September 16, 2020

Belarus Rising: The Dying Dictatorship

Lukashenko's grasp on Belarus is crumbling. Democracy is calling.

Belarus Rising: The Dying Dictatorship

August has been a month of revolt for the people of Belarus, as from the election on the 9th August, 'Europe’s last dictator' received an overwhelmingly positive result. Such a thing is not agreeable to the people of Belarus, who believe that the result is not reflective of the entire vote. Lukashenko has been in power as president of the country since the position was established back in 1994, and so has concentrated a huge amount of power in his hands, under the ever-watchful gaze – and, for the most part, support – of Putin.

All of this would be better told if it had some context. So, Belarus was once one of the many states that made up the USSR, specifically called the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. As we all know, the USSR was, for the most part, an authoritarian union that was heavily centralised to the powers of Moscow, with a single person as its de facto leader, with their title varying over time. The idea of the state being centred around this one ‘strongman’ leader is one that carried on after the dissolution of the union. As such, the man who went ahead and took up this mantle was Lukashenko, all the way back in 1994, when the first free and fair election happened in the country after the new Republic of Belarus was declared. Lukashenko was previously very unknown, but he managed to win, as the other choice was very unpopular.

As with many post-Soviet states, Belarus was suffering quality of life problems as it tried to adapt to a more liberal system. Lukashenko used this to his advantage, as he promised things that were present in the Soviet past, particularly improving living standards. He also had a strong anti-corruption message, but at the same time declared wishes to have better ties with the new Russian Federation. Despite these promises, upon election as President, he almost immediately did the opposite, solidifying his personal power and amending the newly adopted constitution through multiple undemocratic referendums since then, that have seen the presidential powers expanded significantly and the culmination of his authoritarian government.

As his term has been unending since his election, Belarus is commonly known as ‘the last dictatorship of Europe’. Its system mostly mirrors that of Russia, with their‘vertical of power’ that we see under Putin. It means that all government decisions is concentrated in the hands of the President, and all persons in political positions are appointed by them. Lukashenko was once the director of one of the state collectivised farms back in the 1980s, which is  fromwhere, it can be assumed, he takes some inspiration for his leadership style. It is even suspected that his wanting to have closer ties to Russia in the beginning was actually him trying to start a course to himself being head of all Russia, as he was popular there at the time, in contrast to Boris Yeltsin, who was not. If this is true and were indeed his intentions, this all changed after Putin came to power. The closer ties have come instead in the form of economic dependency on Russia, particularly through energy subsidies, as well as a military alliance.

However, even though there have been mostly good relations between the two states over the years, Lukashenko has tried to remain as neutral as possible on the world stage, or at least cultivating an image that he is so. This is to manoeuvre around the often conflicting ambitions of Russia, China and the west. An example of this is refusing to affirm how they recognise Crimea since its annexation by Russia. Belarus sees itself as a potential target for the same outcome, and so has recently made greater efforts to strengthen relations with the west. This has led to political prisoners being released and also sanctions that have been placed on Belarus by much of the west being removed. In the past, there have also been trade conflicts with Russia and other entities have provided resources instead, for example, the US coming in to trade crude oil with Belarus at a time when Russia refused.

Fast forward to this year, 26 years from Lukashenko coming to power, and we have the latest Belarusian election happening on 9thAugust 2020. The country received quite extensive international attention following it, as the result has shown a majority win for Lukashenko with an overwhelming 80.1%. From the start, this has been widely known to be a sham, as prior to the vote, most of the population were clearly keen for the opposition candidate to win, with exit polls showing a very different result to the declared one.

This candidate is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, wife of Sergei Tikhanovsky, who is a human rights activist in Belarus who was going to run in the election to enact the same policies that Sviatlana has adopted, only he could not as he was arrested and so could not register as a candidate. So instead, she ran in his place, despite having no political experience. The main policy both of them had was to act as an interim leader while Belarus transitioned into a true democracy, with a return to the pre-1994 constitution. Following this, they would step down to allow candidates to run in a free and fair election. There is also the promise of the release of political prisoners and weakening the ties to Russia.

This has proved to be a very popular platform, the electorate having changed significantly in the time since Lukashenko’s appointment. Many young people in Belarus have lived their entire lives under his rule and so are very keen for democracy to be instituted, which is of course what his opposition is promising above all else, and also provides a peaceful solution to the situation. Before now, opposition to him had only pursued a small number of issues and so lacked wide appeal with the common people.

