Resistance and Subjugation in Belarus


Photo source: Al Jazeera
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

The protests in Belarus happened after a rigged presidential election in August 2020, when President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory for a sixth term. The Berlin-based Centre for East European and International Studies  had conducted one of the first large surveys and concluded that at least seven hundred thousand out of the five million people may have protested. They were mostly men, often single, living in large cities who had protested. The youth had mobilised themselves in the protests amid the violence. The sheer scale of the protests gave people hope that the government they had lived under since 1994 may actually come to an end.

During the initial days, the mood was festive. Women wore bright dresses, some wearing high heels, as if they were on their way to a theatre. Hipsters drank cold drinks. There were also students who draped themselves in red and white Belarusian flags singing ‘Change, we want change.’ Then police flashed grenades, rubber bullets and truncheons. Green vans slowly drove around the streets, which made many people shudder.

Images of the injuries inflicted upon the thousands of protesters arrested during the first days of the protests were circulated widely on social media. Reports of torture and its visual evidence shared by people after their release from custody became a trigger for the protests to turn it into mass mobilisation. The protesters were strategic and increasingly countered the security forces with a series of decentralised local protests.

The European Union (EU), for instance, had been of the opinion that most voters cast their ballot for a different candidate: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who stood in as a candidate for her husband, opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, after he was jailed prior to the election. Otherwise, she had no ambitions to run for the political office, but now wants to reform the constitution.

As a response, European Union also had slapped sanctions on Lukashenko, and a number of his allies.

Although the presumed winner was forced into exile to Lithuania just days after the vote, protestors demanded new, fair elections to be held. Mikhail Bushuev in an Oped for DW remonstrated his holding onto power. He wrote: ‘When Lukashenko was seen striding to his presidential palace wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying an AK-47, many in the country saw a cartoon cut-out of a man who had lost all connection to reality.

The Lithuanian government said in March 2021 that it ‘would rather watch hell freeze over’ than consider a Belarusian request to extradite her on charges of endangering public order.

Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst in Minsk, believes that Tikhanovskaya and her supporters have very few options, but cautions against expecting a ‘political earthquake.’ It is evident from the quickly assembled opposition coordinating council that was unable to keep the momentum of the protests going.

The other thing that has worked for Lukashenko, who is named as ‘Europe’s last dictator,’ is that the most important elements of the regime’s security apparatus have remained loyal, who have often received kickbacks, and are allowed to get rich through smuggling and whatever means that they invent. Due to them, the streets were suddenly empty, and the red and white opposition flags that hung from windows or were painted on faces or clothing disappeared. There were reports of torture, rapes and detention camps were also set up, where people were forced to live under inhumane conditions, with neither water nor food. People died from the state's use of force, yet none of those deaths have been investigated yet.

Russia, which officially forms a union with Belarus, initially voiced half-hearted support for Lukashenko. After that, Moscow soon gave him an absolute endorsement. That bought Lukashenko time, which he used to muster a counterattack. The US also put sanctions but it didn’t affect Lukashenko’s power grab.

Lukashenko, has been always maneuvering between the West and Russia. However, he seems to be drifting away from Putin's grip now, and then Trump administration had seized an opportunity to revive diplomatic relations with Belarus.

In February 2021, the United Nations human rights high commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, commented that Belarus had been facing a human rights crises of unprecedented dimension.

Belarus also has tried to rattle the region with their shady political schemes. It was in May 2021, when Belarus fighter jets forced a commercial Ryanair flight en route from Lithuania to Poland to land in Minsk so that security services could arrest emigre journalist Raman Pratasevich, who ran the popular opposition channel Nexta on the messaging service Telegram with Stepan Putilo. It reflected Minsk's increasingly questionable behaviour, which may well be the result of Russian enabling. 

Hundreds of people in Poland and Lithuania gathered for protests, showing support for the opposition in neighbouring Belarus, after the Belarusian dissident was arrested. Protests took place elsewhere in Europe as well as in the US and Australia.

Despite Lukashenko's authoritarianism, there was a parallel Belarus, which didn’t care much about it. Civil society blossomed, with alternative theatre groups, artists associations and non-governmental organisation (NGO) abounding. But, much changed after 2020, and the regime wants to counter the vibrancy and any form of dissent brazenly. 

Recently, the president ordered nationwide raids and arrests at NGOs as well, as the homes and offices of the few remaining independent journalists in Belarus. It is estimated that some fifty NGOs were forced to shut down on July 2021 alone; dozens of activists, reporters and artists have fled the country for fear of repression as well.
When it comes to European Union, it should start watching the developments in Belarus more closely again. It needs to be prepared to clear a path toward negotiations between the Belarusian regime and representatives of the opposition Coordination Council.




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