On July 1st, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that at least six Belarusian bloggers have been arrested since June 15th for supposedly trying to start a “revolution.” A week prior, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and national media outlets released a joint statement demanding an end to the government’s “persecution of journalists and restrictions on freedom of expression.” Over 360 people were detained at peaceful demonstrations for opposition candidates from June 18-20th. Among those detained were more than 14 journalists who were reporting on the demonstrations. BAJ’s joint statement also alleged that some journalists were beaten during their detention. These demonstrations were sparked by the arrest of unusually popular presidential candidate, Viktor Babariko, and his son Eduard. The Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections describe the 2020 presidential election’s atmosphere as one of “fear, constant threats, and intimidation” from President Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s government.
Since early May, Belarus has witnessed demonstrations that are part of a movement some refer to as the “Slipper Revolution.” The name stems from popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky’s video in which an elderly woman compared Lukashenka to the titular character of the children’s poem “The Mighty Cockroach.” It is often characterized as an allegory for the fall of a dictatorship. Tikhanovsky, per Voice of America, has driven around Belarus with a giant slipper on his car roof, insinuating he would crush Lukashenka, the “cockroach,” with it. Similarly, protesters have been known to wave slippers in the air at demonstrations. Tikhanovsky, was planning to run for president before he and eight of his supporters were arrested two days before the presidential election was announced. His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is running in his stead. Amnesty International considers Tikhanovsky and his eight arrested supporters political prisoners “detained solely for peacefully exercising their human rights.”
Along with the unusually popular alternative candidates in this election cycle, there has also been a dramatic rise in public participation—despite substantial risks to the lives of both candidates and supporters. Candidates, for example, are required to collect a minimum of 100,000 signatures within a short time period. On June 18th, Babariko was arrested on his way to deliver the 435,000 signatures he managed to collect for the Central Electoral Commission. The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) described Babariko’s success as “an unthinkable feat in Belarus not long ago.”
President Lukashenka has overwhelmingly won every election since he first took office in 1994. Unsurprisingly, outside observers deemed the elections rigged after term limits were abolished in 2004. However, the Jamestown Foundation cites polls from the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, a now-defunct independent polling firm, that found Lukashenka did win his previous elections— though by much smaller margins than what the official results indicated. Lukashenka has historically enjoyed much popularity, particularly among older citizens who remember the relative economic stability Belarus enjoyed in the 1990s compared to other former Soviet states.
Nonetheless, Lukashenka has recently lost substantial public support. Despite the oppressive nature of the regime, apolitical Belarusian public figures such as athletes and musicians have spoken out against the government crackdown. The band Intelligency, for example, condemned law enforcement stating, “…absolutely anyone, even an innocent person, can be handed over. We demand adequate work of law enforcement agencies, careful treatment and respect for people even during such protests.” Belarusian analyst Valer Karbalevich, told Current Time television that “Belarus has been living in an atmosphere of violence for 26 years, since Lukashenka came to power…[but] the political regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka has lost public confidence…most Belarusians really would like to see a change of power.”
President Lukashenka has also poorly managed the COVID-19 pandemic. Belarus has one of the highest infection rates in Europe, but Lukashenka has dismissed the virus as curable with vodka and a trip to the sauna. The president refuses to implement WHO guidelines—a particularly concerning decision given that his country is set to hold an election. In an interview with Radio Free Europe, economist and 2010 presidential candidate Jaroslav Romanchuk compared Lukashenka’s handling of the crises to Chernobyl: “Quite rightly, many are comparing the situation today with the situation in 1986, when Chernobyl exploded, when we really don’t know how many were sick, how many died, what the real situation in the country is.” Romanchuk continued that the public sees “this complete disregard for them” and in response, “they, of course join the lines [to sign petitions for opposition candidates].” Notably, a leaked poll from the Belarus Academy of Science found that only around a third of Belarusians trust President Lukashenka as of April 2020.
Still, politically active Belarusians and their loved ones have increasingly faced threats to their lives and livelihoods – an oppression which may be worsening. Amnesty International classified human rights in Belarus as “deteriorating.” According to BAJ, the media has been “constantly denied access to government meetings, [and] official information on issues of public importance.” BAJ also highlighted the use of official threats and fines from the government against journalists, such as detention and deprivation of accreditation. In their statement condemning journalists’ arrests, Reporters Without Borders remarked that the arrests the weekend of the 18th marked the “the first time that the police have targeted reporters who had valid accreditation.”
As previously mentioned, over 360 people were arrested for protesting Babariko’s arrest in one weekend alone. According to FPRI, the police have used “extreme measures to crack down on demonstrators.” More specifically, FPRI notes that police were photographed using an asphyxiation technique. Protesters with hearing disabilities were detained despite being unable to hear the command to disperse.
Furthermore, there have been numerous reports that women are particularly being targeted with threats of sexual violence. Amnesty International reported that the female partner of a Tikhanovksya supporter was threatened with gang rape after being taken to a police station in June for questioning about her partner. FPRI also found that female protesters have been threatened to have their children taken away.
Once arrested, protesters and journalists face inhumane conditions. Most detainees are held at the Minsk Center for the Confinement of Offenders. According to Belarusian human rights organization Viasna, the conditions there “amount to torture” and detainees are subject to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” The cells at the Arekstsina Detention Center lacked mattresses and warm running water. Detainees are reportedly not allowed to read or take daily walks, nor can they receive mail. Freedom House stated that Belarusian law enforcement has “broad powers” when it comes to the use of force, while suspects who are abused while in custody “have little opportunity for recourse.”
The public’s political involvement has carried on in spite of these risks. The day Babariko was arrested, opposition supporters formed a “solidarity chain” stretching across Minsk that lasted for seven hours into the night. Olga Kovalkova, co-chairman of the Belarus Christian Democracy Party (BCDP), attended the demonstration. Kovalkova commented on Babariko’s detention to Tut.by: “Obviously…Lukashenka is trying to deal with his opponents. But I want to say that he is not at war with Babariko or Kovalkova, he is at war with the Belarusian people…I understand the detentions will continue, the pressure will increase, but I can’t just sit in silence at home.”
Foreign actors should not be silent either. The international community should pressure Belarus to uphold freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. As President Lukashenka has increasingly looked to the West amid tense relations with Moscow, this is particularly applicable to the EU, which accounts for 18 percent of Belarus’ overall trade. As the Belarusian Association of Journalists’ statement called for, authorities must uphold press freedoms guaranteed under the constitution. Journalists, observers, and activists arrested solely for their involvement in peaceful protests likewise should be released, along with other political prisoners.