By Sam Baker
Civil unrest rages the streets of Belarus following the country’s most contentious election in decades. Abhorrent displays of police brutality against peaceful protesters and horrifying scenes inside prisons have triggered Amnesty to declare a state of widespread torture in Belarus, citing naked beatings and rape threats of nearly 10,000 detainees.
President Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year-old iron fist is losing grip of the nation, and a number of key individuals are eying up the country’s fate.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya: a worthy opponent
The candidate of choice for securing Belarus’s freedom is 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is thought to have attracted the support of 70-80% of voters in last week’s election. However, official state figures awarded her a laughable 10% of electoral support.
Throughout her journey, Tikhanovskaya has become something of a global phenomenon, and is undoubtedly not the “weak woman” she was cruelly forced to admit to being in her post-election statement. Lukashenko, whose advice for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic was to drink vodka and visit the sauna, dismissed the idea of a woman being fit to lead Belarus.
Tikhanovskaya, meanwhile, has defied his smears and led the biggest people-powered movement in the republic’s history on the back of a lone campaign pledge of free elections, in which she would not stand. She continues her virtual fight against autocracy from exile in Lithuania, where she ominously fled for the sake of her children.
Tikhanovskaya has also sparked a potent women’s movement in Belarus. In a recent video released on YouTube, she seemed touched by the demonstrations of ‘solidarity chains’ – rows of women dressed in white holding flowers and linking arms, in a stand against police brutality.
Are Lukashenko’s power-preserving policies working?
Lukashenko’s regime is crumbling. His week-long ‘internet blackout’, where all Belarusian webpages were blocked by the state-owned traffic exchange, failed. Technical wizardry of the WhatsApp-alternative Telegram outsmarted the blackout and remained unaffected. As a result, the channel Nexta platforms information and footage for protesters and journalists. So far, the channel’s editor has successfully identified ‘fake news’ in the form of attempted infiltrations from state authorities.
Workers at state-owned factories have turned their backs on Lukashenko, being heckled as a “liar” and being told to “resign” by the workers at a pro-government rally, which workers were forced to attend. Lukashenko exited the podium to screams of “leave!” Even state-owned television presenters have left empty news desks, with nothing but the eerie sound of pop music broadcasted on Monday morning.
Lukashenko knows he cannot continue in this way, promising a referendum on constitutional reform once demonstrations calm. The public are unlikely to fall for his attempt at reconciliation.
Belarus’ election havoc
Last week’s election was a pantomime from the get-go. Official turnout figures were deemed preposterous by many, and the exact voting shares supposedly secured by each candidate didn’t even sum to 100%.
With Lukashenko’s downfall seemingly inevitable, Tikhanovskaya has declared that she is “ready to lead the country.” However, the Russian military poses an imminent threat to destroy all dissent.
How is Russia aiding Lukashenko?
After labelling protesters as “rats” who threaten Belarus’s post-soviet independence, Lukashenko has pleaded for Russian “assistance.” On Saturday, he announced that he and President Vladimir Putin agreed over the telephone to acute Russian security support.
This does not at all reflect the Kremlin’s official statement that the existing problems will be settled soon. A neutral, yet proactive, Russian stance is worrying news and signals the threat of annexation, as it directly goes against Lukashenko’s platform of post-Soviet sovereignty.
The Russian response to the crisis has not been entirely one-sided, though. Opposition members of the State Duma have publicly condemned the violence and are banking on Lukashenko’s resignation. Others, including many in Putin’s United Russia party, have provided characteristically authoritarian comments, including conspiracies of “liberal propaganda.” One MP made the absurd claim that protesters smeared “ketchup instead of blood” on the walls seen in photographs.
The EU’s choice between Duda and Orban
Meanwhile, the European Union has markedly denounced Lukashenko’s victory and is preparing individual sanctions. Favourability of sanctions was unanimous, despite Hungary’s fascist PM Viktor Orban’s reservations about neglecting one of his closest allies. Orban insists that the EU must sustain open dialogue and will be reluctant to join bloc-wide support for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has charged the EU’s stance. Even President Andrzej Duda, who is no reputable champion of human rights, has expressed the need for urgent action against Lukashenko.
This leaves the EU between a rock and a hard place. It can either satisfy Andrezj Duda and take stringent action against Lukashenko and Putin, or else his ferocious anti-Brussels campaign will be reignited. Alternatively, the bloc can satisfy Orban, who campaigned on the same isolationist platform, with a soft approach to Belarus.
What is Turkey’s stance in the Belarus election?
An intervention to look out for is from Turkey, who are also facing EU sanctions over their recent activity in Greek waters. Incidentally, Turkey and Belarus have become recent allies, when at trade talks in 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaimed his deep recognition of Belarusian independence.
Erdogan was, of course, provoking Russia, with whom he is fighting a proxy war in Libya. By seeking Russian military aid, Lukashenko could end his allyship with Erdogan, who may find himself involved in a new conflict in Eastern Europe.
Belarusians can smell revolution in the air, for protests are igniting all over the world, energising each other and inspiring action. On Monday, Thailand’s biggest anti-government demonstration in years rattled the streets of Bangkok, whilst anti-Putin marches that have recently stormed throughout Russia’s far east have taken a turn to stand in solidarity with Belarus. Protests in Beirut have resulted in the so-far so-genuine resignation of the corrupt Lebanese government, albeit only after the country’s biggest explosion in history killed more than 200 citizens.
Lukashenko’s resignation may seem inevitable, but time is running out for the Belarusian people to determine their own future. Without a prompt transition away from tyranny, Belarus could find itself under the influence of a whole host of the world’s most dangerous megalomaniacs.