The People Of Belarus Are Rising Up Against ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’. But Is The Tide Turning Against Them?

On August 25th, 1991, Belarus declared its independence from the Soviet Union and Alexander Lukashenko – a man not particularly well known to most people outside of the country until recently – became its first president. This was a time of hope and promise for the people of Belarus, a move towards democracy and liberalism after years of repression. However, Mr. Lukashenko would not serve his term and pass the baton to a successor; instead, he remains in power to this day and has earned the label of ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’. Lukashenko’s regime is currently facing the biggest protests in the history of the country, rocking the very foundations of his almost 3-decade old regime. The world looks on wondering if Lukashenko’s time is up or whether he will be able to hold his dictatorship in place.

Just 10 days after the August 9th presidential election, Lukashenko has found himself on the ropes. The protests initially began as a backlash against what many claim to be a rigged election in which he claimed to have won 80% of the vote, while opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – who was widely regarded as very popular – received only 10% and then had to flee the country. The movement soon morphed into something much bigger than just a reactionary spate of anger, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to 200,000 people demonstrating in Minsk last Sunday, the largest in the independent history of Belarus.

The protests took the Lukashenko regime by surprise and spread across the country even drawing factory workers to join the protests. Nick Kaeshko, an accredited independent election observer during the election, who witnessed the voter fraud first-hand described the protests as ‘decentralized’ functioning as a grassroots movement led by individuals and small communities. The atmosphere in Minsk was one of hope for the future as Lukashenko was seemingly at the mercy of those whom he had oppressed for almost 3 decades.

The Lukashenko administration reacted violently claiming to have imprisoned over 7000 protestors whilst attempting to discredit the demonstrators as foreign agents. Reports of torture and abuse by the authorities spread quickly and many protesters have simply ‘disappeared’ at the hands of the national guard. The violent clampdown initially failed to have the desired effect, and more people were driven into the streets by the horrific images of beaten and abused protestors that flooded social media and the international press. Despite the initial success of the demonstrators, there appears to be a shifting of the tide in favour of Lukashenko and his allies.

The government has successfully forced many of the factory workers back into line by threatening them with criminal punishments. As a result, they are more or less back to business as usual. The general population has suffered some morale loss as protestors have been relentlessly attacked by the national guard, loved ones have gone missing and the government has introduced martial law in all but name. The uprising now appears to be at a crossroads, as momentum slows and the government regains an element of control over the situation. Lukashenko hopes that the local population can be demoralized enough to stop major marches whilst the international community and press lose interest, thus preventing further international backlash against him and his government.

The European Union and the international community as a whole must use the powers they have at their disposal to support the people calling for their basic human rights: to freely elect those who decide the fate of their country. The EU has already responded to the situation by sanctioning members of the regime and refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the election. Thierry Breton, the EU Industry Commissioner, stated that ‘“It is clear that (the outcome of the Belarus presidential election) is not in line with the wish of the people, there has been unacceptable violence, and the rule of law is not respected.’’ This pressure must be maintained by Europe in order to remind Lukashenko that what has happened will not be forgotten and that democratic world stands behind the demonstrators.

Furthermore, the inevitable role that Russian President Vladimir Putin plays and will continue to play in Belarusian politics must be recognized. Lukashenko pleaded for help from Putin as the gravity of his situation began to set in. Artysom Shraybman, a Minks-based political analyst, explained that Russia has agreed to intervene only if there is clear ‘‘foreign aggression’’. Furthermore, Aleksandr Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre has pointed out that Putin intervening without support from the local population would be potentially disastrous for the Kremlin. As a result, Lukashenko is alone, condemned in the west by the EU and put on hold by his only powerful friend in the East. The European Union must maintain a dialogue with the Kremlin and make it abundantly clear that any intervention like what was seen in Ukraine will be punished severely. Lukashenko must be kept in ‘isolation’ both from his allies and his foes.

The August 9th election bought members from all across Belarusian society together to fight for their freedom and justice in the face of a brutal leader, and now the fate of Lukashenko hangs in the balance. The intentional community and every person that believes in the basic human right to freedom must not let Lukashenko believe that he can continue to abuse his powers without reprisal. Ultimately, his fate will be decided by the people of Belarus and their will to fight for their freedom. This historic moment in Belarus’s history will either be looked back on as the moment a dictator was almost removed or as the moment that the calls for freedom and progress were too loud even for a dictator as brutal and well established as Alexander Lukashenko.

 

Peter Zoltan Barker
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