by Emma Ethell
On 9 August, the Belarusian electoral commission released the results of the 2020 presidential election. The sitting President, Alexander Lukashenko, had won in a landslide victory with 80% of the votes, compared to his main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s 9.9%. As these results were released, rumours began to filter down that members of the commission for elections had refused to sign off on the results, and that their signatures were forged. Accusations of a fraudulent electoral process ran rampant and peaceful mass protests broke out across the country – only to be met with extraordinary violence by state law enforcement. To understand this response, one must first understand the underlying history of repression and autocratic leadership in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko celebrated 25 years in power last year, becoming the longest-serving leader in Belarus at age 64. Lukashenko was first elected in 1994, three years after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union, and still attempts to play to his image as the ‘father of modern Belarus’ or ‘Batka’, which is an affectionate term for father. Modern Belarus is often seen as a miniature Soviet Union, dependent on strong industrial and agricultural sectors that are heavily subsidised and profit from a close relationship with Russia. Lukashenko’s reign of power has been punctuated by a personalised authoritarian leadership style, reliant on a monopoly of power over his citizens, by imposing state rule over the country through the employment of local police, state security agencies like the OMON or the KGB and, supposedly, thousands of informants. Political scholars argue that Lukashenko legitimises himself by over-exaggerating perceived positive features of the Soviet rule in Belarus, like economic stability and victory in the Second World War. Not unlike the preceding Soviet dictators, Lukashenko operates on a carefully designed personality cult focused on his humble agrarian roots, reputation for fighting corruption, and economic stability since his first election.
Repression and a Marginalised Opposition
By employing Belarus’ Soviet past as a driving ideology, a strong social benefits structure and the power of the coercive apparatus, Lukashenko weakens his political opposition year by year. In December 2010 during the elections, official results of the days election showed Lukashenko re-elected for a fourth term with almost 80% of the vote. Ensuing opposition protests led to the deployment of riot police, hundreds of arrests, and seven out of nine presidential candidates opposing the sitting president were jailed, charged with connections to the protests. Despite a rigged election and mass protests, Lukashenko was able to effectively marginalise the opposition through mass arrests and violent repression by state agencies, and the focused, targeted arrests of opposition candidates. Since 2010, a complete degeneration of opposition coherence and coordination has occurred, as the opposition has fractured over divisive policies and opinions. This also plays into Lukashenko’s hands; every year, the number of opposition candidates increases and thus decreases the likelihood of one candidate being able to beat the incumbent president, until now.
Since June 2020, protests and unrest have rocked Belarus and the state capital Minsk in the lead up to the elections on 9 August. The use of violence in the barely-disguised systematic repression of protestors has escalated dramatically, with human rights group Viasna claiming that over 2,000 peaceful protestors have been detained since May, after two significant candidates, Valery Tsepkalo (former ambassador to the United States) and Viktor Barbaryko (a former banker), were barred from the presidential race by the Belarusian electoral committee on trumped-up charges. Tsepkalo’s 160,000 ballot signatures were deemed invalid but for 75,000, under the 100,000 minimum; while Babaryko (with 400,000 signatures) was arrested and imprisoned in June after being accused of taking 370 million euros out of the country in money laundering schemes. Those arrested in the protests are transported from the city and kept in inhumane conditions for a period of several days without contact with family or friends, before being charged with criminal offences. Almost 200 people have spent up to 15 days in custody without trial. One account recalled being forced to stand against a wall for five hours, unable to sit or turn around. The EU, in a surprise acknowledgement of the undemocratic process, claimed that the commission’s decision ‘undermines the overall integrity and democratic nature of the elections’. The EU rarely remarks on violations of human rights in Belarus, and has largely ignored the arrests of the press in Minsk during recent protests – perhaps reluctant to poke the proverbial Belarusian cub of the Russian bear.
