Belarus Part One: Mass protests and political repression

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In the Republic of Belarus the government has been shaken by mass protests against the President after a clearly flawed election gave him eighty percent of the vote. The response has been a heavy handed repression of peaceful protestors with the leaders of the opposition either locked up or forced abroad.

President Lukashenko of Belarus has been in power since he won an election in 1994 and has ensured that he won every election since, while a largely compliant population has shrugged of the pretence of elections and simply made the most of it. There have been protests before that had little impact and aside from such dissent, which has been peaceful for the large part, there has been scant political change in a country where there was little doubt about who was in charge and who would be in charge in the future. Belarus would hold elections but Lukashenko would be the one who won them.

In Belarus the state opts for a looming presence and a simple tap on the shoulder has the weight of a hammer behind it. An unspoken understanding is that the agents of the state will do as they will and the people will grudgingly toe the line and accept whatever action is taken against them with little protest. The 2020 elections will be remembered as a time when the mask of the benevolent dictatorial state slipped and the tap on the shoulder was replaced by the baton and brutal beatings and assaults in police detention. The message that has been sent by Mr Lukashenko is loud and clear: there is to be no regime change and the protests directed at him are a threat the national security of the country.

The dissent, which includes mass protests and strikes in Belarusian factories, is the largest that has taken place in the 26 years of Lukashenko’s rule and the response has come directly from the strongman rule book. It has been made clear that it is not in any way his fault that the people are unhappy. Some alleged Russian mercenaries were deported, NATO was reported to be massing near the western border, the EU and the West in general had a hand in events and so on. There appeared to be so many threats to Belarus that surely what was needed was a show of strength in which the President took to flying over protestors and calling them rats and then emerging from a helicopter toting an assault rifle. Meanwhile, the police were dragging protestors and passers-by alike from the street and taken them away to be brutalised. Opposition leaders were threatened (again) and factory workers were told that they had better get back to work if they wanted to keep their jobs. The thankless task of Belarusian journalists has been made more difficult and most foreign journalists have lost their accreditation and will be forced to leave the country. None of this is hidden and some of the victims have been paraded on state TV. In the face of legitimate and peaceful protests, the government has opted for more general bullying and intimidation that is normally applied directly to opposition leaders. By stamping down on journalists they hope to hide what they are doing from the outside world but in the new world of social media this will not be possible.

One may ask, exactly what is the opposition threat, one that the state sees as so serious that it has to be comprehensively crushed? When the 2020 election was held on the 9th of August, the opposition was represented by three women, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, of which Tikhanovskaya was the leader. They are the wives and campaign manager of three presidential candidates barred from running. Their campaign was a direct response to the crushing of earlier protests and the intimidation of the opposition leaders. Both Tikhanovskaya’s husband and Kolesnikova’s employer were jailed during the campaign and Tsepkalo’s husband had left the country with their children. The intimidation that had propelled the three women into action soon turned its spotlight on them, and Ms Tikhanovskaya’s fate demonstrates this: forced to recant on state television she has left the country with her children. For now, she has chosen not to reveal exactly happened to her behind closed doors and has continued to focus on the opposition campaign’s message from neighbouring Lithuania. The opposition Coordination Council in Belarus seeks the ending of political repression and the perpetrators brought to account, the freeing of all political prisoners, and the annulment of the 9th August elections and the holding of free and fair elections. Whilst Mr Lukashenko is pointing the finger of blame for the unrest in many directions, the simple truth is that the origins of the current crisis lay in the repression of political dissent and the solution thus far has been more of it. The difference between the current crisis and protests in the past is that the people of Belarus have finally cracked and are refusing to put up with the pretence any more. They have known all along that that they have been repressed politically but have suffered this in silence and accepted the façade in exchange for stability and being left alone.

It is clear that Mr Lukashenko has lost any trace of legitimacy amongst the people in the current crisis and is resorting to a brutal crackdown in order to prolong his 26 year rule over Belarus. As is the case with many such leaders, the elite in the country are in place because he allowed them to be there and they are expected to toe the party line. Those who disagree and fall out of favour are fully aware of the potential consequences. The President has control of the Belarusian KGB, the police and the military, and the support of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. For now, the EU has said it will not mediate in the crisis, believing it to be an independent Belarusian matter, and is wary of making the situation worse by providing ammunition to back some of Mr Lukashenko’s accusations against it. We will look at the influence of the EU and Russia on the developments in Belarus in part two.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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