Belarus on the boil

President Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator, holding fort for 26 years now, could be consumed by the rising cauldron of protests and economic problems

By   |  Published: 11th Oct 2020  12:05 amUpdated: 10th Oct 2020  11:25 pm
Concept Illustration: Guru G

When the whole world is fighting real hard against the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis, tens of thousands of people in Belarus are out on the roads fighting a “Cockroach”. Yes, you read that right, Cockroach – a nickname for the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko has ruled the country since the establishment of the office in 1994 and the new Belarusian constitution enacted, paving the way for the first democratic presidential elections.

Claiming his sixth term as the President of Belarus, Lukashenko, the longest serving European leader, is now facing the ire of the people of his country, including factory workers, police personnel and journalists. In what could be called as the biggest protests in the country since the fall of the Soviet Union, at least six people have died while hundreds were injured grievously and over 6,000 of the protestors were arrested after which they were subjected to brutality and in some instances sexual assaults and rape.

Fighting all the odds, the Belarusians continued their protests against Lukashenko and the Belarus government, calling for an end to the dictatorship. In fact, when the protests erupted about four months ago on May 24, leading to the August 9 elections, few expected them to last. Not only did the protests last longer than expected but have also grown from strength to strength. The last seven weeks, since the presidential elections that were allegedly rigged, have seen people in large numbers joining the protests.

Lukashenko Vs Tikhanovskaya

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was the most prominent amongst the three women who stood up against Lukashenko and his dystopian rule. Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova were the other two women who entered the presidential race before the elections. While Tikhanovskaya and Tsepkalo entered the race after both their husbands could not run for the office as they were arrested, Kolesnikova was a campaign manager for another presidential hopeful, until he was also arrested.

Though running as an independent, Tikhanovskaya attracted support from across the spectrum of Belarus’s political opposition. Vital Rymaseuski, co-leader of Belarusian Christian Democracy, Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Assembly), United Civic Party of Belarus and Belarusian Women’s Party ‘Nadzieja’ openly supported her. She was also supported by the 2010 presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich and the President of the Rada of the Belarusian People’s Republic Ivonka Survilla. All of this, after Lukashenko with his chauvinistic approach, kept insisting in his campaign that Belarus was not ready for a female president.

However, the night before the election, Tikhanovskaya was left with no option but to go into hiding in Minsk because police detained senior staffers from her campaign. She re-emerged on the election day at a polling station. Tikhanovskaya later fled to neighbouring Lithuania, where she had previously left her children ahead of the elections. In a video message, she said she made the “very difficult decision independently,” adding that “children are the main thing in life” and that the political unrest is not worth anyone losing their life. She also urged her supporters and other protesters to protest peacefully on the sidelines.

Why the Outrage

Clashes broke out across Belarus on August 9, the day of election, even as police used rubber bullets and teargas against the protestors. The very next day, the election commission announced that Lukashenko had won the elections with a vote percentage of 80.23%, while his main opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaya managed to get a mere 9.9% votes despite holding some of the country’s largest political rallies.

Lukashenko has been time and again accused of tampering with the election results, both by the opposition and observers. He has also been accused of human rights violations and undermining democratic norms numerous times in the past. Though there has been opposition all along, none of it was channelled into such huge protests during his 26-year rule. However, it could be said that his antics of mocking the coronavirus pandemic seems to have acted as a deadly trigger, leading to the massive outrage that now confronts him as his biggest challenge ever.

In the early stages of the pandemic, Lukashenko was not only dismissive about the pandemic but also went on to say “no one will die of coronavirus in Belarus”. The country, with a population of 9.5 million, now has over 75,000 confirmed cases and close to 800 deaths. Not only did the country get affected by the pandemic in multiple ways, including the return of the migrant labourers to Belarus from other countries due to loss of jobs, the President himself was diagnosed with the disease. Lukashenko then claimed he had fought the virus and defeated it by standing on his feet.

