Belarusian presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya hopes to start dialogue with authorities amid controversy over the August 9th election, which many believe was rigged. Belarus’s central election commission cited preliminary results showing a landslide victory for Tsikhanouskaya’s opponent, the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko, who received 80% of the vote to Tsikhanouskaya’s nine percent. She rejected the results, inspiring nationwide protests. While Tsikhanouskaya announced creation of the Co-ordination Council, established to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power, Lukashenko immediately refused negotiations.
A former English teacher and stay-at-home mother, Tsikhanouskaya challenged Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. According to ABC News, in addition to checked ballots at Minsk polling stations showing her defeating Lukashenko “in reality by five to six times,” Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign said the record number of 40% early votes suggested falsification. Alleging “massive fabrication,” and demanding to see “the real ballot results,” Tsikhanouskaya encouraged those feeling swindled “not to keep silent.” Claiming Belarus “won’t be able to accept [Lukashenko] as the new president,” Tsikhanouskaya added that protests are a “powerful weapon against the regime.” As conflict escalates between demonstrators and police, approximately 7,000 people, including dozens of journalists, have been detained, hundreds were injured, and at least four are dead. Amid threats to her family, Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania with her children.
Despite hopes that “dialogue will take place soon,” the unlikely first condition is “release of political prisoners.” If that condition is met, Tsikhanouskaya’s husband Syarhei will be freed, after three months in prison for allegedly assaulting an officer.
Lukashenko remains obstinate. Accusing protestors of provoking police and European countries of directing the opposition, he insisted his regime “would not allow [demonstrators] to blow up the country.” Riot police and military forces responded to protestors with stun grenades, rubber bullets, batons, and tear gas. Released detainees report severe beatings and harsh conditions in overcrowded detention centers. Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Director Hugh Williamson said authorities’ response of “unleashing brute force” indicated a “new low point on human rights” for Lukashenko. Speaking with the Associated Press while running, Tsikhanouskaya recalled being “on the verge of stepping down.” She received a phone call threatening to put her “behind bars” and place her children “in an orphanage.” Reflecting on her “tormenting decision” to continue, she said, “[T]here must be a symbol of freedom.”
Lukashenko, who boasts a reign of 26 consecutive years, has been called Europe’s “last dictator.” Following adoption of a national constitution in 1994, Lukashenko entered two-round presidential elections against six candidates. He won decisively, with approximately 45% of the first round vote and 80% of the second. While his opposition to Western-supported “economic shock therapy” prevented the devastating recession other post-Soviet states experienced in the 1990s, Lukashenko has a poor reputation with upholding human rights, repressing opponents, and restricting media. Nonetheless, Alexander Feduta, a former Lukashenko campaign manager, observes that “until now, nothing has seriously threatened [Lukashenko’s] power.”
Despite the apparent landslide election results, Tsikhanouskaya has been the biggest challenger to Lukashenko’s rule. After insisting that no new elections would be held, Lukashenko has proposed conceding power after a referendum. While many believe this is an empty attempt to pacify protestors, Lukashenko asserted that he would not concede under pressure or “because of the street.” He expressed readiness for dialogue with “labor collectives, student collectives… and farmers,” but not protest leaders, accusing them of rejecting dialogue. His refused negotiations with the Co-ordination Council and aggression against protestors are further evidence of authoritarian rule.
In addition to domestic controversy, Lukashenko’s victory attracted international attention. As the United States and European Union condemn Lukashenko’s actions, other bodies like China and Russia recognize his victory. The E.U. is pushing for new elections, Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered military assistance, and both factions warn against the other’s involvement. If Lukashenko cannot de-escalate conflict and achieve peaceful resolution with the Coordination Council, foreign intervention may ensue, further threatening Belarusian autonomy and creating more conflict.
While international authorities suggested a re-election, many have not recognized Lukashenko’s victories as free or fair. Given widespread doubts of legitimacy, extensive rule, and increasing condemnation of his response to protests, Lukashenko should agree to negotiations and ease police retaliation.
Lukashenko’s continued consideration of Russian assistance poses risk to international relations. Instead of foreign involvement, he should prioritize negotiations with the Co-ordination Council. Lukashenko must accept that failure to peacefully negotiate resolution not only risks Belarusian sovereignty, but escalated conflict nationwide and internationally.
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