Unrest in Belarus


Overview

The relationship between Belarus and Russia is a long and complicated one. Originally, Belarus existed as a part of various empires and kingdoms before ultimately being absorbed into the Russian Empire following the partition of Poland in 1795. Belarus shortly gained independence after the Russian Revolution before being forcibly brought back into the fold in 1919. The country was then occupied by the Nazis following the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and over the course of the war, 25% of the population died. It only gained its independence after the collapse of the USSR. Belarus has spent most of its existence under occupation or as a smaller part of a larger empire; its history is one of constant struggle to keep itself free.

Often referred to as “Europe’s Last Dictator”, the current president, Alexander Lukashenko, came into power in 1994 and has held a murderous grip on the presidency ever since. Of all the presidential elections in Belarus, only the first in 1994 was deemed to be fair by political monitors. Lukashenko’s regime been noted for its suppression of political freedom, freedom of speech and the press, and violent crackdowns on dissent. More recently, he has been facing severe unrest in the populace since proclaiming victory in an election which was widely regarded as fraudulent.

For the first time in years, Lukashenko faced real opposition in the form of political figure Viktor Barbariko. False legal charges were brought against Barbariko to prevent him from running and he was arrested, resulting in sporadic protests throughout the country. In his place, a new figure, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, became the face of the opposition. Tikhanovskaya gained significant traction, however, Lukashenko still won by a staggering 80% of the vote. Widespread accusations of fraud were leveled against the president of Belarus. Ms. Tikhanovskaya was forced to the flee the country out of fear for her safety.

Protests grew rapidly but were subject to violent police crackdowns. Protestor numbers swelled to the hundreds of thousands and Lukashenko’s violent response faced widespread condemnation from the international community. Calls for a new and fair election in Belarus have fallen on deaf ears, with Lukashenko declaring that the only way he would be removed from the presidency would be by his “assassination.” However, Mr. Lukashenko’s hold on power has grown increasingly tenuous. Among the Belarusian population he is widely unpopular and in the international community he is heavily ostracized. However, after turning to the Kremlin for help, Russian president Vladimir Putin has expressed his support for Lukashenko and willingness to intervene if necessary. Putin’s involvement further complicates the balance of power, with many EU leaders fearing a repeat of Russian’ 2014 intervention in Ukraine. For now tensions remain high in Europe while Lukashenko attempts to wait out the storm.

Current Situation

Protests are ongoing within the Belarussian capital of Minsk and calls for Alexander Lukashenko to step down have not ceased. However, with Russia’s pledge to prop up Lukashenko’s regime, the odds of new presidential elections seem to grow increasingly slimmer.

Classification: Civil Unrest

 

Trend:

Thought to be peaking

Facts

Key Actors

Where: Belarus. Protests are mostly concentrated within the capital city of Minsk.

Why: The current president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, announced his victory in the 2020 elections, which were widely derided as fraudulent. Out of all Belarusian elections, only the 1994 Presidential elections were deemed to be free and fair by international monitors. 

Statistics: 13,000 people detained, 450 cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, 5 dead, and 50 protesters missing. 

The current president of Belarus, Lukashenko first won power in 1994 and has held onto it ever since. His administration has been widely criticized for its suppression of freedom of speech and the press, as well as its disregard for wider civil liberties.

The face of the opposition movement during the 2020 presidential elections, Tikhanovskaya presented one of the first real challenges to Lukashenko’s rule. However, she has been forced to flee the country due to safety concerns. She continues to call for fair elections from abroad. 

Belarus’s closest neighbor in terms of geography, linguistics, economics, and politics, Russia has a vested interest in the stability of Belarus. Moscow has supported Lukashenko throughout most of his rule and in return he keeps Belarus firmly within Russia’s sphere of influence. With the prospect of a change in leadership, president Vladimir Putin has declared his intention to intervene in the Belarus crisis if necessary. 

A political and economic union of 27 European countries, the EU is committed to civil liberties and the right of self determination. Many of its leaders have condemned Lukashenko but with memories of the 2014 Ukrainian Crisis still fresh in their minds, few are willing to risk Moscow’s ire.

Timeline

Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia joined the commonwealth of independent states, officially recognizing the sovereignty of each other and declaring themselves independent of the Soviet Union.

Following the break away of most of its satellite states and the failed 1991 August Coup, the Soviet Union officially dissolved, forever changing the political landscape of Eastern Europe.

