Unrest in Belarus

Belarus, Eastern Europe

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 has 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 that 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 levelled against the president of Belarus. Ms Tikhanovskaya was forced to 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.

We witnessed thousands of arrests, hundreds of reports of torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence and the reported torture of children. The violent abduction of people in broad daylight by masked individuals, presumably on the basis of their peacefully expressed opinions.

Al Nashif - Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

Key Facts

25,000 +

People detained

5 +

Total deaths

Ongoing since

24 May 2020

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 Key Actors

The Situation

Classification: Civil Unrest

Adviser’s suggestions:

  • The OWP advocates for the immediate removal of Lukashenko from power and for fresh elections to be held. Opposition leaders who have been jailed or exiled should be allowed to return to the country to participate in the political process and all prisoners of conscience who have been jailed should be freed.

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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.

Timeline Of Events

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

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.

Belarus’s Public Prosector’s Office said that it had began legal proceedings against opposition leaders Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Olga Kovalkova, Maxim Znak, Maria Kolesnikova, Sergei Dylevsky, and others. They are currently accused of forming a conspiracy to overthrow the government of Alexander Lukashenko. The penalty for such
could be steep prison sentences as well as being barred from running for office, as has befallen many of Putin’s critics in the Russian Federation.

COVID numbers in the prisons of Belarus have shot up recently as a result of mass arrests. Several prisoners who spoke to Associated Press have alleged that authorities deliberately attempted to infect them with COVID once imprisoned, by housing infected prisoners together with fresh arrivals, intentionally overcrowding cells, and not using proper ventilation.

The president recently declared that the government had survived a foreign
“blitzkrieg” attempt to oust him, in reference to the protesters. This comes after Russian material and personnel support helped Lukashenko maintain his grip on power.

Belarussian security forces raided conducted searches of human rights
activists’ homes. The homes searched belonged to members local groups such as the Belarussian Association of Independent Journalists and Viasna-96. Authorities put out a brief statement saying that it was part of an investigation of the financing of protests by, “organizations positioning themselves to be human rights defenders”.

The government of Belarus recently asked Lithuania to extradite opposition
leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya so that she may, “-face prosecution for her
crimes against the government order, public safety and the state”. The request was denied by Lithuania’s Foreign Minister. 

The UN Human-Rights council has passed a resolution condemning the
crackdowns against protests and freedom of association in Belarus. The vote
was by the representative of Portugal, Rui Macieira, who spoke on behalf of the EU.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, speaking from exile in Lithuania, has called for a
second wave of protests in Belarus to revive the opposition movement from
sputtering out in the face of Lukashenko’s new grip on power. Svetlana is
set to visit Washington DC and meet with US president Biden, who has expressed support for her cause.

Ryanair Flight 4978 from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania was recently
forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk due to a bomb threat. The
threat was purportedly discovered by Belarussian officials and the plane
was intercepted by a Belarussian fighter before being forced to divert
course to Minsk. Once there, opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend (both of whom have been living in exile in Poland), were pulled away and arrested. No explosive devices were discovered on the aircraft.

Following the forced landing of Ryanair 4978, the EU agreed to impose new
sanctions on Belarus. Among these lists of sanctions were the banning of all
EU air travel to Belarus and flights over Belarussian airspace. This step
represents a harsh new stance compared to previous sanctions. While the effects of this have yet to be felt, the economic impacts could be severe.

American lawyer Youras Ziankovich, was abducted recently during his stay
in Moscow and forcibly taken to Minsk in Belarus. From there the Belarusian
government accused Ziankovich of being part of a plot to assassinate
Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus took it one step
farther by claiming that the plot involved the FBI. Currently Ziankovich is awaiting trial. 

The United States is reportedly considering new sanctions against Belarus
following a visit by opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

On August 4, the trial of Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak, two opponents of Alexander Lukashenko’s rule, began in Minsk, Belarus. Both Kolesnikova and Znak gained recognition for supporting protests against Lukashenko throughout 2020 and 2021. Now, the two could face up to 12 years behind bars for “conspiracy or other actions committed with the aim of seizing power,” as Lukashenko seeks to tighten his grip on power. 

In a call with Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed to support the disputed Belarusian leader. Putin promised that Lukashenko “can always count on Russia’s support.” Russia plans to deliver military aid to Lukashenko to help the Belarusian dictator reinforce the country’s border security against its NATO and European Union neighbors. Russia’s military aid comes as the two countries continue talks about deeper political integration.

Two faces of the Belarusian opposition to Alexandr Lukashenko, Mikhail Znak and Maria Kolesnikova, were sentenced to 10 and 11 years in prison on the 6th of September, 2021. The trial was not open to the public. Kolesnikova received 11 years and Znak received 10 years. Both oppositional figures were found guilty of trying to overthrow the regime and seize power.  

The start of joint military drills involving Russian and Belarusian forces along
Belarus’s western border has heightened tensions between the country and
its neighbors. Some 200,000 troops gathered at different military locations.
Although Russia claimed that the drills were necessary to counter an
increase in NATO forces in the area, Poland and the Baltics expressed
concern at Russia and Belarus’ war games; officials argued that Russia has not been transparent about the intention of their military exercises and that they constitute a security threat in the region.

Russian and Belarusian military forces have begun joint military drills on the borders of Belarus’ EU and NATO neighbors, Poland and Lithuania. These drills commence as tensions continue to boil between Belarus and other European nations over human rights abuses, provocation, and illegal immigration and as Lukashenko and Putin seek to further integrate their countries’ militaries and politics. 

On September 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to send
$600 million to Belarus’ regime as part of a push to merge the two
countries together. President Putin declared that it would be necessary
to unite Belarus’ and Russia’s economies before tackling the question
of politics. The $600 million is part of Russia’s deal to send Belarus
new weaponry.

Belarussians will celebrate the holiday “Day of National Unity” for the first

time on September 17, 2021. This August, President Alexander
Lukashenko declared September 17 a national holiday to commemorate
the day that Belarus joined the Soviet Union in 1939. President
Lukashenko called Belarus’ union with the USSR “an act of historic
justice for the Belarusian people.” President Lukashenko establishes
the holiday as he attempts to integrate Belarus and Russia

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