Crisis in Belarus; the what, why and how to Eastern Europe’s new political upheaval

After another election in Belarus is accused of being fraudulent, opposition groups gain their highest level of support since the fall of the Soviet Union and tens of thousands of protestors take to the streets. Source: Homoatrox (via Wikimedia Commons)
the political upheaval in Belarus, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship”, has become the major story of Eastern Europe in the last weeks. But what is happening and why?

By Hallum Cowell | Deputy Editor

Belarus is in the midst of a political crisis as protests continue to escalate over the country’s recent election. August 9 saw incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko win another landslide victory after cracking down on activists and members of opposition parties.

Protests have continued since election night; the police and government response have only added to the anger felt by those out on the streets.

From Soviet State to European outlier

Belarus was part of the Soviet Eastern Bloc until the fall of the iron curtain in 1991. The country was one of the more prosperous members of the Eastern Bloc.

Since its independence, the country has kept close ties to the reformed Russian Federation, signing a Friendship and Cooperation pact with the country in 1995, and a number of other economic and political agreements in the years after.

This relationship with Russia has surely done no favour for Belarus’ standing with the EU 27 nations, nor with other western nations.

After the country’s election in 2001, in which Mr Lukashenko was elected to his second term, opposition parties as well as western observers claimed the elections were undemocratic and unfair. The same critique was made against the government in subsequent elections.

2011 saw President Lukashenko return for his fourth term, and the EU and US level sanctions against the country.

Relations with Russia have also seen strain in the last decade. Disputes over oil and gas prices have caused the diplomatic situation between the two nations to diminish slightly. However, the two countries remain strong allies despite these disagreements.

Today, Belarus occupies a unique place in European politics, seemingly acting as one of the last reminders of the former split between east and west present during the Cold War.

Belarus is often described as authoritarian by others in the European community. Its media is restricted or monopolised by the government. Most people in Belarus get their news through 

television with all nine national channels being state owned, additionally, many of the nation’s newspapers are state owned.

In response to this, those in opposition often turn to online spaces to promote their messages.

Who is Alexander Lukashenko?

President Alexander Lukashenko has led Belarus for 26 years, since 1994, with some referring to him as “Europe’s last dictator”. He is currently Europe’s longest serving ruler.

Alexander Lukashenko has led Belarus since 1994. Source; US Department of State (via Wikimedia Commons)

Mr Lukashenko spent much of his earlier life in the military, including positions in the Border Guards as well as acting as a deputy political officer in a Guards Rifle Motor Division. Later the future President worked as director of a collectivised farm and held a number of other administrative positions.

Since Belarus’ constitution was enacted in 1994, Lukashenko has been the country’s only political leader, and has led a government not dissimilar from the nation’s Soviet past. Belarus maintains a number of symbols from its Communist past; much of the country’s manufacturing is under state control and the nation’s secret police force still bears the name KGB.

How popular the President is among his people is hard to say, since independent polling is restricted, with surveys being conducted solely by the government.

What is considered by experts as the last credible poll, conducted by a Poland based company in 2016, reported that Mr Lukashenko’s support hovered around 30%.

The lead up to the election

This election has come at a turbulent time for Lukashenko’s government; the President’s persona – as a strong nationalist who says what he thinks and protects Belarus from foreign influence – has started to crack.

Lukashenko’s stance on the Coronavirus pandemic has lent him further controversy, as he claimed the pandemic was “frenzy and psychosis” and stated:

“the tractor will heal everyone. The fields heal everyone”.

As of May, Belarus had 15,000 diagnosed cases of Covid-19, the highest per capita rates of infection within Eastern Europe. More recent figures have placed cases at an estimated 70,000 with 600 confirmed deaths from the virus.

Members of the opposition parties within Belarus are often arrested and harassed by the government.

At the forefront of the current opposition is Svetlana Tikhanovskyaya who entered the race after her husband, video blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested and prevented from registering to vote.

Other opposition candidates included banker Viktor Babrayko and former diplomat Valery Tsepkalo. All three were disqualified from entering the race for leadership with Mr Babrayko also being arrested.

All three of these political campaigns have joined together under Ms Tikhanovskyaya. The opposition could be considered a single issue group, demanding free and fair elections while avoiding other political issues. This seems to have struck a chord with the electorate of Belarus, culminating in a huge rally on July 30 with an estimated 60,000 attendees.

Attending the rally, Ms Tikhanovskyaya said:

“people who want a decent life are not criminals, they are our people, people who want a peaceful change of power”.

The current opposition is the largest force to stand against Mr Lukashenko in over a decade and has given his opponents hope of a change of leadership. Mr Lukashenko commented however that “they are not worth enough to carry out any repression against them” dismissing their potential threat to his sixth term.

Election night

Despite the growing opposition towards the President, State TV announced on the night of August 9 Lukashenko won a landslide victory of 79.7% of the vote, entering him into his sixth term in office. Ms Tikhanovskyaya reportedly received 6.8% of the vote.

Opposition to the President said they had expected the vote to be rigged.

In the capital city of Minsk, a number of areas were cordoned off as protestors, angered by what seems to be another unfair election, clashed with police. There have since been a number of reports of protestors being arrested, with allegations of torture and unlawful detention.

It was also reported, by internet monitoring non-governmental organisation (NGO) NetBlocks, that online connection had been “significantly disrupted” creating what they called an “information vacuum”.

There were no independent election observers during the polling.

Protests, crack downs and councils

Since election night Belarus has seen daily protests and anti-government rallies. Protests have been focused on the ousting of the President and have been gathering across the country. The centre for these protests however is Liberation Square in Minsk with reports of a festive atmosphere among the activists.