The Women Who Want to Change it All
But things are different this year. More arrests, more candidates barred – one could almost think Lukashenko is tightening his grip on power, almost disregarding the semblance of democracy in his race to maintain face before his people. Enter: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Her husband, Sergei, a popular Belarusian blogger, was in the race for the presidency before being jailed and disqualified from running in early June, so Tikhanovskaya stepped in as presidential candidate. In late July, she told a crowd of supporters at a campaign rally that she would rather be frying cutlets than running for president, but the bid to challenge Lukashenko was a ‘mission’ she could not refuse. Tikhanovskaya has wholeheartedly thrown herself into the race, sending her two children abroad for their own safety, and joining forces with two other women. Veronika Tsepkalo is the wife of another would-be candidate Valery Tsepkalo, the former ambassador to the US, and Maria Kolesnikova, the campaign manager of Viktor Barbaryko. The women, neither politicians, nor seasoned campaigners, have won over the hearts and minds of a large proportion of the Belarusian population, drawing huge crowds all over the country. A recent rally in Minsk drew over 63,000 people, more than any other legal gathering ever has in Belarus. The three women have no political agenda, but to be the ones to rid Belarus of the ‘cockroach’ president – they call on the Belarusian people to vote for Svetlana to oust Lukashenko, after which she will call fresh, fair elections after freeing all political prisoners.
“Our Constitution is not suitable for a woman. Our society is not ready to vote for a woman. Because the Constitution gives strong authority to the president.”Alexander Lukashenko 29 May 2020: speaking at Minsk Tractor Works
Despite all the support for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the election day was more unpredictable than ever. Lukashenko has won election after election in the past three decades, and by no small margin. Accusations of fraudulent electoral processes go unheeded, both by Belarusian officials, European agencies, and human rights groups, even as Lukashenko used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse for fewer electoral observers. Meanwhile, he staged massive events for Victory Day in May, and regular festivals and assemblies, claiming to have gained ‘victory over the virus.’ Opposition supporters were ready for the inconceivable, improbable result on 9 August. ‘They could turn the internet off for days,’ and ‘the security forces are ready to crack down and in the past they’ve not used 10% of what’s in their toolkit’ are common fears, but it is enough to motivate those brave enough to stand for their freedom and rights.
The night of 9 August, cities across Belarus erupted in rage and indignation, having received the first exit polls that predicted Lukashenko’s win by 79%. The President returned to his toolkit of post electoral repression with more fervor than ever before. The army had been gathering in Minsk since the beginning of election week. OMON ranks and loyalist police were bolstered by what many suggest are paid Russians. They were armed with rubber bullets, water cannons, stun grenades and tear gas. The regime has cut off civilian internet access, arrested 6,000 people since Sunday night, including independent journalists, and attempted to silence foreign observers. It is only thanks to extraordinary bravery of ordinary citizens that document these protests, that the rest of the world can see the atrocities being committed in the name of Lukashenko. The rampant employment of extraordinary violence led to almost 50 civilians being injured on the night of the election, with two deaths, according to free (and undercover) press. Protestors have responded with fireworks, but do not carry weapons for their own safety. This does not deter state law enforcement. Unarmed civilians are severely beaten for simply being out on the streets after dark, protestors or not. Official state reports suggest that the use of force was ‘mild’ and that only one person was killed over the course of the past three days. The protestors demand the accurate vote count and the release of political prisoners; the people of Belarus want their voices heard.
Meanwhile, Tikhanovskaya and most of her campaign have been forced to leave Belarus while their fellow citizens fight for their freedoms. From Lithuania, Tikhanovskaya released a video in which she blames her own weakness for leaving her country, and reminds her followers to stay safe, and remember that children are what is most important in this world. She gave no further reason for leaving her country behind, but it is easy to guess who made Belarus so dangerous for Tikhanovskaya and her family. These are not the actions of a man who is confident that he has won a free and fair election – these are the actions of a scared and guilty man. Belarus is waking and, as history has shown time and time again, the cause of freedom and democracy will turn any Belarusian housewife into a warrior for their people. Twenty-six years, and not one day more. Жыве Беларусь!