Since this past August 9th, Belarus has been wracked with mass protests against the current administration led by Alexander Lukashenko, mainly centering in the capital city of Minsk. The protests have routinely seen turnouts of over 100,000; no small feat in a city of only 2 million people. The vigor of the ongoing protests have been matched and exceeded by the violence of the Belarusian government’s response - while it is impossible to confirm a definite number of protesters killed, injured, incarcerated, and tortured due to the government’s lack of transparency, recently leaked documents place the count of injured numbering at least 1,373 and at least 435 have been arrested in August and September alone. Temporary detentions have numbered in the thousands. So far, neither the protests nor the violence show any signs of abating.
How it all began
The protests began in August in response to allegations of election fraud against current president Alexander Lukashenko, who has led Belarus since 1994. As the longest-standing ruler in Europe, Lukashenko has been popularly characterized as the last remaining European dictator. Lukashenko has styled his administration after Soviet Russia, and still controls most of the former Soviet country’s manufacturing industry and the media, as well as using a large and powerful secret police.
While never universally popular due to widespread poverty and corruption, Lukashenko’s reputation as a tough and effective nationalist leader was enough to sustain him politically, until Covid-19 placed additional stresses on his administration. Lukashenko received national criticism for characterizing coronavirus as easily defeated by vodka, saunas, and hard work.
Growing dissatisfaction led to the mobilization of a significant opposition campaign to Lukashenko’s reelection earlier this year. Lukashenko reacted strongly to his potential rivals, arresting several and barring them from running. One such popular opposition leader was Sergei Tikhanovsky. After his arrest, his wife, English teacher Svetlana Tikhonovskaya, registered to run instead and gathered popular support.
After the election on August 9th, Lukashenko claimed that he had won 80% of the vote and Tikhonovskaya only 10%. Tikhokovskaya countered with the claim that had the ballots been fairly counted, she would have received 60% to 70% of the vote. After no independent observers were allowed to oversee the election, an internet blackout, and other irregularities, international experts and domestic Belarusian popular opinion agreed with her. The protests then ensued the night of the election.
Tikhonovskaya was forced to flee into the neighboring country of Lithuania with her children and has continued to call for peaceful protests and democratic reforms. Her allies have also been forced to leave Belarus.
The United Kingdom has recalled its ambassador from Belarus, as have several other EU nations including Germany, Romania, and the Czech Republic. Tikhonovskaya has called upon the UN and the international community to force Lukashenko to step down.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko has reached out to Russia for support. Vladimir Putin supports Lukashenko’s administration and has offered a $1.5bn credit line to Lukashenko to finance his security forces. Putin has also offered military support to Lukashenko’s administration should the protests continue to escalate, and placed Tikhonovskaya on Russia’s wanted list for an unspecified criminal charge. However, some analysts warn that while Russia seeks to widen its sphere of influence into Eastern Europe, it may allow Lukashenko to be overthrown in order to establish a less volatile puppet.
So what now?
The future for Belarus remains murky. It is highly improbable that Lukashenko will step down, given that he has been stubbornly entrenched in the Belarusian presidency for the last 25 years. Far more likely that a bitter war of attrition will drag out between his administration and the protesters until either protesters tire or Lukashenko is forced out, either directly by losing his protection within Belarus or by international pressures from without. Only time will tell.
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