Svetlana Tikhanovskyaya has being the face of the opposition. Source; Serge Serebro (via Wikimedia Commons)

35 members of the opposition have formed the opposition co-ordination council aiming to force the President out of office through peaceful protest. They have since put forward four main demands:

  •       A council of “civil society activists, respected Belarusians and professionals” to facilitate an effective transfer of power away from Mr Lukashenko.
  •       The international community and other countries within Europe to organise and oversee a dialogue with the current authorities.
  •       Industrial companies, trade unions and other civilian groups to be involved in the transfer of power.
  •       The release of all political prisoners, the removal of riot police and criminal charges to be levelled against those committing violence.

Protests have led to further clashes with police. Hundreds have been wounded while thousands find themselves arrested. As of August 18, two protestors have been killed.

Despite the violence, Olga Kovalkova, a member of the opposition’s council, has said:

“We use only legal ways, legal and non-violent methods” and “all members of the council acknowledge that mass violations took place during the election campaign and the vote counting, they do not recognise the official results of the election. They regard the violence used by the police force as criminal and demand to release all political prisoners”.

Protestors have demanded that Svetlana Tikhanovskyaya replace Mr Lukashenko. After being detained in the hours following the election the opposition leader sought political asylum in Lithuania and now resides there in exile.  

Joining the protestors have been striking workers from state owned factories. Workers have been organising strike committees and have been giving speeches outside factories calling on others to join the protests. On August 19 police and security were posted outside factories in an effort to curtail the newest support for the protestors.

As workers for state controlled television joined the protests on Wednesday the President declared that these workers would not be returning to their jobs. Additionally, he accused those picketing outside factories of harassment.

Mr Lukashenko has accused the opposition of attempting a coup d’état. Stating that;

“We definitely consider this an attempt to seize power” and that “they demand nothing less than the transfer of power. We see it unequivocally; it is an attempt to seize power… with all the consequences that come with it”.

On August 20 Belarus’ chief prosecutor, Alexander Konyuk, opened a criminal case against the leaders of the opposition, again accusing them of attempting to seize power. Mr Konyuk said in a video statement:

“The creation of such bodies is not allowed in law, and they are unconstitutional… Several citizens, realising that such activities are illegal, have said they are quitting the council and disagree with its aims”.

The international response

Both the opposition and the government have been seeking international intervention in the current crisis.

Mr Lukashenko has reportedly been in contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has promised to provide aid in the case of any external military intervention. In a call with the leaders of France and Germany, Mr Putin reportedly argued that any foreign intervention would escalate the current political crisis.

It would seem that the government of Belarus still holds the full support of Russia, likely seeing them as an important ally in Europe, however, they seem unwilling to make the first move.

Meanwhile, Ms Tikhanovskyaya has been attempting to involve the EU in the crisis.

On August 19, EU leaders held a three-hour video conference and unanimously agreed to take four steps against Mr Lukashenko’s government;

  •       Sanctions will freeze the assets of an unconfirmed number of people who are accused of being involved in the alleged rigging of the election on August 9.
  •       There will be a joint EU statement supporting the protestors and denouncing the election results as unfair, though the statement will not say that the EU does not recognise Lukashenko’s authority as President of Belarus.
  •       An offer will be made to mediate a dialogue between the opposition and the government.
  •       The previously promised financial support of €53m (£48m) for the government of Belarus will instead be given to NGOs, victims of the political violence in the country and to incentivise the creation of private media companies in Belarus.

In addition, the President of Germany, Angela Merkel, said that EU leaders condemned “the brutal violence against demonstrators as well as the imprisonment and use of violence against thousands of Belarusians”

This seems to indicate that the EU are willing to get involved in the crisis in Belarus but are not yet ready to throw their full diplomatic weight behind the opposition as of yet. It could be that they are waiting to see how solid the resolve of the opposition is before committing their full diplomatic and economic force.

Other countries have commented on the situation in Belarus, the UK has said they do not accept the “fraudulent” election results, while the US has said their government is following the “terrible situation” unfolding in the Eastern European country.  

What next for Belarus?

This is clearly a momentous shift in Belarus’ political landscape. This is the country’s largest opposition movement since the collapse of the Soviet Union, capturing the attention of Belarus’ silent majority.

Many will see this as the best chance Belarus has had so far to remove the man dubbed as “Europe’s last dictator”.

However, the opposition still have a long way to go. Lukashenko still controls the government, police, and military and that lends him significant power. The President also holds support of a powerful ally in Russia, which will limit the flexibility of EU and Western intervention in the crisis.

Despite the huge numbers of protesters, it also seems that not everyone is willing to march against the government. Mr Dylevskiy, who represents striking workers at the Minsk tractor plant (MTZ) said only around 20% of workers there are currently striking with many “worried that they may lose their jobs”. It would seem many are not willing to commit until the situation appears more hopeful.

Another problem faced by the opposition is the lack of clear leadership on the ground. Many of the protests are locally organised and hold no clear leadership. While this does indicate that anti-government sentiment is gaining widespread appeal, without clear leadership and clear goals to rally behind, the opposition risks losing momentum.

A leading opposition figure, Maria Kolesnikova said on August 20 that “we’re witnessing a unique situation when protests are decentralised and spontaneous” adding that “I wouldn’t say that in order to continue the protests, we must have a leader”.

While Ms Tikhanovskyaya is currently exiled in Lithuania, members of the opposition have said they expect her to return to Belarus soon, perhaps in an effort to unify protestors.

Additionally, while meeting with workers from MTZ, President Lukashenko gave his first indication of a scenario where he left his position;

“you need to adopt a new constitution through a referendum and then have new elections of the President, Parliament and local government. And I will step down according to the constitution.”

Some things, however, are easier said than done. 

Everyday more and more people join the protests and the fate of Mr Lukashenko’s government hangs in the balance. Source; Homoatrox (via Wikimedia Commons)


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