What Putin Fears

Protests erupt in Belarus after allegations of a rigged presidential election

Over the past summer, Russian and ex-Soviet politics have been a major story on many news networks. While most governments were preoccupied with the medical crisis COVID-19 posed, countries in the Eastern bloc have seen political unrest and demonstrations that threaten their government’s security. And while many people are familiar with Alex Navalny’s poisoning or the demonstrations in Belarus, these events illustrate a broader theme of underlying unrest and popular discontent that may force the Kremlin and the leaders of post-Soviet states to rethink the way they rule. This piece focuses specifically on the protests surrounding allegations of a rigged election in Belarus and its implications for Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. 

Frequently nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator,” Alexander Lukashenko has served as Belarus’ president for 26 of the 29 years since it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. A politician from the Soviet Era, he won his first presidential campaign in what outsiders deemed a fair election but has proceeded to win the next five with increasingly dubious majorities. Although accurate predictions and vote-counting have never been possible in Belarus because independent polling in the country was outlawed, independent observers believed that the majority of citizens in Belarus were dissatisfied with a slowing economy but unwilling to speak out for fear of retribution. 

The election this summer, however, cast a very different light on Belarusian politics. When the coronavirus pandemic spread to Belarus, Lukashenko brushed it off as a conspiracy theory. “There are no viruses here,” he told reporters. “Do you see any of them flying around? I don’t.” Then, as the medical crisis became harder to ignore, he prescribed hockey matches, vodka, and traditional saunas as cures for the virus. When opposition leaders stepped up to protest against his policies, they were promptly exiled or imprisoned.

Although it seemed as if there would be no competent election rivals for Lukashenko in the run-up to the presidential election on August 9th, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya rose as an unlikely rival. A stay-at-home mother, she ran on an explicitly anti-Lukashenko platform after her husband, a prominent opposition candidate, was imprisoned. By promising to release political prisoners and to hold independently verified and monitored elections, she quickly gained a multitude of supporters. In a country with little record of public protest, tens of thousands of citizens turned out at election rallies to support Tikhanovskaya’s campaign. 

On election day, voters reported widespread voter intimidation and an allegedly intentional national internet outage. Even so, when Lukashenko again declared himself the victor with 80 percent of the popular vote on August 9th, the citizens were outraged. Protests broke out almost immediately in many parts of the country, to which the police responded with gratuitous violence. More than 12,000 protesters have been arrested in ongoing demonstrations since the election, and several unarmed men were shot and killed by the police. The list of egregious violations of human rights goes on—reports abound of sexual abuse, rape, and torture in the detention centres where journalists and civilians alike where held. Detainees report brutal beatings that left the corridors “covered with blood” and likened the scene to “something from a movie about the Gestapo.”

Given these horrific descriptions and the impunity with which the Belarusian government has acted in ignoring proper judicial procedure, there ought to have been a massive international outcry. Yet, the international response in the wake of the protests has been curiously muted. Despite such prolific human rights violations the likes of which have scarcely been seen in Europe since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, European and international leaders have been depressingly slow to take action against Belarus. Although many have paid lip service by criticizing Lukashenko’s behaviour, it ought to be obvious that despotic rulers like Lukashenko are not children for whom a stern word from their parents causes them to change course. The European Union has proposed sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for crimes, but these sanctions have been halted by the Cyprus delegation, who sees the event as a bargaining opportunity to place more sanctions on Turkey. Although technically sanctions could already be placed because the motion only requires a qualified majority to pass, EU officials have not done so—it is uncertain whether they simply do not want to send the wrong message to Belarus by not coming to a unanimous agreement or simply because they feel little need to act. The UN Security Council is at a similar deadlock; two of its five permanent members, China and Russia, are supportive of the Lukashenko administration and are therefore unlikely to agree to any substantive steps addressing human rights violations. 

As would be apparent to most onlookers, however, this silent condonement of Belarusian brutality sends a message to Russia and other oppressive regimes that democratic leaders preoccupied with internal affairs are scarcely willing to concern themselves with external policy. This is welcoming news for leaders like Vladimir Putin who has seen support for his presidency gradually start to falter, but not for activists and ordinary civilians who wish to see more accountability in their governments. World leaders need to take more action—it is unacceptable to laud the merits of the democratic process but then shy away from confronting transgressors to protect their national interests and preserve their diplomatic ties. 

More than fifty days after the election, the protests in Belarus are continuing with no end in sight. On September 27, more than 100,000 protestors gathered once again around the country to call for Lukashenko’s resignation. Although the international community has been shamefully silent, the ongoing demonstrations have shown that violent crackdown on dissenters risks further inflaming the populace. The outcome of the protests in Belarus will have widespread implications; should they succeed, other activists and dissidents in countries like Russia will feel emboldened in their cause. As threats of coronavirus start to fade, governments around the world ought to turn their attention to this pivotal movement in Belarus.

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