Protests In Belarus: The End of Europe’s Last Dictator?

THE OVERVIEW

In these weeks, Belarus is facing the most important and persistent demonstrations since its independence from the USSR in 1991. For months, a sense of general disapproval about President Alexander Lukashenko’s government had been growing because of the inadequate way he had dealt with numerous situations, including the Coronavirus pandemic. Since the beginning of August, the country has been going through several violent protests between police and demonstrators, where frequent violations of human rights and the arrest of thousands of protesters were reported.

Even if this situation seems to belong to the internal affairs of a sovereign state, many actors are considerably interested in its development, especially Russia and the EU.

THE BELARUSIAN BACKGROUND

In order to better understand what is happening in Belarus, it is necessary to know the recent history and background of this Eastern European country.

For centuries Belarusian territory had been dividing by different countries. In 1922, it was annexed by the newborn USSR and, except for a short period during WWII when it was occupied by Germany, the country remained always under Soviet control. In 1991, thanks to the fall of the USSR, the independent Republic of Belarus was created. After few years of transition, in 1994 Lukashenko was elected President and his government has lasted uninterrupted to this day. 

During his government, he has kept good relations with Russia and has not significantly changed the country’s economic structure compared to the communist organization under the USSR. In fact, Lukashenko has maintained a large number of strategic activities under state control, like manufacturing, agriculture, energy and mining. Besides, he has kept a huge state influence over pillars of the nation, like media channels and the economy, often adopting authoritarian measures in numerous circumstances, such as the imprisonment of his opposers. This behaviour led the international media to call him “Europe’s last dictator”.

THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

During the months before the election, a growing sense of dissatisfaction was spreading in the population due to the widespread poverty, corruption and lack of opportunities for people to improve their condition. Lately, this discontent was amplified by the inappropriate management of the Coronavirus pandemic and the terrible effects it carried. These circumstances made most of Belarusians think that a change was bound to arrive in the coming election.

With this background, the result of the 9 August 2020 election confirmed Lukashenko as President with 80% of the votes respect to 10% of the opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, wife of the blogger Sergei Tikhanovski – the main opponent of Lukashenko who was suspiciously arrested two days after his announcement of running for the presidential election. 

Nevertheless, the same day many witnesses and independent sources claimed the election was rigged, with pool irregularities and a huge internet interruption. Strongly denouncing these irregularities, the opposition claimed that actually Tikhanovskaya had won the election by obtaining about 60-70% of the votes, according to the places where the counts were not manipulated.

THE DEMONSTRATIONS

After the rigged vote denunciation, thousands of Belarusians flocked to the streets asking for President Lukashenko to resign from his position and for holding new and free elections. Although the crowd was protesting peacefully, police reacted violently and a large number of clashes were reported in many cities of Belarus for the entire night and the following day with several victims, hundreds of injured people and thousands of arrests and abuses of power. Witnesses claim police carried out numerous actions violating human rights, such as brutally beating demonstrators, leaving them in overcrowded jails without medical help and even utilizing dangerous weapons like flashbang grenades and rubber bullets.

The most powerful symbol showing the deep desire of change for Belarusians is the great number of women marching through the streets dressing in white, representing the peaceful spirit of the demonstrations. On the other hand, they are also waving flowers, which have always been considered revolutionary symbols.

THE ROLE OF RUSSIA

In order to truly understand the geopolitical plots, it is essential to take into consideration the role of Russia, which borders Belarus to the east and is one of the most influent players in Europe. As already stated, Moscow is politically and economically close to Minsk. In fact, in contrast to other former USSR countries, President Lukashenko has chosen to maintain good relations with Russia. Evidence of this can be found in the bilateral deal signed in 1999, in which these two countries agreed to become a single nation in the future. However, Minsk is still hesitant to realize this project because of its willingness to retain its independence.

Vladimir Putin aims at keeping an area of influence over former Soviet Union countries in order to keep playing a central role in the Eastern Europe. The easiest and most effective way to reach this goal is for them to become economically and energetically dependent on Russia. In fact, Russia is the most important importer of Belarusian products and provides Minsk the biggest part of indispensable energetic resources, like gas and oil. This strategy allows Moscow to maintain an iron bond with its border country.

Recently, Russia, as well as China, has acknowledged the electoral result and congratulated with President Lukashenko. In addition, Putin has confirmed his support to Belarusian President claiming that Russia is ready to militarily intervene in case of extreme events at Minsk. This is a clear indication that Putin has no intention to give up his objective.

THE EU POSITION

On the other side, after the clashes between Belarusian police and protestors, the EU has immediately denounced the occurrences and has not acknowledged the result of the election. In particular, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, which are EU members that border Belarus, have been pushing the European Union to take strong measures since the begin of the demonstrations, fearing for their borders in case of a protest’s deterioration. Nevertheless, the EU has not adopted any concrete measure until 2 October, because of the opposition of Cyprus and Greece which requested a strong stance against Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean issue before of dealing with Belarusian crisis. Solving this situation, Bruxelles has announced several sanctions against 40 politicians and functionaries near to President Lukashenko.

In order to understand the serious attention about these events, it’s essential to take into account what happened in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, due to a political crisis, there was a period of tension and violent military clashes between Kiev and Moscow with a great number of victims and injured. Taking into consideration this background, the EU is now behaving considerably careful fearing the Russian reaction, since Putin does not have intention to lose influence over a country in which it is strongly linked with.

WHERE IS WASHINGTON?

In this geopolitical issue, the substantial absence of the USA is evident. In fact, except for a general denunciation and some sanctions against 8 Belarusian politicians, they did not take strong positions. This strategy of Washington is explainable considering its main focus to the imminent internal elections in November 2020 and the lack of interest in interfering in Russia’s goals without a concrete strategic aim to pursue. However, the absence of the USA has a huge weight in every geopolitical situation and it will surely have significant consequences in this one.

NO MORE TIME FOR DICTATORSHIPS

In conclusion, the current situation in Belarus is considerably complicated because of different countries’ strategies and security reasons. Nevertheless, Lukashenko’s actions should be condemned, in particular for attacking human rights and democracy, which is not tolerable nowadays. In fact, Belarusian President has proved to be similar to a dictator by committing several injustices, like sending his political opposers to prison and utilizing state power, often violently, in order to reach his own goals ignoring population needs and safety.

Finally putting aside personal goals of different countries, the EU has the duty to intervene in order to finally embody the role of superpower it should cover, defending the interests of its citizens and punishing these unacceptable abuses.

While it is important to support the courageous Belarusian people, who are fighting bravely for a brighter future, on the other hand, it is also essential that the global community learns from the past and finds a common solution to avoid repeating the mistakes which led to the escalation in Ukraine.

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