2020 has been a tumultuous year thus far: with protests all over the world. A global pandemic leading to the worst recession in history since the Great Depression has exacerbated political dissent and dissonance in many countries. In countries such as the US, the cracks are starting to show – but for Belarus, the country is already at breaking point.
After its last presidential elections this past August, the Belarusian political opposition has taken to the streets to protest against the renewed mandate of its 26-year-long president, Alexander Lukashenko. The main reason for these large-scale protests taking place all over Belarus is the alleged rigging of the results of the presidential elections by the Belarusian government. But after 5 consecutive weeks of more than 100,000 people marching the streets and three opposition leaders either exiled, imprisoned or barred from running, these protests have now become more than that.
When did the situation in Belarus become a timebomb waiting to explode? And how has Alexander Lukashenko gone from being one of the most beloved characters within Belarus, to a ruthless dictator in the eyes of its own people
Born in August 30, 1954, Lukashenko became president of Belarus in 1994, winning the first democratic elections celebrated in the country after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (he was the only deputy member to oppose the agreement that led to its dissolution). Even though he presented himself as a charismatic and optimistic Slavic leader promising the Belarusian people an even better welfare state than what they had under Soviet rule, in truth, Lukashenko always promoted closer ties to its Russian neighbour and has been an authoritarian and unpredictable leader since the very beginning.
In 1996, Lukashenko persuaded voters to approve a new constitution that gave him sweeping additional powers, including the right to prolong his term in office, to rule by decree, and to appoint one-third of the upper house of parliament. Since then, Lukashenko has kept much of Belarus’ economy in state hands and has grown to use censorship and police crackdowns against the opposition, most particularly against his political opponents.
But the cycle of accusations and subsequent protests has been repeating itself for several years. Re-elected in 2001, Lukashenko oversaw the passage of a controversial amendment that allowed him to seek a third term only three years later. He also won the 2006 elections amid allegations of election tampering, and again in 2010 sparking disapproval among many European leaders. Yet again in 2015, he claimed an over-whelming victory against a token opposition despite the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe having noted “significant problems” with the electoral process.
The state of Belarus: the growing revolt
As of 2020, there have been two decades of government affected by intervention and tampering with the electoral process. Attempts to stop political opposition have become more conspicuous; with the imprisonment, exile and barring of three opposition leaders from running.To top it all off, the way Lukashenko has dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic has enormously damaged the Belarusian economy and the social welfare of the people.
It should not come as a surprise then that this has sparked what is now the largest wave of popular demonstrations in Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than “7,000 people have been arrested to date and many have been injured in clashes with the police”.
While many countries from the European community have publicly expressed their concerns over the situation, Poland has proven to be the main ally for the Belarusian people giving asylum to some of the exiled opponents, financing independent media to the government and offering hospitals and medical aid for those who have been tortured or have suffered aggression at the hands of the authorities.
Alexander Lukashenko has rejected any calls for re-elections thus far, characterizing the demonstrators as “foreign-controlled rats”. He has even looked closer towards Vladimir Putin for help. No one knows how this will end, but what is certain is that the people of Belarus have only just begun rising in favor of their democracy – they will reach their goal or be forced silent.
Miriam Romero Picó