Belarus: Cracks in Europe’s Last Dictatorship

, by Alexis Vannier, Translated by Rebecca Wenmoth

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Belarus: Cracks in Europe's Last Dictatorship
President Lukashenko at a meeting. Credit: the Kremlin.

On August 9th, 2020, the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko assumed his mandate for the sixth time. As the longest-serving leader in Europe (26 years currently), this dinosaur feeds mainly on political opposition, abuse of democracy, freedom, the rule of law and presidential term limits.

The last “bastard” of Europe

Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko is often called Europe’s last dictator, though there are other contenders hot on his heels. In Belarus, civil liberties and the rule of law do not really meet Western standards; Belarus and the Vatican are the only European states who have not yet joined the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Belarus is also the last European country in which the death penalty continues to be practiced.

Alexander Lukashenko likes neither opposition protests, nor journalists, nor “queers”, nor “parasites” (people who dare to work less than six months per year). Lukashenko’s regime is often referred to as a client state under Putin’s thumb. The plan to introduce a union between Russia and Belarus is a good illustration of this dynamic, despite the persistent obstacles which it faces.

The dictator’s liberticidal ways are reflected above all in closed, anti-democratic elections, all won by Lukashenko since 1994 with roughly 80% of the vote. Additionally, Lukashenko is forbidden to enter the European Union or the United States of America.

Repression as strong as the opposition’s ambitions

For two months, Belarusians have taken to the streets to show their opposition to the president-dictator. The president’s disastrous handling of the Covid-19 crisis is one of the reasons why the Belarusians, who went through no lockdown, are so angry. It was this president who recommended that ice hockey go ahead, to use tractors or, as there was no agricultural equipment available, to drink vodka to protect oneself from the coronavirus. The ‘country of blue eyes’ currently has 470 deaths and more than 65,000 cases.

The lack of freedom, a puppet justice system and a mediocre quality of life also justify this resentment. A white flag with a horizontal red stripe has become the symbol of resistance to Lukashenko’s dictatorship. This flag was used in the Belarusian People’s Republic upon its creation in 1918, before it was invaded by Soviet troops, as well as during the country’s brief period of democracy after independence (1991-1995).

The political opposition, which miraculously managed to elect two MPs (out of 110) in 2016, decided earlier this year to change strategy. It abandoned its boycott of the antidemocratic presidential election to throw itself wholeheartedly into the campaign, and tried to use the few constitutional weapons that it has against Lukashenko. The presidential response was swift. As usual, the regime preferred interrogations and quick and decisive sentencing over democratic debate. Thus many members of the opposition were removed. This was the case for Valery Tsepkalo who, thanks to his experience as an ex-diplomat and head of a cutting edge technology business, was a real threat for the regime. In the end, it was his wife who picked up the torch.

Sergei Tikhanovsky is a blogger who made himself massively popular by travelling across Belarus to collect residents’ testimonies about the effects of the president’s disastrous, repressive, and impoverishing policies. He was violently arrested and put in detention for “breaching the peace”. In this kind of country, the reason for detention is almost never relevant, given the lamentable state of the justice system.

Viktor Babariko was a third opposition figure who hoped to bring together the democratic aspirations of a part of the population. This ex-investment banker collected 400,000 peoples’ signatures (300,000 more than the amount required to stand in a presidential election). His good business management and relationship with the media propelled him to the forefront of the race; so Lukashenko had him imprisoned on the 18th of June, and the electoral commission invalidated his candidacy three weeks before the vote. This grotesque decision triggered protests and violent arrests.

In an unprecedented move, three opposition candidates decided to withdraw their candidacy to the benefit of Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, the wife of the famous imprisoned blogger Sergei, just as Lukashenko’s two serious contenders the banker Babariko and the diplomat Tsepkalo also gave their support to her.

The recent arrest of around thirty Russians “fighters” by the regime will further cool relations with Moscow at best. At worst, it will show Belarusians —and Westerners— that President Lukashenko is closely monitoring the security of the country and its citizens.

The prospect of an opposition victory is still illusory today, as made evident by the election results (officially, almost 80% of the first round of votes went to Lukashenko). The regime is still firmly tied to the dictator himself; but the opposition protests that broke out when these questionable results were announced (no international observer was present in the country) show that this is not over. The Arab Spring, or indeed the Armenian or Sudanese cases, have shown us more or less successfully that dictators of all kinds can sometimes lose against a strong, determined public. “Tyrants are only great because we are on our knees”: may these words of Étienne de la Boétie inspire a thousand uprisings.

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