Tens of thousands of protesters went to the streets of major cities in Belarus, questioning the country’s August 9th presidential election results. It happened after government officials announced that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had won a sixth term in office. Protesters in whats known as the “March for Freedom” have received a brutal, and in some cases, a deadly response from “special police forces” OMON. This is a brief introduction to what is happening in Belarus.
What is happening in Belarus? Timeline
- Belarusians highly anticipated their country’s August 9th presidential elections. Three popular opposition candidates – video blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, banker Viktor Babaryko, and ex-diplomat Valery Tsepkalo, drew thousands of supporters to their nomination rallies.
- These three leading opposition candidates were disqualified from the race, with Mr. Tikhanovsky and Mr. Babaryko ending up in jail on questionable charges.
- All three men were running against long sitting president Alexander Lukashenko. 65-year-old Lukashenko became the first president of Belarus in 1994 and has been in power for 26 years.
- Authoritarian leadership under Lukashenko has included mass human rights abuses, a stagnant economy, and an economic zone and military alliance with Russia.
- Earlier this year, Lukashenko told Belarusians that COVID-19 is a minor infection that could be fought by picking potatoes, drinking vodka, and going to saunas. COVID-19 has caused 70,000+ cases and 600+ deaths in Belarus since March.
- Lukashenko’s generation-long tenure and authoritarian rule gained him the title of “Europe’s last dictator.”
Build up to August 9th?
Since 1994, Lukashenko has won all five previous elections. To be honest, none of these elections have been free and fair. Also, repression and rigged elections are nothing new in Belarus. The 2001 election candidates simply disappeared and in 2010 the primary opponent to Lukashenko was arrested and beaten. Later in 2015, with no serious challengers, Lukashenko claimed a victory of 83.5%. So, views that aren’t in line with the Lukashenko regime don’t go unnoticed. Violence against protesters and the press has gone hand in hand with past elections. Over the last 26 years, presidential candidates and thousands of activists have been arrested, beaten, and tortured by the police, OMON, and the KGB. However, this year’s elections have seen intense and dehumanizing brutality.
The 2001 election candidates simply disappeared. In 2010 the primary opponent to Lukashenko was arrested and beaten.
In the months before the election, famous Belarusian blogger, and pro-democracy activist, Sergei Tikhanovsky had gained support as a leading voice against the country’s long-ruling regime. Mr.Tikhanovsky started the popular protest movement called the “slipper uprising,” after labeling Lukashenko as a “cockroach,” (referring to the five consecutive presidential terms that Lukashenko has held) saying he resembled the insect in a popular children’s poem called “The Mighty Cockroach.” It became a theme at rallies to slap pictures of Lukashenko with slippers. To no surprise, Mr.Tikhanovsky was arrested two days after announcing his intention to challenge sitting President Alexander Lukashenko. In response, his 38-year-old wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, bravely stepped up as a substitute to challenge Lukashenko. A teacher and housewife, Sviatlana’s primary goal were to end Mr. Lukashenko’s rule and hold a new democratic election within six months.
On July 30th, Sviatlana gathered the largest rally since Belarus’ independence from the Soviet Union.
In an incredible act of solidarity, Sviatlana had Mr. Tsepkalo’s wife Veronika, and Mr. Babaryko’s election agent Maria Kolesnikova joined her campaign, calling for “Female Solidarity” against Lukashenko. Alexander Lukashenko responded to this by insisting that “Belarus is not ready for a woman to be president.” In June, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya released a video saying that she was threatened with arrest, and her children would be taken away if she continued to campaign. She had to send her children abroad to live with their grandmother for their safety. On July 30th, Sviatlana gathered the largest rally since Belarus’ independence from the Soviet Union. Human rights organization, Vyasna, said at least 63,000 people had turned out.
Roughly 84.05% of Belarusians voted on the August 9th election. Initial results announced by Russian government-owned media outlet RIA Novosti claimed a win for Lukashenko. This came even before the Belarusian Central Election Commission announced, Mr. Lukashenko won. The final count was Lukashenko 80.1% of the vote, while Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is said to have only received 10.12%. As the polls were released, protest erupted in Minsk and other cities around Belarus on the results’ news. An internet shutdown started, reports of injuries, use of stun grenades, and rubber bullets emerged. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya insists that if votes were counted correctly, she won at least 60%. In a news conference, she said that she did not trust the exit poll, saying, “I believe my eyes, and I see that the majority is with us.” To contest the election result, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya went to the Central Election Commission. There she was given an ultimatum to leave the country in exchange for her campaign manager’s (Maria Moroz) release from a detention center. After being detained for over 6 hours, Tsikhanouskaya agreed. Police quickly escorted her to the Lithuanian Embassy in Minsk. Protesters have seen extraordinarily extreme measures taken against them by a Belarusian special forces group known as OMON.
