United in Outrage: How Belarusians are Standing Up to ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’

Protestors marching in Minsk against President Lukashenka’s government (Photo by Homoatrox via Wikimedia Commons)

For the past few months, hundreds of thousands of protestors have filled the streets of Minsk and other cities in Belarus each Sunday calling for political reform and the resignation of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka as continued fraudulent elections have kept him in unchecked power for decades. Demonstrators have had to face abuse by state police, a government adamant about ignoring their pleas, and a largely indifferent international community. Despite this, people of all ages have gathered, united in the goal of a democratic Belarus. A Belarusian college student* reflects on these changing views in Belarusian society, describing, “up to this year most of the population was very apolitical…my generation grew up only knowing one president. We were born with him ruling, grew up with him ruling, and now we’re fighting to finally stop his ruling”.

*Source will remain anonymous to protect their safety

Decades of Control

Belarus is situated between Poland and Russia, and was a part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence up until its fall in 1991. After regaining independence, the country set up a republican government mirrored off of Western states, with a bicameral Parliament and democratically elected president. However, far from democratic, the former Soviet republic has been controlled by the government of President Lukashenka, a man dubbed “Europe’s Last Dictator”,  for the past 26 years. Lukashenka’s tight grip over Belarusian politics isn’t exactly because of wide public support, but rather by his removal of presidential term limits and his habit of imprisoning and, allegedly, killing political opponents. Belarus may label itself as a republic, but the political intimidation and manipulation of the president and his political party, Belaya Rus, have shifted the country closer and closer to an authoritarian regime.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Photo by Serge Serebro via Wikipedia)

Throughout his time in power, Lukashenka has run for office six times including this year, and each time he has claimed to have won at least 70 percent of the vote. With such low public support, this seems shocking, yet Lukashenka has managed to make such claims through the violent suppression of political opponents including opposition leader Viktar Hanchar, businessman Anatol Krasouski, and former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka, all of which were allegedly killed by a secret Interior Ministry force in 1999. Additionally, Belarus’s elections have been plagued with widespread voter fraud throughout his time in office, so much so that the international community has only recognized the election when he was first inaugurated in 1994 as being somewhat fair and democractic. Each year, Lukashenka’s victory has been met with widespread outrage and international condemnation, yet he continues to exercise full control over Belarus.

As the 2020 election approached, the people of Belarus were waiting in anticipation for an opposition candidate to step up and finally defeat “Europe’s Last Dictator”. However, it seemed like none would as most political opponents were barred from registering or were simply arrested by security forces before they could do so, similarly to what has happened in the past. Anyone who appeared threatening to Lukashenka’s stranglehold over power would be quickly eliminated, preventing any unified opposition from coming together.

The 2020 Election

A key thing to note about Mr. Lukashenka is that he is incredibly misogynistic and does not believe that “a person in a skirt” could fulfill the duties of the president. So, when Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of a political prisoner in Belarus, emerged as his main opponent, he belittled her campaign. Yet, she created a coalition with two other influential opposition figures, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, that was met with a record tens of thousands of supporters at campaign rallies. Not only does this show the widening public support for political reform but also a shifting culture towards more liberal norms, as women began exercising a political right they have never been able to use before, in order to dismantle the repressive and downright patriarchal government of a man past his prime. Tikhanovskaya’s main election promise was that, if elected, she would call for new, fair elections, an idea few Belarusians could have even imagined in past years.

Presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (Photo by Serge Serebro via Wikimedia Commons)

On August 9, 2020, Belarusians travelled en masse to the polls in hopes of finally ending President Lukashenka’s 26 year reign of terror. But they were soon disappointed, and later infuriated, as results came in that the incumbent had won 80.1% of the votes and Tsikhanouskaya won only 10.1%. This was after reports of internet outages, arrests of election observers, and a reported 5,096 election violations by the independent election monitoring association Honest People. Yet again, the Belarusian people were robbed of their fundamental right to vote, and days after the election, with Tikhanovskaya and other opposition leaders fleeing the country, horrific brutality occurred as police arrested and assaulted almost 7,000 protestors. From there, abuses against demonstrators continued as “forty people [were] crammed into ten person cells; they were given no water, no food. They were beaten, they were raped”, according to my source. These widely documented horrors ignited fury in the Belarusian people, who began demonstrating on a much wider scale throughout the country.

To this day, there are wide reports of peaceful protestors being jailed and tortured for simply exercising their freedom of assembly in Belarus. Yet, little is being said about this crisis on an international scale. Both the EU and US refuse to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have issued largely symbolic sanctions against Belarusian officials, but this is doing little for the Belarusian people. They are detained and abused by state police brainwashed into thinking they’re preserving “law and order”. The only country that does have the power to put pressure on the government is economic ally Russia, and with Vladmir Putin’s increasingly friendly relationship with Lukashenka, this is almost impossible to imagine. In fact, as Russia continues to support this regime, it may see an opportunity to once again spread its influence and disrupt international borders, similarly to what occurred in Ukraine in 2014. The implications for this disgraceful election, both domestic and international, are incredibly alarming so it is imperative that some sort of action be taken.

United In Outrage and Hope

Despite the lack of international help, Belarusians are still refusing to accept Lukashenka and his government as lawfully in power. The years of being apolitical are over, replaced with a united people who have seen their first glimpses of what Belarus could be without this tyrannical regime. They are angry, and this anger has continued well past the August election. Despite the threat of police brutality, hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated in the capital, Minsk, and other cities each Sunday since August 9th calling for the release of all political prisoners and a rerun of the election. Women, inspired by the leadership of Sviatlana Tikahnovskaya, form human “chains of solidarity” as they call for their loved ones to be released from prison.

Protestors gather in Minsk weeks after the disputed August 9th election (Photo by Homoatrox via Wikimedia Commons)

President Lukashenka may not realize it yet, but the aftermath of this election has instilled in the Belarusian public a hope for the future that cannot be destroyed, no matter how many people he arrests and detains. This is epitomized by one of the slogans that have come out of these protests: Жыве Беларусь or “Live On Belarus”. My source reflected on how, now, “I could just yell out these two words to any group of people anywhere in Belarus and get a reply louder than most crowds”. The opposition to Lukashenka will continue to “live on”, until the country finally has its chance at true democracy.