Belarus Protesters At Risk

Belarus police detained 713 people during mass protests on Sunday against the re-election of the country’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko. Of those apprehended, 570 remain in custody. These startling figures make Sunday the most severe response to demonstrations since August. The protests spanned several Belarusian cities, but the largest crowds gathered in Minsk, the country’s capital. The Viasna Human Rights Center estimated that around 100,000 people took part in the Minsk rally alone. The peaceful demonstrations quickly turned terrifying as the police attempted to disperse the crowds with extreme force—using water cannons, stun grenades, and batons. Many protesters sustained serious injuries as a result.

If this was not problematic enough, footage published by local news outlets showed police officers concealed with black balaclavas, physically dragging protesters into unmarked vans. Despite this aggressive reaction, demonstrations in Belarus continued on Monday. More than 2,000 people took to the streets in Minsk, including a group of older women with signs that read “Grandmothers (stand) with the people.” Later that day, the interior ministry granted the Belarus police new abilities to combat the “radicalization of mass anti-government protests,” including the ability to use lethal weapons. Yet activists and the opposition remain undeterred. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main political challenger, issued a public statement, saying, “If our demands [are not] fulfilled by October 25th, the entire country will peacefully take to the streets.”

The demonstrators have been active since August when the results of the presidential election showed Lukashenko winning 80% of the vote. His main challenger—Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya—and her supporters refused the election results, maintaining that are fraudulent. Poll workers, political strategists, and international actors have voiced similar concerns, lending some credibility to the claim. However, taking this stance in Belarus has proven quite dangerous, as prominent activists and opposition members have either been prosecuted or forced into exile by the current administration. The situation for journalists also presents a grim picture. Andrei Bastunets, the head of the Journalist’s Association, told the Associated Press on Monday that “The authorities are trying to prevent coverage of the protests by beating up and detaining journalists, withdrawing their accreditation and creating catastrophic working conditions.” This statement should come as no surprise, as over 40 journalists were detained over the weekend with 25 in Minsk alone. Another 15 were slapped with a week of administrative arrest for “disobeying police officers.” Earlier in September, Belarusian authorities suspended the media credentials of popular news websites and forced some international outlets to apply for new credentials to continue their coverage.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that, since the beginning of the protests, the U.N. team on the ground in Belarus “has been urging the authorities to release everyone who has been detained for exercising their human rights and to stop torture and other forms of ill-treatment of detainees.” Unfortunately, the Lukashenko administration seems to have little regard for these demands. For example, EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell describes “a complete lack of will from Lukashenko’s side to engage in negotiations [or] anything that could bring a democratic [and] peaceful solution to the situation in Belarus.”

The continued violent response has prompted international and humanitarian outrage. The EU, Canada, and the United States have rolled out dozens of sanctions and criticism aimed at Belarusian officials for their involvement in both the alleged election fraud and their treatment of demonstrators. However, no sanctions nor discipline as of yet has directly targeted Lukashenko—who has tightly controlled the country for almost three decades. Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas responded to the recent events saying, “We have to acknowledge that since our last meeting nothing has improved. The Lukashenko regime continues to exercise violence, we still see arrests of peaceful demonstrators.”

 This surge in violence all but confirms more sanctions against Belarus. The European Union, for example, is purported to be finally readying sanctions directly on President Lukashenko as of Tuesday, October 13th. Yet, are sanctions enough to thwart excessive police violence, censorship, and election fraud? Can real improvements be made when the opposition is imprisoned or chased out of the country? As Heiko Maas so diligently pointed out—there have been no improvements since this unrest began. Until Lukashenko resigns, there will be no end to the protests nor peace for the Belarusian people.  

Brynne Thomas