A series of ongoing protests against the Belarusian leadership and current President Alexander Lukashenko are the largest anti-government protests in the country’s history. Beginning in May 2020 prior to the presidential election, thousands of demonstrators marched the streets calling for free and fair elections. In August 2020, immediately following the election in which Lukashenko was declared the winner with 80% of the vote, the Special Purpose Police Detachment (OMON) used water cannons, rubber bullets, and stun grenades to disperse peaceful demonstrations, having protesters arrested, injured, and even killed. Many of those arrested were held in the Okrestina Detention Centre in Minsk where they were subjected to torture.
Lukashenko, labeled as “The last European dictator,” has been the head of state of Belarus since 1994. Under his authoritarian rule, the government has frequently subjugated the opposition. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has contributed to greater public opposition as Lukashenko denies it to be a serious threat.
Violence is a familiar tool for security forces in Belarus as similar instances were seen following the 2006 elections. Igor Makar, former commander of the Belarusian Interior Ministry’s Almaz Special Anti-Terrorism Unit, stated that the security forces have always been rough, but not to this extent. The arrest of opposition presidential candidates Viktar Babaryka and Tikhanovsky in tandem with suspected electoral fraud saw the protests intensify nationwide. Protesters’ goals include the resignation of Lukashenko and his government, electoral reform, the release of political prisoners, ending police brutality as well as a recount of the presidential election results. Babaryka has stated that the charges of bribery and corruption against him were falsified, with his arrest politically motivated to prevent him from winning the presidential election.
Upon Barbaryka’s arrest in July, thousands of protesters using methods such as demonstrations, marches, and online activism continue to mobilize and face violent persecution by authorities. This includes authorities sending military vehicles into the middle of the capital to deter protests, as well as police tackling demonstrators and detaining them in minibuses. Videos distributed on the messaging app Telegram have shown uniformed officers using tear gas and stun grenades against peaceful protesters in an attempt to disperse rallies.
The Viasna Human Rights Centre estimated that about 1,300 protesters had been detained between May and August. In December 2020, they documented 1,000 testimonies of torture victims. The United Nations Human Rights Office cited more than 450 documented cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees as well as reports of sexual abuse. The protests have led to questions regarding the duration of conflict possibly evolving into a full revolution, similar to the Euromaidan demonstrations in Ukraine in 2014. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has not recognized any elections in Belarus free and fair since 1995, and the government has prevented past OSCE election-monitoring attempts in the country.
The European Union (EU) has agreed to impose sanctions against officials suspected of election fraud and involvement in security crackdowns; however, Lukashenko is not on this list as of yet. A diplomatic deadlock was broken in November of 2020 to impose sanctions on Belarus which would allow the EU to support pro-democracy protesters in Minsk. However, it has warned it is ready to sanction Lukashenko if he fails to join a discussion with the opposition and end the repression launched after the election.
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