Politics and protest in Belarus

Following the elections of 9th August 2020, the future of ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ is far from certain. Alexander Lukashenko, the 65-year-old strongman who has ruled Belarus since 1994, was re-elected for a sixth consecutive term as President. Official results gave him 80% of the vote, but this landslide victory was no surprise – for many, it was a forgone conclusion.

Of the six presidential elections held since Belarus declared independence in 1991, only one, the first, has been deemed free and fair by the international community. The European Union and United Kingdom are amongst those that have refused to accept the election result, with the EU’s foreign minister referring to the elections as “neither free nor fair”.

The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) usually monitors elections in Belarus. This year, however, ODHIR was unable to do so because the Belarusian authorities did not offer a timely invitation. The Council of Europe also failed to send a monitoring delegation, citing its late invitation and the current health situation among its reasons.

Protests began immediately after the end of polling, with a state television broadcast publicising the results of a government-controlled exit poll that showed a landslide victory for Lukashenko.

Belarusians on the ground attempted to carry out their own monitoring, photographing the final protocols (reports summing up election tallies) displayed at polling stations. Protocols for many stations in Minsk showed support for Ms Tsikhanouskaya, the primary opposition, as equal to or higher than that for Lukashenko, despite her only officially receiving 10% of the vote. The Belarusian political scientist Valer Karbalevich has said that there is no correlation between these protocols and the official results.

Protests began immediately after the end of polling, with a state television broadcast publicising the results of a government-controlled exit poll that showed a landslide victory for Lukashenko. Protests began peacefully, but it was not long until the police attacked, committing acts of violence such as beating people with batons and shooting rubber bullets. Some protesters used barricades and fireworks to defend themselves. The country’s ministry of internal affairs reported that 3,000 protesters were detained.

On Monday 10th August, Ms Tsikhanouskaya submitted a complaint to the Central Election Commission of Belarus (CEC) and was detained for 7 hours. The candidate then left the country to Lithuania. An associate of the candidate has reportedly said that Ms Tsikhanouskaya was escorted by the authorities as part of a deal securing the release of Maria Moroz, her campaign manager who had been arrested on the evening of Friday 7th August.

Protests continued in the week after the election, with many protesters being informed about planned actions and given encouragement through the Telegram communications platform. One pro-opposition Telegram channel, NEXTA Live, now has an audience of over two million people, which is significant given that the total population of Belarus is 9.485 million. Telegram often remains available during internet blackouts, helping protestors to continue organising in spite of the seemingly government-imposed outages that have occurred.

The EU council has agreed to impose sanctions on “individuals responsible for violence, repression and the falsification of election results”.

By Thursday 13th August, the total number of people detained had risen to 6,700. On that day, several strikes were reported at state-owned factories, and more have been reported since. The involvement of these workers is significant given the consequences they could face defying the government under Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime. Lukashenko was himself heckled by employees while visiting a factory on 17th August.

At present, the protest movement still appears strong in numbers, with attendance at a rally in Minsk on Sunday 23rd August being estimated by some as over 200,000. On Friday 14th August Ms Tsikhanouskaya announced the formation of a Coordination Council to work on a peaceful transition of government. This has been described by Belarusian authorities as an illegal attempt to seize power.

The EU Council has agreed to impose sanctions on “individuals responsible for violence, repression and the falsification of election results”, and Ms Tsikhanouskaya met with the U.S. First Deputy Secretary of State on 25th August. Meanwhile, it is unclear to what extent/if at all Russia will intervene in the country with which it forms The Union State, however the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated on 23rd August that the Belarusian people “will decide for themselves how to get out of this situation”.

For now, the future of Belarus still hangs in the balance.

By Luke Stuart

Image: by OSCE Parliamentary Assembly via Flickr

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