After a second arrest, Sergei has been imprisoned since and despite initial reluctance, Sviatlana decided to run, partly as a method of releasing her husband. Upon her registration, two well-known opposition candidates, Valery Tsepkalo and Viktar Babaryka, gave her their endorsement after they could not register their own campaigns, the former having to flee the country and the latter being arrested. Despite this, she was seen as an easy opponent by the government, posing no real threat, owing to her being a housewife with no previous political experience. Pursuing this as a line of attack ultimately severely backfired against Lukashenko, after he publicly claimed her being a woman made her unfit to be President. This was a costly mistake, as the electorate is made up of 55% women, who were very offended by these statements.

This could only serve to enhance the chances of Sviatlanas campaign, as two other women headed its campaign. With the three of them taking leadership roles, it gave her cause a modern, feminist feel, something that was quite lacking in Belarusian politics. This struck a chord even more with the youth, as well as the general populace, as her campaign trail saw her amassing huge crowds at her rallies, by Belarusian standards, along with consistent great reception wherever she went.

Before the election itself, one would more than likely see her as a wave of change sweeping the country. All the indicators were there that she would seize a great victory from the dictator of many years. The early voting, which starts five days prior to the main day itself, saw 43% of the electorate participating, according to even official data, which, again, is high for Belarusian standards. However, the government put in obvious efforts to stifle this, as could be assumed they would. On election day, the number of people allowed to enter polling stations, as well as the number of stations themselves, was significantly reduced, with coronavirus being cited as the excuse. This is a classic tactic that we are all familiar with, including in our own supposed democracies.

As we know, the result was not what was anticipated, with Lukashenko announced as the ‘winner’ with over 80% of the vote, a lie that was all too clear for everyone to see. In answer to this, peaceful protests rose up as voters joined their voices to demand the democracy they were promised. The government wasted no time in trying to quell the protests by force, with police immediately using water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas against the protestors, something which has not been the case with protests that have happened in Belarus in the past. By the second night, they had moved onto live ammunition. Those who have been taken and arrested have been subjected to further brutality, including torture.

As with all displays of police brutality against peaceful protest, the participants needed to adapt their tactics to suit. While they have stuck to the principles of non-violence, they have made sure to make themselves less of a target for any attacking police. Changes include not congregating en masse in the central areas of Minsk, instead spreading themselves out, meaning it is easier to disperse and escape to homes when the police come, and also to regroup after the police leave. There are also women-only demonstrations happening, with the idea that it would discourag the police from using violent methods against them.

It is not ordinary police they are dealing with, however. The particular organisation that has been deployed against them is known as KGB Alpha, the members of which receive military-style training, most likely from Russia, with whom Belarus has a military alliance. Belarus is one of the few post-Soviet states – and the only one that has widespread global recognition of their sovereignty – not to rename their intelligence agency after the collapse of the Union. Though there is almost complete loyalty from the forces of the government, there have been a few instances of personnel making videos of themselves denouncing the government and casting off their jobs. While there is only a small minority doing so, this number is hoped and expected to increase over time in a domino effect.

There is also the question of just how much Russia will intervene in the proceedings. Putin will likely continue to support Lukashenko, but the reasoning could vary. For one, they are both authoritarian, and it has been seen that authoritarian governments usually support each other as they find it much easier to have relations, regardless of any supposed ideological differences they may have. Other nations may well be reluctant to cooperate with such regimes, or at least be seen cooperating with them by their people, and so they find their own form of solidarity in light of their oppressive systems. However, in the case of Belarus and Russia, their relationship has not been on the greatest of terms consistently since Belarusian independence.

Lukashenko will likely try to avoid accepting help from Russia if he can, and will probably only use them as a last resort if his situation becomes critical. If he does indeed go ahead and ask for military aid, this will more than likely result in Russia occupying Belarus to some degree, as has been seen with other countries in the past. As he has tried to cultivate the impression of being anti-corruption and for the people, a commonly-sought after image by populist leaders, being shown to be dependent on Russia would do much to erase whatever notion is left of his being fully for Belarusian sovereignty.

