A tiny landlocked country in Europe – Belarus is witnessing an unprecedented revolution seeking regime change. Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s first and only President, faces mounting opposition to leave the post ever since he won the not-so-free and fair Elections on 9th August 2020. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in a country that most experts often call “Europe’s last dictatorship.”
After the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991, for a brief period, Belarus experienced somewhat a free democratic system of governance. But economic hardships and flailing economy – a characteristic of many of the post-Soviet states- led to a relatively unknown leader, Alexander Lukashenko, becoming the President in 1994. A leader with a charismatic image, he promised to restore the former glory of Belarus. Under his regime, poverty reduced, and he brought stability and peace to the young nation, but this came at the cost of deeper and deeper ties and over-dependence on Russia along with loss of democracy. By 1997 he had transformed Belarus into a total police state with near-complete authoritarian control over every aspect of the society. Press was heavily censored, political opponents were quickly imprisoned, and dissenters were swiftly silenced. He formed his own secret service (officially called the State Security Committee of the Republic of Belarus). The striking resemblance that Lukashenko’s Belarus had with that of Soviet Belarus led many commentators to remark that it was as if Belarus had been frozen in time.
Despite occasional protests, Lukashenko cruised to victory in 2001, 2006, and in 2010 Presidential elections. All this happened with tacit Russian support, as the Kremlin viewed Lukashenko as an essential ally to project its power across mainland Europe.
But this changed in 2014, as significant cracks started to emerge in this Russia-Lukashenko arrangement. The cause of these fractures was a neighbour and another troubled erstwhile Soviet state – Ukraine. Due to friendly relations with Ukraine, Lukashenko chose not to formally recognize Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Russia, to keep Belarus in check, withheld the bulk of its financial assistance to it. Since Belarus’ economy was largely dependent on this aid, this triggered a national economic stagnation. While this might not have caused much trouble for an authoritarian government in the 1990s, the advent of the internet and foreign travel had made Belarus’s people aware of stark differences between the living standards in their country versus the rest of Europe. People soon started to realize that while Lukashenko offered stability, it was at the cost of freedom of speech, and this financial crisis had tipped the scales against the modern “dictator.”
The final nail in the coffin came with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The refusal of Lukashenko to take precautions against the epidemic further angered many Belarusians. The government was internationally ridiculed for suggesting its citizens to drink “vodka” and visit “saunas” in order to protect themselves. In a country with a population of just over 95 lakhs and sub-par medical infrastructure, COVID-19 wreaked havoc. By the time of elections, the support had dipped so much that even the country’s weak and powerless opposition was able to launch not only one, but three credible alternatives to Lukashenko for the first time since his 26-year rule. Lukashenko’s response was swift – either jail them or send them to exile. Amidst this emerged Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of one of the jailed candidates, who ultimately chose to run in her husband’s place. With direct support and backing of the other two opposition figures, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, Tsikhanouskaya got support that had never been seen in the last 26 years. Her rallies drew tens of thousands of people in the leadup to the elections. Despite Lukashenko’s massive propaganda war against Tikhanovskaya, she rapidly became the new Belarus opposition’s face. A politician whose popularity soared overnight, she promised only three things: an end to the regime, the release of political prisoners, and new and free presidential elections to be held within six months. Although opinion polls were illegal in Belarus, some covert surveys indicated that Lukashenko’s actual support stood at less than 10%. At the same time, Tikhanovskaya was backed by over two-thirds of the electorate. Independent exit polls pointed to a similar proportion of support even on election day. Very few polling stations, where members of the electoral commission dared to disobey the regime’s orders, made results publicly accessible, which clearly pointed out that Lukashenko had been voted against by a vast majority of people.
But as the old saying goes, “it does not matter how people vote, what matters is who counts the votes.”. The same was true in Belarus. Contrary to her campaign estimates that she would have taken as much as 60 to 70% of the vote, the state’s official tally counted Tikhanovskaya with only 10% of the vote, leading to the near-universal conclusion that she was denied anything even resembling a fair chance.
Thousands of people took to streets protesting the continuation of Lukashenko’s hold on power. The early demonstrations, which were widely reported, were confronted on an unprecedented scale with state brutality. With the end purpose of punishing those who could suggest joining them, peaceful protesters were indiscriminately arrested, battered, tortured, and compelled to vanish by riot police. Konstantin Shishmakov, a museum director who had refused to sign a falsified electoral protocol claiming that Lukashenko had won the election, disappeared only days after taking his stand. He was later found hanging in a nearby forest, and investigators claimed no evidence of a crime. Soon after, following what appeared to be threats to her family’s life, Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee the country.
The efforts of Lukashenko to cling to power have also been strengthened by funding from Russia. Given the tense relationship between the two countries ever since the Crimean fiasco, it was not immediately evident whether Russia would agree to provide Lukashenko with assistance. However, it would appear that the expansionist intentions of Russian President Putin eventually superseded any remaining tensions.
Many foreign observers were surprised at the scale of protests being seen in Belarus ever since the results. Belarus has always been a quiet country with people having minimal revolutionary tendencies. But it seems that the unsuccessful handling of the pandemic drove the people over the edge. And they were further inflamed by the dubious manipulation of election results, which showed a massive lop-sided victory for the hated incumbent.
The current situation in Belarus is being closely watched by the European Union and the United States as well as Russia. While the EU has publicly denounced the election results and stands against a continuation of Lukashenko’s regime, it has stopped just short of declaring economic sanctions for fear of the repercussions affecting ordinary Belarusians. Belarus is particularly crucial for Putin because if the Lukashenko government falls, it may spark widespread protests at his own home. Russia has openly promised military support to Lukashenko, which has mired the tiny Eastern European country in the quicksand that is this crisis. These are very interesting times and one should closely watch the next steps of the Russian political stakeholders. One thing is for certain – Belarus has begun its journey down the long road to democracy, and this serves as a reminder to all post-Soviet authoritarian regimes that they are soon nearing their expiry date.