Government’s Response

In an early attempt to quash the protests, the government used all its might to drive the protesters away. But it did not have the intended effect. The evidence of the police brutality kept mounting and it was out in public domain for the world to see. Stepping back owing to the backlash from the United Nations, United States, European Union and some other quarters of the world, the government released thousands of protesters who were detained earlier. Though still refusing to acknowledge any malpractices in the election, Lukashenko’s interior minister did issue a rare public apology for “injuries of random people at the protests who got it in the neck.”

Big Brother Russia

Not many former Soviet nations have been as dependent on Russia as Belarus. One could safely say “none of them”. And if Russia now acts as the Big Brother, giving political and economical support to Belarus, it is largely because of Lukashenko, who has said on record that Russia always was, is and will be Belarus’ closest ally, no matter who is in power in Belarus or Russia. No one is more responsible for Belarus’ irreversible dependence on Russia than Lukashenko himself.

While other ex-Soviet nations like Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltics states have managed to de-Sovietise their economies, though after going through a lot of trouble, Belarus did nothing to free itself from the dependency on the Big Brother. It now is a herculean task to de-Sovietise its economy, especially while boasting of Communist-era collective farms, factories and plants. (See: Russian Eye)

Even though the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion contaminated one-fifth of Belarus, whose border is a mere six miles (around 12 km) away from the site of the meltdown, the Russian still gulps down most of the Belarusian produce. From its cheap dairy and farm produce to clothes and vehicles, Belarusian products have a huge market in Russia. This gives the impression to the rest of the world that Belarus generates huge revenues from Russia. The truth, however, is that it is the cheap Russian loans that keep a major chunk of Belarus’ economy afloat.

Amidst troubled relations with Russia since mid-2019, Lukashenko took the big risk of inviting the western world. He hosted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at Minsk in February. The move, however, backfired spectacularly, as the ever-so-shrewd Vladimir Putin stopped providing Belarus with cheap crude and loans, thereby single-handedly hobbling the country’s economy.

Neighbours on Alert

Russia’s interference in Belarus is giving some neighbours, especially the Baltic states, sleepless nights. With Russian soldiers being placed in Belarus and occasional “drills” consisting of TU-160 bombers flying along the Western borders of the country, countries like Estonia are now worried. Russia is also strengthening its military on the Latvia-Belarus border, which is now turning out to be a major headache for Latvia. Latvian Defence Minister Artis Pabricks recently said that the “regular drills near Belarus-Latvia border, where aggressive scenarios against the Baltic states are played out, do not promote mutual trust and good neighbourly relations.”

Belarus already has its hands full with issues that do not seem to have solutions, as Lukashenko has claimed back power amid an outcry of foul play. An additional pressure of war with any of the Baltic states could prove to be disastrous for it. The movement is gradually garnering more support, both nationally and internationally. What remains to be seen is how the Europe’s last dictator deals with the rising cauldron on protests and problems to checkmate the uprising amongst Belarusians or perishes in a civilian coup.

Russian Eye

The biggest and the strongest of the Soviet nations — Russia — has not abstained itself from influencing the smaller States, which were once a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) Union.

Russia supplies military equipment to most of these States and hence gets to act as the Big Brother, directly or indirectly. Apart from Belarus, Russia has been throwing its weight to meddle with issues such as the recent cross-border tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the unrest in Kyrgyzstan following the parliamentary elections.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at loggerheads over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is a de facto independent State with majority Armenian ethnic groups. Legally, it is a part of Azerbaijan but is being governed by the Republic of Artsakh.

Russia, which has close military ties with both the States, seems to be taking cautious steps. However, it is advantage Armenia, where Russian backing is concerned, as Armenia is an integral part of Russian-led military and economic blocs Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), while Azerbaijan is not.

On Kyrgyzstan post-election chaos where rival groups have claimed power, Russia says Moscow was obliged by a security treaty to prevent a total breakdown in the country. Though the Kremlin has not yet confirmed what actions it will take, it did make clear the intentions of intervention in Kyrgyzstan’s internal matters.

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