19 Aug What’s happening in Belarus?
What’s happening in Belarus?
Over the last week, Belarus has erupted into the largest mass protests in its history as people take to the streets in response to alleged election rigging and a growing discontent with the broader Belarusian regime. But what exactly is happening and why are Belarusians protesting?
Background to the protests
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus became a sovereign nation and Aleksandr G. Lukashenko won the first Presidential election in 1994, elected on a populist manifesto and a promise to fight corruption. He has held power ever since, ruling for 26 years and winning five elections, though the results of every election since his first victory have been disputed.
He is often referred to as Europe’s ‘last dictator’ and Belarus was listed by the US as Europe’s last remaining “outpost of tyranny”. His rule has been characterised by a suppression of free speech, with only registered journalists allowed to operate online, extensive persecution of journalists and human rights activists, and punishment for participation in unregistered civil society organisations. The rule of law is also harshly enforced by state security forces including through the use of the death penality, torture, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention. Throughout his rule, Lukashenko has maintained close relations with Russia, who it relies on heavily for energy supplies.
In recent months, the regime has come under increasing pressure due to criticism of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Lukashenko has widely dismissed fears about the pandemic, refusing to implement a lockdown and instead urging people to drink vodka and go to the sauna twice a week to stay healthy.
During the 2020 election, all of Lukashenko’s main political rivals were either exiled or jailed. This included Sergei Tikhanovsky, a prominent blogger who was arrested in May, after which his wife – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – stepped in, becoming the main opposition candidate. On the 9th August, the Central Election Commission announced that Lukashenko had won 80.1% of the vote, and his rival Ms Tikanovskaya had won just 10.12%.
Protests began on the 9th August after the election result was announced, with protestors claiming the vote was rigged. Opposition candidate Ms Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after the results due to concerns over her family’s safety, claims that vote counts from precincts that were conducted fairly suggests she won 60-70% of the vote.
The protests that broke out on the evening of the 9th August began peacefully but later turned violent when they were met with police brutality. The protests have attracted a range of supporters including large numbers of women and factory workers – the latter of whom traditionally made up a significant proportion of Lukashenko’s support base – making their involvement even more significant. Many factories have gone on strike in solidarity and staff at state media service Belteradio have walked out, forcing the national TV channels (all of which are state controlled) to broadcast repeats.
Protests have, however, been met with extensive state violence including the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades leaving hundreds of protestors wounded and causing at least two deaths. Nearly 7000 people have been detained, many of whom have since been released, and have spoken of extensive torture by security forces.
On the 16th August, rival rallies were held in Minsk with officials claiming that 65,000 people attended the pro-Lukashenko rally though unofficial estimates suggest that attendance was closer to 10,000 and that many attendees were state sector workers who were threatened with redundancy if they did not attend. Unofficial estimates suggest between 100,000 and 200,000 attended the opposition rally though state controlled STV news states it was merely an ‘alternative walk’.
High-ranking officials, including Lukashenko, have begun to condemn the use of unnecessary force, in a bid to soften the regimes image and on Monday 17 th August Lukashenko went to a tractor plant, to try and smooth relations with his traditional support base. The move backfired as Lukashenko was heckled heavily by workers. He retorted that: “We held the election. Until you kill me, there will be no other election.” Lukashenko maintains that protestors are “puppets” and are agitators from foreign countries such as Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine.
Strikes and protests are expected to continue at the time of writing.
EU states have been quick to condemn both the election and the subsequent use of violence by the state with UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab describing his “horror at the violence used by Belarusian authorities”, stating that the UK does not accept the results of the “fraudulent” election. Belarus’ neighbours, Poland and Lithuania, have been particularly vocal in calling for action from the EU in response to the protests.
EU Foreign Affairs Chief Josep Borrell has condemned the election as “neither free nor fair” and on the 14th August EU leaders approved new sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible “violence, repression and the falsification of election results”. They will also hold an emergency video summit on Wednesday 19 th August to discuss how best to support the people of Belarus. The UN has also condemned the use of violence stating that protest arrests were a “clear violation of international human rights standards”.
Russia has so far struck a rather different tone and has criticised the EU’s response, condemning “clear attempts at outside interference” in Belarus and calling out EU hypocrisy for failing to respond to protests within the EU, particularly the Yellow Vests movement in France. On Saturday 15th August, Lukashenko announced that Putin had promised “comprehensive security assistance” in the event of an external threat.
What happens next?
Lukashenko’s position is clearly weak but the leaderless nature of the protests may make it difficult for the opposition to capitalise on this. If Lukashenko was to resign, many may turn to Presidential opposition candidate, Ms Tikhanovskaya who has announced she is setting up a coordination council to ensure a “peaceful transition of power” and has offered to become a “national leader” freeing political prisoners and setting up new elections. Whether that transition occurs will depend not only on the current regime’s desire and ability to cling to power but also on how the world responds.
In particular, all eyes will turn to Russia and to whether it will intervene to support the existing regime, as it did with Ukraine. At present this remains unclear, despite Putin’s assurances of security assistance to Lukashenko. Intervening would no doubt come with a number of costs to Russia. Sending in Russian troops to support Lukashenko, despite his clear unpopularity, risks alienating the Belarusian people and pushing the public to a more pro-Europe stance. It would also sour relations with Europe, who have already made their stance clear. Furthermore, relations between Russia and Belarus have become increasingly strained in recent years with Lukashenko expelling the Russian ambassador in 2019 for and Russia has begun scaling back subsidies to the country, which may reduce Russia’s desire to intervene.
That said, Belarus remains of strategic and economic importance to Russia. Belarus hosts pipelines that carry Russian oil and gas to the West and is a territorial buffer from NATO in Poland. Furthermore, Putin may worry that the fall of a dictator so close to Russian borders and the possibility that any new Belarusian government may align more closely to Europe would be a symbolic blow to Russia which could fuel instability within his own regime.
Much will also depend on the outcome of Europe’s discussions on the 19 th and the lengths they are willing to go to support protestors and to punish the existing regime. Until both Russia and Europe begin to take definitive actions the future of Belarus remains unclear but no doubt much will transpire over the coming days and weeks.