Winning with 80% of the vote, Alexander Lukashenko ascends to the office of president of Belarus. These are the only elections in Belarus that would be recognized as fair and free.

President Lukashenko puts out the seven-question referendum, a series of votes which fundamentally altered the Belarussian constitution, extended the length of the presidential term, and gave more power to the office of president. The voting process was regarded by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as failing to meet democratic standards.

In the run up to the 2020 elections, authorities arrested popular opposition figures Sergei Tikahnovsky and Viktor Barbaryka, essentially preventing them for running for offices before the election.

People begin gathering to protest the detainment of opposition figures Sergei Tikhanovsky and Viktor Barbaryka and to demand free and fair elections, resulting in police crackdowns. Protests continue to grow as the election proceeds.

Following her husband’s arrest, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya announced her candidacy, intending to run in her husband’s place. Quickly becomes the face of the opposition movement.

Protesters took to the streets on election night, resulting in widespread violent crackdowns by police.

Alexander Lukashenko pronounced victory over the opposition, winning nearly 80% of the vote. The elections were widely decried as fraudulent. Greater protests erupt over the results and countries such as the UK and Canada refuse to recognize the results of the election.

Having faced constant threats during her campaign and fearing for the safety of herself and family, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania.

Violent crackdowns only result in greater numbers of protesters, who flood the streets and call for Lukashenko to resign. Protests throughout August and into September.

In an interview with state tv, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared the creation of a “reserve police force” to intervene and restore order in Belarus if necessary. This put to rest any doubts whether Putin will come to Lukashenko’s aid or not.

After fleeing to Ukraine, prominent opposition member Maria Kolesnikova was forcibly returned to the city of Minsk and jailed. She then was charged with incitement to undermine national security and faces up to five years in prison as a result.

Following the inauguration of Alexander Lukashenko as president for the sixth consecutive term, the EU proclaimed the results of the 2020 Belarussian elections to be illegitimate

The number of protesters swelled as thousands took to the streets to protest the re-
election of Alexander Lukashenko. This comes in the face of a police threat to use live
ammunition against protesters. Thus far no incidents of live fire have been reported.

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has called for nationwide strikes against
Lukashenko’s regime. This comes after the expiration of a deadline set by the
opposition for Lukashenko to resign.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov recently stated Moscow’s support for
constitutional reform efforts in Belarus in discussions with his Belarussian counterpart,
Vladimir Makei. The Russian Foreign Ministry, “-reiterated its support for the Belarusian
leadership’s initiative to carry out constitutional reform in the interests of normalizing the
situation in the country as soon as possible…” The two sides have reportedly been
discussing making small amendments to Belarus’s constitution, to appease the
opposition movement. Whether this will result in any lasting change remains to be seen.

As protests continued for its 14 th consecutive week, police arrested roughly 1053 people
in a single day. This led to condemnation from both Amnesty International and Minsk-
based human rights group Viasna. Eyewitnesses observed police using excessive and
indiscriminatory force against protestors and bystanders alike.

The government of Belarus has reportedly ordered the freezing of any bank funds
meant to aid those detained by police for protesting. Since the outbreak of the protests,
small funds had been set up by to help pay for the fines of those detained or beaten for
demonstrating. One such fund, the BY_help fund, was set up by activist Andrei
Leonchik and had raised millions of euros for this purpose. The government froze all
funds transferred by him as well as opening a criminal case against him. Protests
continue.

Thousands rallied to protest the death of 31 year-old opposition supporter Raman
Bandarenka at the hands of police. According to the Viasna human rights center,
Bandarenka was detained and handed over to the police by men in plainclothes. He
was then beaten and suffered grave injuries. Bandarenka was commemorated by

opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. EU spokesman Peter Stano condemned the
killing of Bandarenka as well and stated that the EU “stands ready to impose additional
sanctions” on the government of Belarus.

EU ministers announced that they had agreed to work on a third round of sanctions
aimed at Belarus, this time targeting firms and individuals with close ties to President
Alexander Lukashenko.

Thousands took to the street this week to protest Lukashenko’s government, in one of
the largest marches of the past month. Human rights group Viasna has reported that
over a 100 were arrested.

Belarus recently announced that it will be closing its borders starting on December 20th, preventing citizens and residents from leaving or entering. According to a government decree, this was done to control the spread of COVID-19. However, this has prompted backlash as many, such as opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, believe the true
purpose of this policy change is to keep political dissidents trapped within the country.