It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has had massive implications to both international relations and domestic politics, and has continuously complicated the democratic process. These complications are evident in Belarus, an Eastern European country bordering several NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) countries and Russia, where massive displays of political unrest have been part of daily life since the contested elections were held on August 9th. Election results claimed that leader, Alexander Lukashenko – often referred to as Europe’s last dictator – allegedly won about 80% of the vote. The Belarusian opposition, as well as many international leaders, argue that the election and the subsequent results were fraudulent, thus leading to widespread protests across many major cities in Belarus. The unprecedented brutality exhibited against protestors by law enforcement, as well as the significant geopolitical implications posed by these events, means we should further examine what is happening in Belarus and why it is important.
Belarusian Election: An Overview
The elections in Belarus on August 9th, 2020 saw President Lukashenko pitted against a coalition of women popular amongst the people of Belarus – most notable of whom, a woman named Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former stay-at-home mom who stepped into the opposition leadership role after her husband was arrested and barred from registering as a candidate. This is part of a pattern from Lukashenko, who is known to jail potential opposition figures in an attempt to ensure his consistent political victory. It is widely believed in the international community that Lukashenko often employs common authoritarian tactics, and his policies concerning state-run media and secret police are reminiscent of Soviet-era politics.
Protests initially erupted less than a month before elections took place when the Belarusian election committee, controlled by Lukashenko’s administration, barred his two main political rivals from registering as candidates – a move which many protestors considered politically motivated. This pattern of silencing the opposition, coupled with independent election monitors’ failure to recognize any previous election in Belarus as free and fair, led many observers to fear an illegitimate election.
Such was unfortunately the case, as the election committee in Belarus reported that Lukashenko had won just over 80% of the vote, with his popular rival winning just over 10%. These results had many skeptical, as Lukashenko was hardly a popular leader in the first place, and declining standards of living and the devastation caused by COVID-19 only exacerbated his unpopularity. As a result, many took to the streets of major Belarusian cities, including Brest and the capital city of Minsk, to protest. As she went to dispute the results of the election, opposition leader Tikhanovskaya was detained by law enforcement, held for hours, and eventually fled to neighboring Lithuania in order to protect herself and her children from arbitrary arrest.
The largely peaceful protests descended into violence as riot police, sometimes dressed in civilian clothing, used batons, tear gas, and rubber bullets to disperse protestors. Most recently, as of early October 2020, the interior ministry of Belarus has authorized the use of lethal weapons by police against protestors. Even as violence by law enforcement sees less coverage in international media, symbolic crackdowns on protests carry on; CBC reports that the government continues to detain and prosecute activists and protestors, with over 10,000 citizens having been detained since the protests began. However, survivors claim that the most brutal violence is committed while an individual is in detention. One protestor detailed his time detained by riot police, alleging that he was tortured for information on the protest organizers. When he told the police there was no organizer, they beat him repeatedly with a stun gun. Several people have shared their testimonies of torture and extreme sexual violence at the hands of riot police, proven by photos of their bruised bodies. Furthermore, survivors claim that doctors are called only when a detainee is on death’s door, after the most extreme physical trauma has been inflicted. It is widely assumed amongst protestors that riot police and the government have little concern for the rights of detainees once out of the public view and that there is a mentality of “anything goes” once a protestor is arrested.
Lukashenko has repeatedly justified his continued rule by insisting his leadership provides the Belarusian people with “stability,” expressly stating that he refuses to leave power in a time of global crisis. Ironically, it was Lukashenko’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and his refusal to take it seriously that intensified the devastation of the pandemic and further frustrated the people of Belarus. In late September, despite the anti-government protests and general unrest amongst citizens, Lukashenko went ahead with a secret inauguration, a move which ignited a new round of protests and consequently, a new resurgence of arrests.
The response from the international community has been, for the most part, consistent. The European Union (EU) and various European leaders have stated that they do not recognize the Belarusian election results as legitimate. The EU has also approved sanctions against many top Belarusian officials, with the notable exception of Lukashenko himself, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned the treatment of protestors in the streets and detention. Further, as protestors refused to back down, Lukashenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin – a move widely criticized amongst European and opposition leaders – in which Putin pledged a $1.5 billionUSD loan to Lukashenko as well as the promise of Russian police assistance should the anti-government protests get too “out of control.” Moreover, Lukashenko expressed gratitude towards Putin for his continued support – Putin remains one of the only leaders in the world to have accepted Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus.
What are the Implications?
There are a few major implications of these protests. First, Russia’s support of the Belarusian leader demonstrates a renewed desire by Putin to exercise his influence over post-Soviet states. For context, Belarus (formerly known as Belorussia) and Russia have historically deep ties – Belarus was a member of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991, soon after which Lukashenko took office. Despite being close allies, the relationship between Russia and Belarus was tense immediately following the break-up of the Soviet Union, and remains so today. Lukashenko has branded himself as a nationalist, with the ability to maintain a beneficial relationship with Russia while also keeping them at bay. However, Russia’s interest in assisting Lukashenko in the aftermath of the protests seems like an attempt to use the political unrest in Belarus as an excuse to exercise its influence. Further, Lukashenko’s treatment of political opposition and dissenters, even before the election, has alienated Belarus from the rest of Europe. It may be the case that, by supporting Lukashenko, Russia hopes to further distance Belarus from Europe and thus bring its cultural and economic ties closer to Russia.
Similarly, many analysts have concerns that the spectre of a modern-day Iron Curtain may be rising. It is likely very important to Russia that Belarus borders three NATO countries, especially considering the tense Cold War rivalry between Russia and NATO countries, because it would place Russian influence right next to countries belonging to the organization. This, coupled with the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by Russia, shows a pattern of attempting to reinforce Russia’s political power and influence over the region as well as an effort to slow American influence in far-Eastern Europe. Russia’s attempts to widen their influence up to the borders of NATO countries is concerning – a symbolic reunification of former Soviet states in immediate proximity to NATO could signal the possibility of a modern-day Cold War standoff and the increased potential of military conflict.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the violence perpetrated by law enforcement follows a pattern of brutalizing protestors advocating for civil liberties. Similar treatment of activists can be seen both in Hong Kong and in the United States of America, where law enforcement in both regions brutally cracked down on protestors. The pattern of violence towards protestors is extremely concerning; it demonstrates the declining willingness of many international leaders to allow for peaceful protests, as well as the disturbing ease at which many international leaders employ indiscriminate violence against protestors in their crackdown attempts. This pattern does not bode well for activists around the world – the brazen nature of the brutality from the Belarusian government and their unwillingness to heed the requests of the international community sets a dangerous precedent. If activists continue to be violently mistreated, activism becomes more dangerous and if that is the case, there is a risk that corrupt and violent regimes may never face checks and balances from their citizens.
This should concern everyone – peaceful dissent allows for accountability and if that is no longer possible, people’s civil liberties will continue to be threatened. The international community must continue to punish Belarusian officials responsible for this, and continue amplifying the voices of survivors. There needs to be a renewed and consistent effort by the international community to protect those who protest from torture and arbitrary detention. Finally, and most importantly, Lukashenko’s administration needs to face accountability for his acts of violence and suppression – the people of Belarus, especially those beaten and tortured in their fight for free and fair elections, deserve their justice and deserve a leader of their choosing.
Sign a petition to press the U.S. Congress to impose personal sanctions on Lukashenko. Sign here.
The Daily Podcast from The New York Times, “A High-Stakes Standoff in Belarus.” Listen here.