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No going back: the dawn of a new world in Belarus

14 September, 2020

By Irena Baboi – Senior Fellow

The 9 August presidential election in Belarus was always going to have a noteworthy result. Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a figurehead of the pro-democracy movement, emerged as a strong challenger to incumbent president Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s 26-year dictatorial rule. Despite only becoming a candidate because other opposition leaders, including her husband, were jailed and barred from running, Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign rallies drew crowds of tens of thousands across the country. When Lukashenka claimed he won a sixth term in office with 80% of the vote, both the opposition and the people knew this was not possible, and accusations of blatant vote rigging and electoral fraud were quickly followed by mass demonstrations. More than a month later, the protesters’ demands remain clear and unchanged: they want free and fair elections, the release of all political prisoners, prosecution of those responsible for police brutality – and Lukashenka gone.

In power since post-Soviet Belarus held its first presidential election back in 1994, Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s initial response to the protests was both brutal and predictable. A violent crackdown saw riot police using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons against demonstrators, killing at least two and injuring hundreds. Nearly 7,000 people were put behind bars during the first days of the protests, and those who have been released accuse security forces of unprecedented beatings and torture. Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee to neighbouring Lithuania with her family, and four other opposition leaders – Siarhei Dyleusky, Volha Kavalkova, Maria Kalesnikova and, most recently, Maxim Znak – have been detained in the last few weeks.

In true Soviet fashion, Lukashenka also blamed the protests on ‘foreign-backed revolutionaries’, and accused NATO of ‘trying to topple the authorities’ and install a new president in Minsk. Sporting body armour and carrying an automatic rifle, Lukashenka thanked the riot police for remaining loyal to him, and threatened more violence in the form of a military crackdown if the protests continue. Demonstrators, however, have been undeterred by this flashy display of muscle, with tens and even hundreds of thousands of Belarusians taking to the streets every evening all across the country. The threatened military crackdown itself has not been forthcoming, as the peaceful nature of the protests is preventing the government from ending them by force.

An armed intervention, if it were to take place, would not be carried out by the Belarusian army alone. Despite their hot and cold relationship, Lukashenka asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for help to restore order, and the Kremlin seems to have agreed to back him for now. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to strengthen Moscow’s grip on Minsk, Putin sent teams of media personnel to implement a mass propaganda and scaremongering campaign, and has promised to deploy a “law enforcement reserve force” if the protests get out of hand.

The 9 August stolen election was the drop that made the people of Belarus’ cup run over. Their country’s economy has not been growing since 2010, and their government’s only response to this was to reduce some social welfare and impose a tax on the unemployed. When the coronavirus crisis started, Lukashenka dismissed the virus as a ‘psychosis’, and told people to play ice hockey, drive tractors, and generally not worry about it. With no lockdowns imposed and no mass gatherings banned, the number of cases currently stands at over 70,000 – nearly 10% of Belarus’ total population.

The recent violence and arrests, moreover, are nothing new in Belarus. Even before the protests erupted, critics of the government were routinely harassed, jailed and even tortured, and any show of dissent was brutally supressed. Ahead of the election, independent observers and reporters were arrested, and there were numerous reports of internet outages and difficulties in accessing local news websites. The current demonstrations are the culmination of years of anger, dissatisfaction and frustration – and a widespread desire to finally experience change.

This is why, more than a month in, the people of Belarus show no signs of backing down. Workers continue to support the protesters with strike action despite threats of dismissal and legal action, and people continue to take to the streets in their tens and hundreds of thousands despite renewed arrests and brutality. Maintaining this popular pressure will be crucial in the coming weeks – as the battle for a new Belarus has only just begun.

At the time of writing, five of the seven leaders of the Coordination Council – the opposition political body created to oversee the transfer of power away from the current authorities – have either been detained or forced to reside abroad. The council itself has a criminal case against it, and stands accused by the government of trying to illegally seize power. On his part, Lukashenka has strengthened his security apparatus, and declared that he is willing to hold new elections, but only after a referendum on amending the constitution. The details of the latter remain vague and have raised alarm bells relating to Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet country – as the amendments are likely to pave the way to greater economic integration with Moscow.

If Lukashenka becomes willing to give up most control of Belarus, Russia will opt for a ‘soft annexation’ rather than a full military invasion. Deeper economic integration would be followed by greater political integration, which would eventually culminate in a full-fledged Union State between the two countries. As Lukashenka is very much aware, this would effectively mean the de facto absorption of Belarus into Russia – having lost all legitimacy, however, he may decide that the small chance to stay in power it affords is a fair exchange.

For this very reason, if Belarus is to become a different country, the West needs to go beyond condemnations and a list of targeted sanctions that only includes Belarusian officials. The financial support for the civil society and independent media is a great start, but it needs to be followed by a clear recognition that Belarus is currently in the midst of its transition to a democratic state. Alyaksandr Lukashenka is no longer president of the country, and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the people’s chosen leader. The West also needs to remember that Russia is always ready to fill a power vacuum as soon as it is created – and this time, it must not be allowed.

The people of Belarus are standing firm in their convictions, and have not given in even when faced with violence and oppression. In order to succeed now, and achieve their goal of a democratic country, they need concrete international support. The days of dictatorial rule and control must come to an end – and the Belarus that people are fighting for must become a reality.

Image: Rally in memory of demonstrator Alexander Taraikovsky who died in the protests; Pushkinskaya metro station, Minsk, Belarus August 15, 2020 (Source: Melirius/CC BY-SA 4.0)

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.