· February, 2021
Belarus is undergoing perhaps its most serious political crisis since independence. This eastern European country of nearly 10 million has been ruled by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka since 1994. The former collective farm manager is a great survivor. For over 20 years he has outmanoeuvred political opponents, playing off Russia against the European Union and cracking down on dissent with ruthless efficiency. In the international press, he is known as Europe’s last dictator. Meanwhile, he has held absolute power over Belarus, and expected his rule to continue.
Only one election in Belarus has ever been judged free and fair by international observers. Lukashenka appeared committed to continuing that tradition, breezing through elections in August 2020 to secure a sixth consecutive term as president. One by one, his most promising challengers were ejected from the race. The popular blogger Syarhei Tsikhanouski was detained at the end of May 2020 on suspicion of being a foreign agent. The businessman Viktar Babaryka, whose candidacy was rejected, was detained in mid-June. In late July, the entrepreneur Valery Tsepkalo, whose candidacy was likewise rejected, fled to Russia fearing political persecution. Sporadic street protests began to be held in June. The protesters were arrested and Lukashenka reacted as expected — by deriding them as the paid lackeys of undefined foreign powers.
But when Tsikhanouski’s wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, registered as a presidential candidate in his place, the opposition to Lukashenka was able to unite around a new figure. Tsikhanouskaya’s goal was simple: to resign after six months, by which time free and fair elections would be held. But when the official results were announced on the morning of August 10, Belarusians found them implausible. Lukashenka had allegedly received 80 percent of the vote compared to just ten percent for Tsikhanouskaya.
The situation has since deteriorated. Tsikhanouskaya has fled to neighbouring Lithuania. Thousands of Belarusians have been protesting across the entire country, which has seen internet shutdowns, labour unrest, a crackdown on independent journalists, and credible accounts by detained protesters of torture at the hands of the security services. Several protesters are reported to have been killed in clashes with riot police, and at least one has died in prison. Many observers now believe that whatever goodwill there once was towards Lukashenka has evaporated. If he rules, he will depend on fear to a degree unprecedented by Belarusian standards. His opponents are all too aware of that prospect.
With growing pressure and sanctions from Western powers, compromise looks improbable, as protesters and the opposition now demand nothing less than a full recount of the results and Lukashenka’s resignation as president of Belarus.
Stories about Belarus In Turmoil from February, 2021
As the space for free expression in Belarus narrows, many journalists and artists who covered the protests are awaiting trial.