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Belarus: The End to ‘Europe’s Last Dictatorship?

Jonny Rogers reports on the alarming democratic violations occurring in Belarus, and how the country is responding.

Photo by Matt Seymour

In mid-September, the UN Human Rights Council approved an urgent proposal to respond to the abuse of human rights by authorities in Belarus. As Michelle Bachelet details, the allegations include unwarranted arrests, torture and sexual violence; the victims include children. Now, the rest of the world is coming together to enforce sanctions against those responsible.

For the past two months, mass protests have erupted in cities throughout Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko won another highly contested election in August. The former Soviet Republic, having remained under Lukashenko’s control since 1994, has been labelled ‘Europe’s last dictatorship.’ 

Despite independent observers reporting that the demonstrations were peaceful, the Belarusian police were authorised to use lethal force against the protestors, including stun grenades, tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. Thousands of citizens have been arrested, while many others are forced to seek medical assistance. A few people have even died.

Meanwhile, women are dressing in white and holding flowers in a symbolic stand for peace. Many industries and public figures have arranged strikes, including several journalists and TV presenters who believe that the state media is misrepresenting the protests as ‘riots’; Lukashenko has insisted that the “core of all these so-called protestors […] comprises people with a criminal history and the unemployed.”

Investigations by Amnesty International reveal that detention centres in Belarus have become ‘torture chambers’ in which prisoners are stripped naked and subjected to beating. Riot police have also used force to disperse families gathering around these facilities.

Why Protest?

The protests were catalysed by reports that the August election was rigged, as well as concerns that the government has failed to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously. Lukashenko’s main political opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is a human rights activist as well as a politician, claims that she in fact won 60-70% of the vote, while the Central Election Commission officially placed this figure at 10%.

Tikhanovskaya was forced into exile in Lithuania after attempting to contest the election results, where she has been sending video messages calling for peaceful rallies across the country. Here, she has established the Coordination Council, a non-governmental body aiming to facilitate the transferral of political power away from Lukashenko. Her husband, activist and video blogger Sergei Tikhanovksy, was arrested just two days after he announced his intention to run for the election in May.

“We have always said that we need to defend our choice only by lawful, not violent means,” she insists, “but the authorities have turned peaceful street protests into a bloodbath.” - Svetlana Tikhanovskaya

After the entire country was left in the dark amid a government-imposed internet blackout, citizens communicated through an encrypted messaging app, Telegram. This has been used to arrange a ‘March for Freedom’ attended by an estimated 100,000 people, as well as deliver messages from Tikhanovskaya.

What Happens Next?

International governments are calling for a radical reformation in Belarus’ political system in response to both the reported vote-rigging and the excessive violence used against protestors.

The European Union, the US and the UK do not currently recognise Lukashenko as the official President of Belarus. “His so-called ‘inauguration’ of the 23rd September […] lack[s] any democratic legitimacy,” according to Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the EU.

The UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab says that, “we will apply all the tools at our disposal to hold Lukashenko and his regime to account” as they work with other allies in adopting targeted sanctions. This has become a global project and an ethical priority. As Borrell affirms, “Belarusian citizens deserve the right to be represented by those they freely choose through new inclusive, transparent and credible elections.”

On the 10th October, Lukashenko’s press office released a photo of his meeting with other political figures, including prisoners and members of the Coordination Council. Some members of the opposition have perceived this as a sign of his weakness, though the situation is far from resolved. Lukashenko previously claimed that the protests were initiated by ‘foreign puppeteers’, and Putin has offered his military support if required.

Meanwhile, Tikhanovskaya continues to encourage Belarus to march peacefully and “demand what is ours: new, free and transparent elections.” Earlier this week, she issued a ‘people’s ultimatum’ with three conditions:

  1. Lukashenko must go

  2. Violence has to stop

  3. Political prisoners must be released

If these conditions are not met by 25th October, the entire country will take to the streets. If Lukashenko concedes, this might well bring about the end of Europe’s last dictatorship.

A similar article: The Democratic Battle of Hong Kong

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