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Explainer: Why protests have erupted in Belarus against Europe's 'last dictator'

Alexander Lukashenko just won another presidential election, although the opposition has said it was rigged.

People protesting in Minsk following the presidential elections.
People protesting in Minsk following the presidential elections.
Image: Sergei Grits/AP/Press Association Images

OFTEN REFERRED TO as Europe’s ‘last dictatorship’, Belarus receives little global attention.

This week, however, the eastern European country made headlines as violent protests spilled onto the streets with the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, facing an unprecedented level of defiance. 

The immediate cause for anger is a widespread sense that the country’s presidential election was rigged. The leading opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, captured a wave of popular support – but official results gave Lukashenko a landslide victory. 

Tsikhanouskaya, who dismissed the result as a sham and has submitted an official request for a recount, has fled the country and is now reported to be “safe” in Lithuania. 

Yet these street protests have their roots in the complex politics of Belarus, which shares a 1,000km border with Russia and is a former member of the Soviet Union. More crucially, they have a basis in frustrations with Lukashenko, who has been president of the country since 1994.

Who is Alexander Lukashenko?

Embarking on a parliamentary career at the start of the 1990s, Lukashenko opposed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and has taken a largely consistent pro-Russia stance since taking office – leaving the country often isolated in Europe. 

More importantly, he’s utilised the country’s constitution to give himself a largely free hand in the governance of the state – a move that has allowed him to stay in power for so long. 

And, like other authoritarian leaders around the world, Lukashenko has taken a dismissive attitude towards Covid-19. Having referred to concerns about coronavirus as a “psychosis”, the country took no comprehensive measures against coronavirus such as lockdowns or ordering social distancing. Even after Lukashenko got the virus, nothing changed. 

Observers of Belarus say that the Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled discontent. With the country facing an already weak economy, the refusal to take any action against the virus has only added a further urgency to opposition politics in the country. 

“For years, a mix of genuine support among some and passivity among others provided the strongman with sufficient backing to continue to rule. That base is now crumbling,” Joerg Forbrig, an expert on eastern Europe, wrote in Politico last month ahead of the election.

Previously apolitical citizens are becoming increasingly active as a result of their disillusionment with their eternal leader, concerns about Belarusian independence from Moscow, and the regime’s inept handling of Covid-19.

belarus-belarusian-presidential-election President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko casting is ballot on Sunday. Source: Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images

Who is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya?

In Minsk, a crowd of 60,000 people gathered to hear Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speak at the end of July – a highly unusual sight in a country where opposition voices are typically suppressed. 

The wife of a jailed opposition blogger, the Belarus opposition coalesced around Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign during the election. 

A 37-year-old English teacher, she spent many summers in Roscrea, Tipperary following the Chernobyl disaster.

While having little political experience herself, Tsikhanouskaya’s election campaign channelled a sense of dissatisfaction with the current government. 

And while she was hopeful that her campaign could prevail – despite the government’s previous accusations of corrupt voting practices – in an interview ahead of voting she said she wouldn’t resile from continuing her opposition if she lost. 

“If people take that decision to go out and protest, and we see that these people are the majority, then I will be with them,” she said.

“I won’t be their leader, I won’t be standing behind them. I will be among them.”

Even before the results came out, there were some ominous signs. Eight members of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign staff were arrested on Sunday and the campaign chief was arrested a day earlier.

Source: Страна для жизни/YouTube

(Video not working? Click here)

Since the election result, which saw Lukashenko named as the victor, Tikhanovskaya has left the country. 

On Tuesday, she appeared in a video published by state media urging supporters not to protest. However, allies said it was recorded under pressure and said that she had been detained by the government.

In the video published by state news agency Belta, Tikhanovskaya appeared to read from a prepared statement calling for “respect for the law” and for Belarusians not to take to the streets.

Her head lowered, she was shown sitting on a black sofa in front of a window with the blinds closed.

“We believe that this video was recorded under pressure from law enforcement,” Maria Kolesnikova, a key Tikhanovskaya ally, told reporters.

“A person who has been receiving threats and whose husband is in prison can record any video.”

Tikhanovskaya has also posted a video to her own Youtube channel, in which she says that she made the decision herself to leave Belarus to be reunited with her children, who she had moved abroad during the campaign.

Are these protests normal?

Protests aren’t entirely unheard of in Belarus, but the repeated clashes with police, combined with the support for Tikhanovskaya, are being seen as perhaps a sign of change in the country. 

Protesters were beaten after the 2010 election and six rival candidates arrested, three of whom were imprisoned for years. 

However, the violence witnessed in the clashes between protesters and police is largely unprecedented. 

Yesterday, a protester died amid the clashes in Minsk and scores were injured as police used tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators.

Interior Ministry spokesman Alexander Lastovsky said the victim intended to throw an explosive device but it blew up in his hand and killed him.

Scattered groups of opposition supporters began gathering in central Minsk, chanting “Freedom!” and “Long live Belarus!”

Heavy police contingents deployed to block central squares and roads. Later that evening, about 1,000 protesters gathered near a big shopping mall in central Minsk, with stun grenades and rubber bullets used to disperse them.

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The Viasna rights group said protesters also gathered in several other cities including Brest, Mogilev and Vitebsk, where detentions also took place.

What now?

Lukashenko has derided the opposition as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters.

However, the violence has promoted rebukes from senior EU officials. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said: “Harassment & violent repression of peaceful protesters has no place in Europe.”

She called on fundamental rights to be respected in Belarus.

President of the European Council, Charlies Michel, likewise tweeted that “violence against protesters is not the answer Belarus”.

It remains unclear if the protests will continue or if Tikhanovskaya will be able to lead or influence the opposition from afar. 

The one certainty is that Lukashenko, after decades in office, will be hard to dislodge. 

With reporting from Press Association

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