The Big Picture: Belarusians have been embattled in anti-government protests after August 9th’s election results extended the 26-year rule of President Alexander Lukashenko. Government crackdown against protesters has been swift and brutal as citizens have protested the government’s COVID-19 response, a stagnant economy, and political repression of opposition.
“Europe’s last dictator”: Known for suppressing dissidence and detaining his political opposition, Lukashenko is the first and only elected president of Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
According to official election results, Lukashenko managed to win 80% of the vote, while leading opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya received just under 10%.
- However, the legitimacy of the results have been disputed by foreign observers.
Belarusians are pushing for democratic change: The government’s dismissive response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a stagnant economy have fueled citizen discontent. Tsikhanouskaya thus emerged as a “symbol of change” and managed to rally support for her campaign after the arrest of her husband, a blogger and vocal critic of Lukashenko.
Tsikhanouskaya’s request for a recount resulted in her detainment at the Central Election Commission for several hours Monday evening.
- Having fled to Lithuania on Tuesday, she released a video urging her supporters to respect the results of the election and abide the law.
- Many have speculated that this video was recorded before she left the country under coercion.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets in protest.
- Police have been using brutal methods such as tear gas and water cannons in their efforts to disperse crowds comprised mostly of young people.
- The result has left at least 6,700 detained and two casualties so far.
After a three-day internet blackout, the country is back online but tensions remain high.
Thousands of factory workers have joined the protests in a walk-out, calling for Lukashenko to step down and cede power to Tsikhanouskaya. Though Lukashenko is adamant that his government will not fall, his opponent has released another video saying that she is willing to assume leadership and restore normality while the country prepared for new elections.
“There will be no new election until you kill me” – Alexander Lukashenko
International response: Once close allies, Belarus has been distancing itself from Russia after Moscow’s invasion of eastern Ukraine. Lukashenko’s desire to prevent Russia from meddling in the country’s internal affairs and maintain its independence has led him in recent years to pursue better relations with both the West and China.
- Freeing the country’s last political prisoners in 2015 paved the way by prompting both the United States and the European Union to ease sanctions on Belarus.
Allegations disputing the validity of election results has once again put Belarus in the hot seat internationally. A statement from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claims that the election “was not free and fair”. Meanwhile, the EU plans to meet on Wednesday to prepare new sanctions.
Human rights violations: UN Human Rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, has expressed concern for the situation in Belarus, condemning the massive arrests as in violation of international standards.
- The government has also been accused of attacking independent news media in the country.
- According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 35 reporters have been arrested. Several journalists have also been injured in protests and had their memory cards seized by officials.
The Bottom Line: Belarus’ shifting political fortunes – and increasing closeness with the West and China – place President Alexander Lukashenko in a tough position as he attempts to retain power and meet international calls for “free and fair” elections. As Lukashenko works to separate Belarus from regional powers like Russia, it may become increasingly necessary for him to conform to a UN human rights regime – or return into the Russian orbit.
The fate of the Belarusian people remains uncertain as outrage over political repression has manifested into protests, prompting state violence which may serve to inflame tensions as much as it wants to reduce them.
- COVID-19 – Dress Rehearsal for Climate Change? | Op-Ed
- Putin Until 2036? The Story Doesn’t End There…