insisted on organizing national referendums for constitutional amendments in 1995 and 1996 that have changed the Belarusian political landscape for decades to come. Although pro-Lukashenko authorities claimed that the voter turnout was over 80% and the overwhelming majority voted in favor of the amendments, both the opposition and the international community still believe the results were manipulated. Nonetheless, the freshly amended constitution outlined the new structure of the parliament, making it bicameral, and granted more power for presidential decrees, which allowed Lukashenko to cement his position as a never-changing Belarusian leader.
Predictably, Lukashenko’s willingness to take desperate measures did not stop with the fabricated voting for overpowering the parliamentary quarrels. Shortly after the tipping referendum, major opposition figures began to disappear and their whereabouts are still unknown; presumably, the special forces, namely the “Almaz” unit, were ordered to secretly execute them. Gonchar, Krasovsky, Zacharenko, Korban – all of them were involved in anti-Lukashenko political activities throughout the 1990s-early 2000s and paid an immensely high price for it. Moreover, every single successive presidential election process was accompanied by controversies, alleged falsifications, and/or protests with brutal suppression from the police forces. Each time, the public dissatisfaction would grow larger, from the Jeans Revolution (2006) to the public gatherings (2017), until finally manifesting itself all over the country in 2020.
Thus, the above-listed facts and events showcase that perceiving Lukahenko according to his nickname, “batka” (Belarusian for “father”), or assuming he is simply an old slightly mad politician would be an understatement. He has proven himself to be a power-thirsty dictator, who chose to employ dirty and criminal means for holding onto his position, and by doing so he delayed the natural post-soviet political evolvement and socio-economic progress of Belarus by a quarter of a century.
Once again, the belief that Lukashenko is the only suitable and qualified leader for the country is channeled solely through government-funded TV and radio. In reality, Belarus has had a strong democracy movement for decades despite constant suppression, and it has been active both in the political arena and on the streets. However, throughout 2019-2020 the opposition faced unprecedented hardship during the electoral period, as Lukashenko acutely sensed his support fading away (especially shown by his recently obtained nickname “Sasha 3%”, the number representing the actual Lukashenko support among Belarusians). All the presidential candidates who had an untrivial potential were not simply denied registration by the Central Election Commission of Belarus, which was not new. This time around, Lukashenko promptly jailed the competitors with rising electoral support before the voting: Sergei Tsikhanouski, a YouTuber and an activist, and Victor Babaryka, a business tycoon, both remain behind the bars months after the unlawful arrests. Another notable candidate, Valeri Tsepkalo, fled the country after repeated threats to avoid the destiny of his fellow members of the opposition.
Luckily, the fight was not over. Seeing no threat in Sergei Tsikhanouski’s wife, the Commission registered her as a presidential candidate in July 2020, one month before the election day. A provincial school teacher and a mother of two, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya did not seem suitable for upholding such a role, and even some of her and her husband’s supporters expressed skepticism towards her participation in the elections. Yet, they were quickly proven wrong. Tsikhanouskaya formed a joint force with Babaryka’s campaign and began touring around the country, agitating to unite against the dictator and vote against him at all costs. Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya managed to send the wake-up call to the nation despite not only lacking experience but also having to deal with the police raids at her rallies, the overpowering patriarchal structure of the Belarusian society, and Lukashenko’s degrading rhetoric towards her and the campaign.
Nevertheless, the main election day, August 9, demonstrated the true will of the Belarusians. Exit polls conducted by non-government agencies announced that Tsikhanouskaya received between 70 and 80 percent of the votes. But the official data turned out to be the opposite. According to the Central Election Commission, Lukashenko got 80.10%, while Tsikhanouskaya had only 10%. Shortly after, the suspicions were further confirmed by the immense difference between results from polling places: in rare cases of polling stations which did not carry out any falsifications (or did not have a chance to because of the independent monitoring units) had the outcomes diametrically opposed to the official ones. Moreover, some volunteers publicly shared their experience of counting the votes, stating they were forced to sign the final protocols with false results and threatened in case they tried to refuse. Thus, the bluntly unlawful actions to save Lukashenko became the final straw and triggered Belarusians all over the country to flood the streets to show the authorities that they are not willing to endure any longer.
On the night of August, 9 people began gathering on the streets of different cities and towns, chanting “Resign!” at Lukashenko. The official response was not long waited for; the police were immediately mobilized and the internet access began to deteriorate. Despite protesters not showing any signs of violence, the policemen, joined by special forces units, started to employ tear gas as well as rubber bullets and generally were not shy to beat whoever turned up – men and women, young and senior. By day 3 the police’s primary goal was to threaten those who were still willing to participate in mass gatherings.
So, they would not only demonstrate extremely aggressive and ruthless behavior while raiding the protests but also unlawfully treat those in detention centers, which led to the deaths of three people (as of now). Moreover, the protesters taken in during the first few days were kept behind the bars for three days or more and, once released, reported severe prison beatings along with cases of rape. Sadly, seventy people are still reported missing and they might be still kept in detention centers and tortured.
Only rising worker strikes helped to cool down the street confrontations, since, with most prominent industries of Belarus paralyzed, the hit for the country’s exports was inevitable. Given the stagnating state of the Belarusian economy, Lukashenko did not want to allow the situation to aggravate further, which forced him to consider taking a step towards meeting the worker’s conditions to stop violence and free the political prisoners and detainees. Nonetheless, even though the demonstrations have become slightly more peaceful by now, there is no guarantee that Lukashenko will continue to deescalate the confrontation instead of taking even more radical measures.
Unfortunately, it is too early to state that Belarus is soon to be free. Firstly, Lukashenko does not seem to understand the scale of the resistance movement and prefers to pretend that the situation is fully controlled. As one can recall, the 2019 Venezuelan mass protests were also determined to bring down those in power, yet Maduro is in the presidential seat until this day. So, there is still a slim chance that Lukashenko might make it through by making promises to introduce new legislation or reshuffle the government. Also, as much as it would be astounding to see Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya formally becoming a Belarusian president, it is unclear whether she would agree to do so. Tsikhanouskaya admits her lack of political experience and calls herself rather a symbol of the opposition than a leader. So, the uncertainty over whether she would become the president of Belarus poses a concern for the opposition and might serve to break them apart.
Lastly, It is worth noting that after nearly two weeks since the beginning of the protest, there was no substantial help from the international community. Yes, the media coverage is getting more extensive (largely due to the internet connection improving in the country) but so far the EU, the UN, and other major political actors simply verbally condemned Lukashenko – without even introducing new sanctions against him and his colleagues or similar policy-making procedures. This is especially concerning given the possibility to revive the Russo-Belarusian Union State Treaty (1999) and Putin’s recent statement, expressing readiness to provide military assistance to Lukashenko for eliminating “saboteurs who fuel the protests”. So, we have to pay close attention to how the situation unravels and be ready to help.
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