Belarus Political Crisis: What Lies Ahead
“People shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.” - Alan Moore
SERGEI GAPON AFP
The opposition rejected the election result, countrymen turned out for the peaceful protest, the protesters were met with police brutality, and the president denied re-elections. Belarus, the east European country known to have ‘Europe's Last Dictator’, today faces one of the biggest political crises in its post-Soviet history after the country’s long time president, Alexander Lukashenko, claimed victory in the presidential elections with a landslide of 80% votes.
The elections, held on 9th August, were denounced by many as rigged, and this sparked off the countrywide protests against the presidential dictatorship. The election results were considered fraudulent and what started as a peaceful protest soon turned into violent crackdown by the authorities. This included the use of water cannons, tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets by the riot police, which detained around 7000 protesters.
On 16th August, an estimated over 200,000 people took to the streets in the capital city of Minsk—largest in its history—calling for the resignation of the current government under Lukashenko.
What led to these crises?
First, an authoritarian leadership. The person at the centre of this political crisis, the country's five times “elected” president, Alexander Lukashenko, got into power in 1994 when the country held its first democratic elections, which to the surprise of many, are considered the only free and fair elections held in the history of Belarus. What followed is a history of constitutional amendments, falsified elections, and suppression of opposition. Lukashenko controls a strict security system suppressing dissent, often labelling opposition leaders as “terrorists”. He also exercises full control over the media, quashing dissenting voices and independent media completely. Economically, the country is dominated by state-owned Soviet-era factories and farms, which are controlled by the government, and the economy is nearly dependent on Russian assistance.
Second, growing discontent among people. Economic stagnation, major GDP dips, and unemployment remain major issues in Belarus till date. As a leader, his wrong assessment of the Covid-19 crisis and refusal to take measures against it, instead advising the public to drink vodka and visit saunas fuelled the discontent. His sexist comments against his main election rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, dismissing her as too weak to handle the presidential powers, also gathered him much public hate.
Third, the presidential elections themselves: Many opposition candidates were persecuted, arrested, barred, or had to flee Belarus because of political persecution, including Sergei Tikhanovskaya, a video blogger who openly criticized Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime, and was banned from running in the elections. Even international election observers who were allowed to monitor the previous elections were barred from monitoring the processes this time. After the closing of polling stations, on 9th August, police forces were deployed to violently suppress the protests.
As the protests continue on the streets of Belarus, the police brutality and the use of violence by the authorities on the protesters, which led to the killing of two and left thousands injured, has been condemned by many global actors. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the actions of the government. The United States and the European Union, on the other hand, dismissed the election results and warned imposing sanctions on Lukashenko’s government. Many employees from major industrial plants and state TV, also went on indefinite strikes, as the government denied re-elections. Amid this wave of international criticism, Lukashenko has turned to its powerful neighbour and traditional ally, Russia, for assistance.
SERGEI GAPON AFP
What Lies Ahead?
While the Russian president has publicly supported Lukashenko, agreeing to provide military assistance to the state and even warning the US and EU against their sanctions, the political turmoil in Belarus presents a foreign policy challenge to Putin: a challenge about balancing his actions in a way that keeps the country in Moscow’s orbit with or without Lukashenko.
Now what happens next in Belarus, depends on a variety of factors: decisions made in Moscow, intervention by other countries, the resilience of the protesters and their ability to sustain pressure on the Lukashenko’s government by mass mobilization on the ground.
Even the strongest and most capable authoritarian regimes are fallible and this is what Lukashenko needs to keep in mind to sustain his powers. So far, the heavy-handedness of security forces, including the reports of disappearances, beating, and torture, has only added to the anti-government sentiments of the people resulting in protests that brought together people from a vast cross-section of Belarusian society in their demands for just elections and an end to Lukashenko’s 26-year regime.
By Chahat Susawat
firstname.lastname@example.org Chahat Susawat is a second year student pursuing Political Science Honours from Hindu College and a member at The Symposium Society. Besides having a keen interest in Public Policy and global affairs, she loves to read and explore areas beyond her subject matter and is currently fascinated by astrophysical concepts (well, she’s still exploring).