For the past month, Belarus has been at the centre of global attention following the mass protests that erupted in the country after their ‘election’ was allegedly rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, who has held the position since 1994.
A lot has happened in Belarus and abroad since the election, but first let’s take a look at the past.
Belarus was a Soviet Republic that split from the Union during its collapse in 1991. In 1994, a new Belarussian Constitution was enacted in an attempt to pave way for democratic and free elections, emulating what was going on in other post-soviet states such as Poland and Ukraine.
Lukashenko won this election and within a year held a referendum to change the national symbols and flag back to the Soviet era (excluding the hammer and sickle), made the Russian language equal to the Belarussian one, forged closer economic ties with the Russian Federation, returned much of the economy back into state hands and slowly began the crackdown against his opponents and the free media.
Through the use of the Belarussian Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR), key opposition supporters are routinely kidnapped (and allegedly even executed) in a bid to silence the masses and keep his position.
Although his grip on the nation is strong, the democratic opposition was never killed off, and protests against Lukashenko and his policies have become more and more common, with major protests occurring in 2006 (Jeans Revolution), 2010 (where 700+ activists were detained), 2011 (The Silent Rally, where assemblies and gatherings were formally banned), 2012 and 2017 (where protestors were mass arrested and beaten by the police).
What happened in the 2020 Presidential Election?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was one of the main opponents of Lukashenko in the 2020 election, running in place of her husband, a pro-democratic politician and YouTuber, who was refused registration for the election and who had many of his supporters and allies arrested in early 2020.
She vowed to free all political prisoners, introduce democratic reforms, move away from the union treaty with Russia, set a two-term limit for the president and more importance towards small and medium-sized businesses.
Sviatlana gained the support of most opposition groups in Belarus and politicians who were denied registration.
The day before the election, many of the senior staff in Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign were arrested, forcing her to go into temporary hiding, until re-emerging at a polling station during the election.
On the day of the election, the streets into and out of Minsk were blocked by the police, and the Internet was partially blocked by (allegedly) the Belarussian Internet monopoly, Beltelecom.
No independent observers were allowed to view the polling numbers, to ensure that no irregularities would be noticed or documented. Not that proof is needed that the elections are skewed, with Lukashenko himself admitted in 2006 that the Belarussian elections were very much rigged in his favour, stating, “Yes, we falsified the [results of the] last election. I have already told this to Westerners. In fact, 93.5 percent [of ballots were] for President Lukashenko. People say this is not a European result, so we changed it to 86 percent. This truly happened.”
After the results were ‘counted’ and approved by the authorities, Lukashenko was given a win by 80% and Tsikhanouskaya with only around 10%. This did not align with the opposition’s numbers, who maintained that Tsikhanouskaya should have won with 60-70%.
Tsikhanouskaya attempted to file a complaint to the election authorities but she was detained and fled to Lithuania once released.
Anger over this blatantly obvious tampering spilled onto the streets, with mass protests occurring in almost every major city in Belarus, from such as Brest, Minsk, Gomel, and Babruysk. The sheer amount of people that took part in these protests overshadow any opposition Lukashenko has ever had to deal with.
What started out as peaceful protests quickly spiralled out of control when police decided that the best way to deal with the protest to beat up the protesters and drag them to detention centres where they were treated with utmost cruelty.
In Minsk (where the largest protest occurred) police dropped grenades near the protesters, critically injuring multiple people. 3700 people were also arrested.
There are multiple accounts of people being killed while in police custody. However, the police brutality has done nothing but motivate the Belarussians to join the growing number of protesters and face the police head on.
The protests have even begun to affect Belarussian economy, with mass strikes being called in state-owned enterprises. The state’s TV staff also walked out in solidarity with the protestors.
The European Union does not recognise Lukashenko’s victory, with the council demanding the immediate release of political prisoners. They are also currently in talks for sanctions to be imposed on senior Belarus officials.
Lukashenko is still insisting that the protests are nothing but a foreign plot to overthrow him and to take over Belarus. He has gone as far as to move troops to the western border, banning foreign media from working, and contacting Putin to help out with the situation.
Last Monday, Maria Kolesnikova, a leading opposition leader, was seized by masked men who, on Tuesday morning, attempted to forcefully expel her from the state by forcing her to accept leaving Belarus and being driven to the Ukrainian border. Kolesnikova then allegedly tore her passport so that Ukrainian officials could not accept her into the country.
Olga Kovalkova, another opposition leader, has fled to Poland amidst threats of imprisonment.
It is very difficult to determine what lies ahead for Belarus. These protests are still going strong despite the constant attempt by the authorities to quell them, with even the latest protests in Minsk boasting over 100,000 participants. But the protests alone won’t save Belarus from its dictator.
The country has always had very close ties with Russia and Putin isn’t going to let some protestors pry Russia’s closest ally and NATO border-buffer from Moscow’s hands and towards the western democracies. On top of this Putin has to worry over the fact that if the protests in Minsk succeed, there is no knowing on whether these protests could spill over the border into Russia during their next ‘election.
Therefore, the United States and the European Union must continue to stand in support of the democratic opposition for these protests to succeed. The last thing we need right now is a repetition of the situation in Eastern Ukraine.
Written by: Nathan Portelli