Protests in Belarus reveal strained relations between Russia and Europe
Protests have been breaking out in Belarus following Alexander Lukashenko’s claim to the presidency for his sixth term, securing a spot as Europe’s longest-serving leader.
Belarus held their presidential election on August 9, 2020. Lukashenko was inaugurated in a secret ceremony on September 23, 2020, contradicting the interest of a majority of the Belarusian population. In response, protests immediately broke out in the capital, Minsk.
Named “Europe’s Last Dictatorship” by George W. Bush in 2005, Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet country since 1994.
“Belarus has not seen protests like this since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Matthew Frear, a Belarus expert at Leiden University in the Netherlands, “the last free and fair elections were in 1994.”
Leaders around the world and protesters believe the election was rigged in his favor, and some don’t believe he is the head of Belarus. Around election day, despite widespread fear of fraud and an internet blackout which lasted several days, the government did not investigate. The electoral commission says Lukashenko won with more than 80 percent of the votes, but the opposition says their candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya won by at least 60 percent.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya—a political newcomer and former teacher—believes many votes were faked. Three months before election day they jailed and banned opposition rivals from running. From the jailed, one is Sergei Tikhanovsky, husband of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was a YouTuber and opposition figure. It was after his May arrest that Tikhanovskaya decided to register as a candidate in the place of her husband.
After election day Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee the country to Lithuania. “I am not a leader by nature and i’ve never been such a leader but so it is my faith and it’s my mission now, I have to be a leader,” because she wants Belarussians to have a free and safe country where they are not afraid to express themselves. She expressed that the responsibility has her more afraid than anybody right now, she is scared of not doing enough but she can’t give up.
“[Lukashenko is] Neither a legal nor a legitimate head of Belarus,” said Tikhanovskaya.
Some of the reasons for protest have been the jailing of opposition figures, economic stagnation, police brutality, holding new elections and mismanagement of COVID-19. Lukashenko called it a “psychosis” that can be cured with vodka and a sauna trip even though he has contracted the illness.
As a result of the protest, some of Lukashenko’s responses have been—on top of jailing people—cutting off internet access and claiming it’s foreign countries trying to destabilize Belarus. Vladimir Makei, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Belarus, expressed that any comments by western countries were “attempts to bring chaos and anarchy to our country, to make Belarus lose many years of development.” Lukashenko’s government is heavily reliant on Russia, while the Belarusian opposition favors closer ties with the EU and NATO
There have been a lot of protesters detained. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported according to the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency “Police detained so many protesters that they ran out of room in vans and had to free some of the women.” With everything going on Lukashenko is risking losing funds from foreign countries on top of many others, which he desperately needs.
“They [Belarussians] will not be able to accept him especially after all this violence that has happened during peaceful demonstrations,” said Tikhanovskaya
“[They are] impressed and moved by the courage of the Belarusian people who continue to demonstrate peacefully for democracy and for their fundamental rights despite the brutal repression of the Belarusian authorities,” said the European Union (E.U.) foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell in a statement.
There have been different forms of protests. The two main groups protesting are 1) young people in Minsk and other urban areas, and 2) striking public-sector workers. The relevance of this is that usually these two groups don’t coordinate.
Despite all this Makei said, “they [Belarussians] chose a stable and prosperous state, they chose peace and good neighborly relations, they chose sustainable development.”
Leaders around the world have in some way responded to or made a statement about the unrest. President Trump said, “it doesn’t seem like it’s too much democracy there in Belarus.” A lot of people are in agreement with that. Germany’s Haiko Maas expressed, “What happened in Belarus in the last few days is completely unacceptable and calls for a clear reaction of the E.U.”
The dilemma for the E.U. is that they need to stand by their values and can’t ignore this scale of electoral fraud and unrest, but on the other hand they don’t want to push Lukashenko closer to Russia. Before 1989, both Belarus and Russia were a part of the Soviet Union. In 1999, Lukashenko and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a political and economic union, meaning the two countries would have common political institutions, economic policies and currency.
Regardless, E.U. is planning on putting new sanctions in forms like visa bans and freezing any assets held in the E.U. “Interference in our internal affairs, sanctions, and other restrictions on Belarus will have the opposite effect and [be] harmful for absolutely everyone,” said Makei during the 75th United Nations general debate. Experts believe the E.U.’s response should be coordinated with the United States and Britain. Makei also added, “that we strongly reject any use of unilateral coercive measures and international relations.”
According to experts at COUNCIL on FOREIGN RELATIONS, Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, won’t be interfering in this situation because of five reasons. One, protests are not anti-Russian—yet. Two, Putin won’t get any nationalist payoff by interfering. If Putin decides to intervene it looks like he has one motive to the Russian people which would be, to support electoral fraud and silence the people of Belarus. With his superficial referendum to withdraw from term limits to his rule, he doesn’t need more suspicion. Three, protests are already really big and getting larger and larger, looking unstoppable. Four, “little green men” are Russian special operations forces engaged in nonlinear warfare and they won’t be any help because they would not be a low-cost operation, without them interfering would be messy. Five, if “little green men” are not of use then Belarusian elite probably are, Lukashenko’s strongest opponents favor good relations with Russia, so if Lukashenko doesn’t make it out of this Putin won’t be hurt. For right now we do know that Lukashenko has gotten a $1.5bn loan from Russia.
The people of Belarus want another election. Makei has ironically expressed the future of Belarus will be determined by its people but that doesn’t seem likely as Lukashenko doesn’t like to compromise; he sees it as a weakness.
“The brave citizens of Belarus are showing their voices will not be silenced by terror or torture,” Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden tweeted.
Even with all the fightback from authority figures and being in the middle of a global pandemic, Belarussians have been determined and consistent for their purpose. They are showing up and fighting back, and from history, this looks like the right recipe for change.