The Threat to Unseat Europe’s Last Dictator
On August 10th, official results in Belarus handed President Alexander Lukashenko his sixth term in office, with an astounding 80.1% of the votes. This election, which other political actors believe to be falsified, comes after months of economic stagnation and a poorly managed COVID-19 plan. The frustrations of these events culminated in protests erupting throughout Belarus. The capital city of Minsk saw more than 100,000 protesters, a number of whom were detained or arrested by government officials in the month after the election. These protests indicate a divisive departure from the steady support that President Lukashenko has had for the past twenty-six years. In an era of instant communication, Belarus’s social unrest signals the struggle that authoritarian rulers face in grasping power during an era driven by connectivity and social media.
In order to understand the current political climate of the state, it is important to trace Belarus’ development through the twentieth century. Belarus took on a distinguishable shape in the years following WWII, when the republic rebuilt the population and resources it had lost during the war. They declared sovereignty from the Soviet Union in 1990, then independence in 1991, upon the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1994, Belarus officially adopted their Constitution, with Alexander Lukashenko elected President.
Frequently labelled “Europe’s Last Dictator,” President Lukashenko has taken measures to falsify election results, arrest opposition leaders, and suppress the powers of the free press. To maintain power over the country, he claims to protect Belarus from harmful, foreign forces and to provide economic stability. To do this, he created a Soviet-esque system, where agricultural goods, such as tractor production and grain harvests, were valued over innovation. These policies brought economic stability that gave the Belarusian leader a steady base of support, despite the authoritarian undertones to his regime.
The 2020 elections held in Belarus have been deemed “severely flawed” by the European Commission. They cited “credible reports of observers” that claimed the election did not meet the international expectations of any Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) state. In the campaign for the 2020 election, President Lukanshenko painted the country of Belarus as an island, isolated from the political turmoil, economic stagnation, and pandemic that plagued the rest of the world. To create this narrative, he framed opposition leadership as puppets working for a foreign power. President Lukashenko also downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic by offering home remedies and labelled international fears “psychosis.” Most recently, President Lukashenko most likely instituted widespread internet outages on election day out of fear for his opponent.
On May 29, 2020, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37 year old stay-at-home mother, announced her run against President Lukashenko after the country jailed other opposition candidates, including her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky. After officials announced that she had received just 10.1% of the vote, she fled to Lithuania. From there, she uploaded a video explaining her intent to stay out of Belarus to protect her children. Several of President Lukashenko’s key political opponents have fled to NATO countries such as Lithuania and Poland, which allows him to further the narrative that opposition comes from a Western power as both Lithuania and Poland promoted EU’s sanctions against Belarusian government. President Lukashenko’s dark portrayal of the West, also highlighted by his description of the protests to be a Western plot against Russia reflects his attempt to gain the support of Vladimir Putin.
Though undoubtedly a political outsider, Ms. Tikhanovkskaya, alongside opposition leaders Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tespkalo, have offered hope for the Belarusian people. Protesters saw her as a force for good. Belarusian news even equated her to a modern Joan of Arc, demonstrating the profound impact her campaign had for the country. These three women took the country by storm by attempting to put more transparency in politics. Through social media, they have been able to make this goal a reality.
Young protesters within Belarus began using Telegram, an app which offers detailed plans regarding each day’s protests and advice designed to bolster morale. Despite frequent internet outages, Telegram has held strong and remains one of the only places where Belarusians can learn about joining the demonstrations. Young Belarusians have been able to harness the internet as a conduit for protests in an unprecedented manner.
In the month after the election, the protests have ramped up, culminating in the Belarusian government arresting around 700 protesters on Sunday, September 6. The human rights group Viasna claims that Belarus has detained more than 1,000 peaceful protesters throughout the summer, with nearly 200 of them in custody for up to 15 days. On Monday, September 7, Maria Kolesnikova, a prominent opposition leader, vanished in Minsk, allegedly being pulled off the street into a van by men in plain clothes.
International reaction has been mixed. The European Union and the United States have expressed their doubts about the validity of the election. A senior Trump administration official declared that President Lukashenko “can no longer ignore” the desire for democracy in Belarus and that “Russia must respect Belarus’ sovereignty” and the right of “its people to freely and fairly elect their own leaders.” The influence of Russia within Belarus has become an increasingly pressing issue. President Lukashenko reached out to the Kremlin to seek confirmation that Russia would provide military aide against foreign threats, to which the EU and the US have been staunchly opposed. Russian interest in Belarus stems from an interconnected culture, history, economy, and military. Their shared border, as well as Belarus’ shared border with three NATO states gives Vladimir Putin incentive to integrate and control the country. No other country in the former Soviet region offers these qualities to Russia today.
Despite Russia’s influence, the protests seen in Belarus, fueled through social connectivity, strike a chord with the country’s citizens. An unprecedented number of people have joined these peaceful gatherings in order to fight for free and fair elections. In fact, Matthew Frear, a Belarus expert at Leiden University in the Netherlands, even commented, “Belarus has not seen protests like this since the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Though Frear’s statement holds true, today’s protests are far different than those surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the thirty years that have passed since the USSR’s collapse, the role of social media in undermining authoritarian regimes has become increasingly prevalent. The easy sharing of ideas from around the world can influence and shape politics in unprecedented ways. The protests occurring in Belarus come with more media attention than ever before. The widespread use of social media, like Telegram, by younger members of the opposition group, has shined a light on the nature of oppressive governments like that of President Lukashenko’s. Members of the older generation who have finally become frustrated with the economic stagnation and poor public health management can look towards the younger generation’s use of social media as a transition to the future.
Belarus’ situation remains fluid. The battle between the protesters and the authorities could lead to a victory on either side, or a drawn-out war between the two parties. President Lukashenko may succeed in thwarting the opposition protesters, or he may have to cede power if he fails. Regardless of the political outcome, the protesters have made an indelible impression upon Belarus. They have changed the way that Belarusians interact with politics. Rather than sitting on the sidelines, the protesters have encouraged their country’s citizens to take control of their future. In a more connected world, these unprecedented protests may signal that Belarus has moved beyond the need for authoritarianism and can achieve a more democratic order.