Women detained by the OMON report being forced to strip and kneel half-naked. They are then verbally assaulted and threatened with rape.
The OMON (Отряд Мобильный Особого Назначения, Otryad Mobil’ nyy Osobogo Naznacheniya or Special Purpose Mobile Unit) are an elite organization of police; dawning balaclavas pulled over their faces and bodies covered in heavy armor. Mostly a group of violence crazed thugs with seemingly unlimited authority and state resources. The feared OMON sees ideological opposition in any form of decent is a traitorous act. Since the protest began on August 9th, over 7000 people have been arrested, detained, or beaten. At least two deaths are reported. OMON’s arrest and detainment of people include being forced to lay face down and handcuffed on the pavement while being kicked or simply beaten. Women detained by the OMON report being forced to strip and kneel half-naked. They are then verbally assaulted and threatened with rape. Protesters have even had to avoid getting shot. On August 12th, the Belarusian authorities admitted to using live rounds of ammunition. A statement released by the interior ministry said police opened fire on demonstrators in the western city of Bretsk, claiming “they were armed with metal bars.”
Hope vs. fear
Some riot police have reportedly put down their shields and joined in solidarity with the protesters.
Although in apparent danger, angered by police and OMON violence against opposition supporters, Belarusians continue to protest over Lukashenko’s reelection. Women wearing white and waving white flags have lined Minsk’s main roads that lead to the airport. The color white has become a symbol of the opposition and sign of purity and hope. As well, the opposition flag, white with a red stripe, has become synonymous with the movement and is seen at every rally. Protesters have come from all walks of life in Belarus, students, IT professionals, small business owners, factory workers. No radical, far-right, or anarchist. A united front of discontent with Lukashenko and the abuse of protesters. Some riot police have reportedly put down their shields and joined in solidarity with the protesters. Today, anger against Lukashenko has passed a point of no return, especially when you consider factory workers’ strikes around the country. In response, this weekend, the government organized pro-Lukashenko rallies in the capital of Minsk. As Lukashenko bussed in supporters to hold a pro-government rally in Minsk, opposition groups held an opposing rally. Unofficial estimates for the gathering ranged between 100,000 and 220,000 people. The pro-government rally attracted far fewer people.
Sympathy for the Belarusian opposition has been expressed with demonstrations across Europe and in the US. The Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia declared solidarity with protesters in Belarus. Lithuanian journalist Andrius Tapinas has organized a human chain, from Vilnius to the Belarusian border, reminiscent of the 1989 Baltic Way that stretched from Vilnius to Tallinn. Heads of the Baltic states and Poland have asked for new elections in Belarus while European Union countries have threatened further sanctions over the violent responses to protesters.
Lithuanian journalist Andrius Tapinas has organized a human chain, from Vilnius to Kyiv, reminiscent of the 1989 Baltic Way that stretched from Vilnius to Tallinn.
Better call Putin
The Kremlin will have been watching events closely and may well come to conclude that their man Lukashenko has gone past the point of saving.
Russia and Belarus have an economic zone and military alliance. As a result, past weekend, Lukashenko has gone to Russia’s Vladimir Putin looking for support as he faces challenges with protesters and neighbouring European Union countries. Even though Putin has offered military support against any foreign incursions, he now has to decide how much he wants to support Lukashenko, who has disgraced himself so much to the Belarusian people. The Kremlin will have been watching events closely and may well come to conclude that their man Lukashenko has gone past the point of saving. Unlike Ukraine in 2014, here protests in Belarus haven’t been anti-Russian or pro-EU. Putin has even less reason to get involved further.
How can you help?
We can support protesters in Belarus against Lukashenko and his tyrannical regime:
- Ask your national leaders to support the Belarussian opposition to Lukashenko.
- Attend peaceful rallies and protest such as Laisvės kelias | Vilnius – Baltarusija.
- Follow Telegram updates from NEXTA.
- Share information and news stories about Belarus on social media.
- Stay educated and updated on news and events in Belarus.
- Donate to support protesters Дапамога рэпрэсаваным у Беларусі.
If you have any other ideas, please don’t hesitate to mention them in the comments!