Belarus: Hope for Freedom
by Duygu BAYRAM
Belarus, a small Eastern European country, took most of us by surprise earlier last week when the news about police violence and rigged election blew up on social media. Unfortunately, a closer look shows that these were not actually news and that Belarus has had a history of dictatorship since before we hit the 21st century. In fact, Belarus was referred to as “Europe’s Last Dictatorship” in a 2005 article by David R. Marples (1).
Alexander Lukashenko became the president of Belarus in 1994 when the office was established (2). The elections following the first became a cause of controversy due to public concerns that they were not fair. In 2006, Lukashenko was quoted as saying “Last Presidential elections were rigged; I already told this to the Westerners. 93.5% voted for the President Lukashenko. They said it's not a European number. We made it 86. This really happened. And if [one is to] start recounting the votes, I don't know what to do with them. Before the elections they told us that if we showed the European numbers, our elections would be accepted. We were planning to make the European numbers. But, as you can see, this didn't help either." (3) Belarusians explain that polling is generally illegal so the public does not have an accurate idea of how popular Lukashenko really is (4).
After the rigged elections of 2001, 2006, 2010, and 2015, the general expectation for the fairness of the 2020 election seemed low. However, in a surprising turn of events and in contrast to the previous election, 2020 brought new and strong competition. Lukashenko was quick to act; two of the new opposition leaders, Babaryka and Tsikhanouski, were detained, and none of the new leaders were registered as candidates. Upon her husband’s detainment, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya decided to run for the presidency and was registered as a candidate. Many people claim that she was allowed because she was not viewed as a strong opponent. Later, she joined forces with two other disqualified candidates, Babaryka and Tsapkala (5). Together, they put forward a simple electoral program, they promised to release political prisoners, to hold a referendum to return to the 1994 constitution, and to hold a repeated fair election within 6 months.
Leading up to the election, Lukashenko was staring down the barrel of a gun. Thousands gathered together in support of Tsikhanouskaya before the election which marked one of the biggest anti-government displays in years (6). As predicted, Lukashenko was announced winner with 80% of the vote despite the overwhelming demonstration of support for his opposition.
The results led to protests which quickly turned violent in a familiar fashion. The protesters were met with tear gas, stun grenades, batons, and rubber bullets, some forces going as far as to run over a protester with a car (7), and using live fire against people (8). These actions resulted in many people becoming injured or dead. The civil unrest continued as Belarus limited access to the internet and mobile services. On Tuesday, Tsikhanouskaya left the country before releasing a video where she appears to be under duress (9) and two of her associates were reported as saying she was pressured to leave (10). Following these events, workers of Belarus’ different industries started to join the protests (11) (12).
The protests are ongoing. Save for Putin, most of the world have expressed concern over the fairness of Lukashenko’s victory and the way the protesters are being treated. Time will show whether Belarusians will win their fight for freedom or whether Lukashenko will keep his place, hopefully a democratic election is possible.