By Charlie Herrman ’21
Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-Un, Bashar al-Assad, and Xi Jinping are often thought of as the world’s leading dictators and antagonists of the West, and for good reason, their regimes have been responsible for countless human rights violations and their people have lived under totalitarian rule. However, Belarus, a small country in Eastern Europe, has retained a harsh, authoritarian rule for 25 years and unlike their dictatorial counterparts, they have successfully stayed out of the global spotlight. That might be about to change, though. And one of the last European dictatorships is facing serious challenges to their rule.
For the first time in Alexander Lukashenko’s 25-year tenure as president, who has ruled over Belarus since its inception, he faces both a myriad of problems that he cannot cover up and opposition. While partial blame for the economic downturn in Belarus can be placed on the COVID-19 outbreak, Lukashenko accused Russia, Belarus’s largest trading partner, of attempting to destabilize the nation, stifling their relationship for the time being. Lukashenko, who claimed that drinking vodka and long stays in a sauna could protect from COVID-19, has come under fire for his handling of the pandemic as well. These two factors, coupled with the suppression of rights for women and accusations of fixed elections created ideal circumstances for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s rise.
Previously an English teacher and interpreter, Tikhanovskaya took over her husband Sergei's campaign after he was arrested in 2020. Known throughout the nation as a popular political activist on YouTube, Sergei repeatedly called for social and political reform while making blasphemous remarks about the Lukashenko regime, which led to his arrest. Tikhanovskaya joined forces with Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, the former wife of another political activist and the latter a campaign manager, and launched a campaign for the presidency. Tikhanovskaya had no political experience prior to launching her campaign, but her ability to resonate with fellow Belarussians on issues of journalistic freedom and corruption helped propel her to the front of the charge against Lukashenko and become the first female presidential hopeful in Belarus’s history.
Tikhanovskaya has run on two promises: the first is to free all political prisoners, and the second is to stop the breach of women’s rights. This opposes Lukashenko’s governing methods, which are derived from authoritarian Soviet rule. While the dissolution of the USSR began on December 26, 1991, Lukashenko maintained the infamous secret police of the Soviet era, the KGB, both in name and practice. Reports of unlawful arrests of political opposition and journalists, torture, and rape have beleaguered Lukashenko’s secret police for years. Claims of sexual assault that have been levied against government officials from the top down have come to light in recent years as the media has become increasingly difficult to restrict.
Despite Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s rapid rise and growing support, Lukashenko retained the presidency for a sixth consecutive term on August 9. “Was the election fixed?” you might ask. According to an overwhelming majority of leaders around the world, the answer is “yes.” To date, only Russia and China have recognized Lukashenko’s win as legitimate, hardly surprising given their long-standing diplomatic relations with Belarus.
Despite a 63,000 person rally in Minsk less than a month ago and countless sold-out venues across the nation, Ms. Tikhanovskaya reportedly received just over 10% of the vote, while Lukashenko received over 80% of the vote. Claims of tampering continued after an official government survey from 2020 reported a 24% approval rating for Lukashenko, which has been disputed to be as low as 3% by independent surveyors. The government also reported that 40% of ballots were turned in early, which has led to much speculation of illegitimate votes cast by government officials and party loyalists. While not damning without context, there was no independent party overseeing the counting process. But, in the case of Belarus, this information has only added fuel to the fire given the lack of trust in the government. Even the least savvy of us can deduce 2 + 2 ≠ 5.
Tikhanovskaya rejected the reported results from the election, and said, “I will believe my own eyes,” a day after the election in reference to her large turnout at rallies. Among Tikhanovskaya’s supporters is Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, who has been critical of the Lukashenko’s regime, citing “Harassment and violent repression of peaceful protesters” as the primary reasons. Despite the perceived step back that the election represents, at least in the eyes of the younger generation of Belarussians, change appears to be on the horizon. How that change takes form is an entirely different question, though.
On Sunday, August 9, riots broke out in the streets of Minsk. Videos showing the use of rubber bullets, Czech-manufactured stun grenades, and fire hoses by Belarussian police have flooded social media platforms, and the outcry for a reshuffling at the top of the country has never been more vocal. The protests began to spread outside the most affluent areas of Minsk on Monday, taking place in the low-income neighborhoods on the outskirts of Minsk and in the western city of Brest.
Lukashenko has responded to the uproar by buckling down on authoritarian rule. Both the subway system and the Internet were shut down Sunday night and continued into Monday, all while plainly clothed officers shot at journalists on the streets of Minsk. Over 3,000 protesters have been detained, and 51 protesters have sustained injuries, one of whom ended up succumbing to their injuries. Lukashenko made reference to the uprising in Maidan Square in Ukraine that led to the ousting of then-president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 in response to the protests, and said, “As I have warned, there will be no Maidan, no matter how much anyone wants one.”
Although Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania following the protests over fears for her family’s safety, Lukashenko’s firm grip on power has never been looser. The president’s cult of personality is showing deep cracks, and Belarussians are not as intimidated by the president’s forces compared to before. Despite the continued outcry for the removal of Lukashenko, the army and police remain loyal, and until those forces rebel, progressive change could be hard to come by.