A few weeks before the election it was shown publicly that Russian mercenaries, part of the Wagner Group that is suspected to be controlled, or at least influenced, by Putin were stopped and arrested by the KGB of Belarus when they tried to enter. From the beginning it has been suspected that this was a staged performance by both governments, as it is a beneficial image for Lukashenko and there has been little in the way of objection and consequences from theRussian government over its own people being arrested, and that which has come could be a show. There is also evidence that Minsk has been used as a transit hub for the Wagner Group for a few years now.The idea is that Lukashenko has been working to prevent another situation like what is happening in Donbas happening in Belarus, though it is ironic that, now that he has largely lost the support of the people, a similar state of affairs to Donbas is more likely to happen. Unlike with Ukraine, however, Belarus does not have one distinct part of it that is Russian-identifying; in fact, most Belarusians speak Russian as their primary language and these are spread across the country, facing no discrimination, so there is much less of a ‘pretext’ for Russia to annex parts of Belarus in a similar way to which they did to Crimea.

Not only will acceptance open the door for occupation, it will also mean that further concessions that will heavily favour Russia can be demanded in return for their aid, as they are the only powerful nation that is on the side of Lukashenko. Possible examples include the demand of privatisation of key Belarusian industries and economic assets, along with their subsequent sale to Russian businesses, as well as the establishment of Russian military bases in the country, something that has been requested in the past, but actually turned down by Lukashenko. These military bases, especially their location, would prove a very valuable advantage for Putin, as Belarus borders Russia but also borders Ukraine and the three EU member states of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

As well as Russia taking liberties with him, Lukashenko is also facing major opposition on the world stage, as many statesare expressing their opposition to him and also preparing to place sanctions on Belarus. Not only will this make a huge hit to private enterprise and industry, workers in the country are slowly engaging more and more in strikes, with the hope that it will culminate into a peaceful general strike. This will paralyse the industries of the country, with a goal being to ruin Lukashenko’s claims of bringing stability to the state. It is thought the elites will then quit their positions and defect to the side of the protesters, or at least denounce him because of the negative economic effects that will come of all this action, and so spur on his removal from power. It is, after all, better for them to make it known that they do not support the sinking ship that is Lukashenko. There is all the likelihood that use of force will eventually subdue the protests and result in his retaining power, but he will be hanging on by a few threads, no longer able to claim he enjoys the support of the people.

As for his own personal reaction to the protests, he chose to deny the protests against him were a true reflection of Belarusians feelings, claiming that they were likely mostly foreign mercenaries that had entered the country from Poland. This is, as we all know, far from the truth. There was also a shut down of the internet and many of the exits from the city were closed off, in order to better hide the truth from the world, whichhas obviously achieved little of its intended effect. On top of the general protesters, there is a strong anarchist movement in Belarus, despite the efforts of the authoritarian government. One of the most militant and active groups of anarchists is Revolutionary Action, whose main contribution to the uprising is releasing videos on private WhatsApp groups that show anonymised members of the group, clad head to toe in black, the content of which gives instructional demonstrations that show the general protesters how to handle themselves at protests and what tactics to use to make their action most effective.

As with most anarchist groups, they do not take part in voting, instead choosing to engage in direct action against the regime. Although this is the case, they recognise the benefits to them if the democratic opposition to Lukashenko takes power, as it will most likely result in less oppression of their movement. One of their main wishes is for there to be more availability of weapons for use by protesters, so as to carry out a better insurgency. Unfortunately for them, these are very limited and possession of a firearm can land one with a heavy prison sentence. They take extra precautions as much as they can, not rousing suspicion from police patrols and making use of safehouses, as they believe the government has them on their databases and are looking for them. In spite of these efforts, three of the members have been arrested and the state media is spreading the message that they are coordinators of riots, trying to paint the protests as the doing of people who wish nothing but chaos.

At this present time, we know that Putin has extended an offering of military support, but they will “not be used unless the situation gets out of control.” What constitutes as out of control, and how many people will be sent for support, remains a mystery. It has come out though that Putin has pledged a loan of $1.5 billion in a meeting with Lukashenko. Sviatlana fled the country to Lithuania after the election in order to avoid government action on her wellbeing and life, and subsequently had the offer to be protected in Poland instead after the KGB of Belarus declared there was an attempt being made on her life during her time in Lithuania. Europe in general and much of the west continues to show support for her and the opposition candidate. As for the protests themselves, there was a peaceful protest by women on 12thSeptember, which resulted in many women being thrown into vans and detained by masked men. This came before a huge protest the following day, thought to be around 100,000 strong), that showed the movement is not losing momentum and the wave of change will not diminish. We may yet see the collapse of a longstanding dictatorship and democracy awaken, as the world watches in anticipation.


Photo by Andrew Keymaster on Unsplash

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