Protests in Belarus have reached their 50th consecutive day, with citizens taking to the streets to show their disdain for the country’s authoritarian state. This past Saturday, more than 100,000 Belarusians arrived in the capital city of Minsk and marched. These protests stem from the reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. The government of Belarus claims to support fair and democratic elections; however, Lukashenko’s opposition has good reason to believe that the election was manipulated. The election took place on August 9, and Lukashenko questionably had received the majority of the votes before polls had even closed. This granted Lukashenko his sixth term in office, and according to election results, he gained 80 percent of the vote. The people, Lukashenko and his opposition know that this was not a fair election, but Lukashenko refuses to step down. A secret swearing-in ceremony occurred amidst mass resistance and demonstrations. Additionally, many who have been actively speaking out against Lukashenko have been arrested or have been forced to flee the country.
Those who have participated in the protests are risking their lives in doing so. Detaining an average of around 200 individuals per day, officials are arresting as many people as possible. The atmosphere has been described as tense with a large police presence. According to various human rights organizations, there is “widespread violence, torture, and abuse of detainees including systematic beatings and electric shocks. Some had serious injuries and had to be hospitalized.” Western countries have condemned the election and suppression of protests. The European Union and the United States are additionally considering possible sanctions against Belarus and its officials.
Belarusians who marched on Saturday walked nearly two kilometers down a long column leading to the capitol building. First-hand accounts from Associated Press journalist Yuras Karmanau noted that protestors held signs that read “the naked king” and wore crowns cut out of cardboard, indicating the themes of a tyrannical ruler. Reuters journalist Katya Golubkova interviewed a man who was amidst the protests. Gennady is a 35-year-old logistics writer and declined to give his surname for his own safety. He stated that “we have to show with this march that he [Lukashenko] does not control the country, that he is not in a position to speak on behalf of Belarusians.”
The main candidate in opposition to Lukashenko was Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who took on the election in the place of her husband who was imprisoned for actively speaking out against the government. She ran on a platform of pursuing democracy and fair elections, even though she had no previous political experience. Her rallies brought in record crowds, with themes of hope and ideals of a new country for the people rather than for the benefit of the one man in power. She was ready to fight for her country and what she believed could be at the expense of her own safety and that of her family’s. After the election, Tshikhanouskaya was forced to flee the country with her children, and she is now residing in Lithuania. Her supporters were detained and exiled out of Belarus, facing charges of undermining state security. She still gives a strong message to those protesting, stating, “We have come to stop this regime and we will do this peacefully. Democracy is the power of the people. The entire people are stronger than one man.”
Belarus has struggled with its identity since it became an independent nation-state in 1991. The country was a part of the former Soviet Union and has a lot of the territory being heavily debated due to unclear borders. Therefore, much of Belarusian history has been meshed with that of other countries, and the country has never been able to stand on its own. The country comprises a variety of ethnic groups and has strong ties to Russia. The relationship between Belarus and Russia is complex, as seen when Russian officials took advantage of Belarus’s weak state at the beginning of its sovereignty. Russian authorities have openly stated that Lukashenko’s presidency will be acknowledged and riot police will be sent if necessary.
At the onset of its independence, Belarusian officials sought to make the country an autonomous, democratic state. The idea was that there would be three branches of government: the executive, judiciary, and legislative body that would have an equal amount of power divided among them. This was laid out in the 1994 constitution. However, when Lukashenko came to power, the constitution was revised and a larger amount of power was given to the executive branch. Britannica writer Anthony Adamovich wrote about the political state of Belarus, arguing, “Political success is more dependent on loyalty to the president rather than loyalty to a political party.”
Under the regime of Lukashenko, Belarus and its people have been hurting. Before the August election, Nigel Gould-Davies from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) wrote an account on the state of Belarus and why Lukashenko needs to leave. Gould-Davies wrote that Belarus is under a state of welfare authoritarianism with “stability, full employment, surveillance, persecution, and suppression of opposition.” The first two are what Lukashenko is presenting the country to be, and the latter three are what is actually occurring. He asserted that Lukashenko only wants what is in his best political interest rather than what the country and the people need. There are three main points that Gould-Davies made in his argument against Lukashenko. The first is the economic state of Belarus, which has been in a deepening economic crisis since the global recession of the early 2000s. There are a number of domestic problems occurring within the state, but Lukashenko continues to do everything in his power to cover them up. The second point of the argument is the amount of generational change that is occurring within the country. The generations of Belarusians that have known only the rule of Lukashenka are tired and striving for change. People are beginning to realize that they do not have to live within this type of government and are fighting back. Lastly, Lukashenko failed to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, writing it off as fake and even blaming his citizens for their own deaths at the hand of the virus. It is clear that Belarusians will continue to speak out, no matter the costs, in an attempt to seek the democratic government that they deserve.