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Europe’s Last Dictator: Lukashenko’s Belarus

Thailand, Algeria, Hong Kong and the list goes on. Pro-democracy protests have become a prominent feature in recent years, highlighting the increasing intolerance of the masses to be stamped upon by the authorities. As the globe ties stronger knots, exchange of ideologies and resources has been key, and among other things, demands for a greater say, quite rightly, tops the list. Ergo, the need to write about it, and I land at Belarus, the landlocked european country that sang the independence hymns as late as 1990, and is a tad bit different from the unerring social magnificence of the rest of Europe.

On the 10th August 2020, the expectant Belarusian faithful got the news of a landslide victory for Alexander Lukashenko. The leader, often regarded as "Europe's last dictator", secured his sixth term with an 80% vote margin, the polls said. However, the people of Belarus allegedly didn't vote for him. And quite rightly, they took to the streets to voice their disapproval, and there has been no looking back since then.

The Background

To state simply, the people have had enough. Lukashenko has kept important sectors like manufacturing and media under state control. The secret police is called the KGB, affirming it's very close ties with Russia. Lack of economic reforms has contributed to a stagnant economy (GDP same as of 2010), characterised by scarce opportunities and low pay. Public debt has shot up, and corruption and poverty graphs have followed suit, while foreign currency is marred with the opposite. Moreover, the president has often downplayed the virus, suppressing important information and even going to state that the virus can be treated with Vodka and a sauna visit. Human rights violations are commonplace. Finally, people's opinion is transforming with respect to the state's reluctance to go with the west, unlike the rest of Europe. As Ukraine made it clear to go to the west, Belarus remains divided, and the geopolitical factor stands missing.

The Protests

Just when the results broke out, mass protests in Minsk and other places followed. People claimed to have gone with Lukashenko's main opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, also suggested by the exit polls, and that the elections were rigged. Everyone joined in large numbers, as shops, cafes, restaurants and small businesses closed down. Students and women lead the scene with red and white flags and similar shirts in balconies, demanding the resignation of the president. Even Lukashenko's political heartbeat, who are the workers at heavy machinery and potash industrial plants, heckled him and expressed their displeasure over the way the elections were carried out. Telegram has been extensively used to gather protestors, with as many as 100,000 taking to the streets.

But this dissent has come at a cost for the Belarusians, and a huge one. The president's attempts to silence his critics have been oppressive. The authorities have arrested, imprisoned and even deported opposition leaders, a practice they followed prior to the elections as well. Tsikhanouskaya had to take refuge in Lithuania. Stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas have been fired extensively, and as per BBC's witness account, it has become common for masked men with batons to drag protestors into unlabelled vans and drive away. Police brutality has been at the peak. More than 17000 people have been detained. Recently, a protestor named Roman Bondarenko died which took the death count to 4, further infuriating the mobilisations. RT, the pro Kremlin news channel has been tasked to cover the happenings through its 32 reporters, who've often backed the incumbent. Internet access has been taken away at many times. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and UNHRC, all have condemned the clampdown.

Russia and the Rest

Belarus cannot be talked about without Russia. Putin and Lukashenko have always been brothers in arms, jointly running an autocratic form of governance. Moscow has always wanted deeper economic and political ties with Minsk, to hang on and even expand its historical footprint on the nation. Among this fiasco and the pandemic that has caused the Rouble to lose more than 10% of its value against the Euro and the US Dollar over August, and 27% against the US Dollar last year, Putin has offered a 1.5 billion dollar loan to Belarus, to revive economic activity. Though there hasn't been a clear stance taken by the Kremlin, they are waiting for protests to fade out, and are behind the regime providing military support and media control. The opposition leader is on Russia's wanted list. But, the road with Russia hasn't been without gaping pits. Pre-election, Russian mercenaries were detained in Belarus, raising eyebrows. Moreover, recent conflicts over oil prices, trade and military presence have crept in too. However, the road is still good to tread on. Russia faces a huge choice ahead. If it goes with Lukashenko, the belarusian masses may shift to the west. If it takes the people's side, another state may become democratic and it fears that Russians may demand similar rights, sooner or later.

Elsewhere, international pressure daunts Lukashenko. The European Union rejected the election result on the 24th September, calling for new elections. As things escalated, sanctions have been put in place by the supreme body against many Belarus officials. Recently, Lukashenko was subjected to asset freezes and travel bans by the EU. The US has also issued statements of the elections not being free and fair. A thing to be noted here is that the election had no observers from the OSCE for the first time since 2001, which has also accused the president of rigging and human rights abuse. French President Emmanuel Macron, who's himself been facing flak, said "Luka has to go", as German chancellor Angela Merkel called for national dialogue. The UK and Canada have imposed sanctions too, with the former expelling a couple of belarusian diplomats in a tit for tat move. Poland and Lithuania have been very vocal critics, and several european countries have recalled their ambassadors.

Therefore, the demands of the people of resignation, end to police brutality, and the release of political prisoners is legal to say the least, and surely, Lukashenko must depart. A misogynistic and sexist president, case in point remarks like "the society isn't mature enough to vote for a woman", cannot be the leader as the world gets forward-looking and unites amidst this pandemic, and of a country that has always upheld it's values, and is tired of facing repression and upheaval. For the time being, Luka has refused to have talks and has said his government won't back down, but with protests intensifying near and global attention mounting, there's hope that Lukashenko will, eventually, give in.


Author -

Sarthak Aggarwal


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