The Belarusian Fight for Legitimate Democratic Elections
written by Thomas Lezeau
Published as part of European Horizons’ Spring 2020 policy priority series on Defending Democracy Against Cyber Threats and the Northern Chapters Publications Initiative on Interference in Elections.
The Belarusian presidential elections that took place on the 9th of August 2020 saw the re-election for sixth term of Alexander Lukashenko, credited with over 80 percent of the votes by official results. His opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya although officially credited with only 10 percent of the votes claims to have won by with at least 60 percent of the votes. Suspicion of the president’s party mingling with the outcome of the presidential elections is not something new in Belarus with Lukashenko being dubbed as “the last dictator in Europe” by the Bush administration and his government nicknamed a “Soviet-style establishment” by the BBC in 2007. However, the 2020 elections do seem to have been the last straw for most of the country’s 9.4 million inhabitants. As unprecedented waves of protests have been taking to the streets of Minsk and other major cities throughout Belarus for almost five months now requesting his departure, a weaker than ever Lukashenko remains determined to stay in power and has pushed repression on protestors to new heights. But how did it come to this?
Lukashenko, as it was put forth earlier, is not a new figure in Belarusian politics. The soviet born economist described himself as “neither with the leftists nor the rightists” in an interview with the New York Times in 1994. Although he was arguably democratically elected in 1994, Lukashenko quickly put in place an authoritarian regime, winning referendums in 1995 and 1996 giving him the right to dissolve any legislation contravening to the country’s constitution. The regime gradually established is one in which freedom of the press and of expression are not allowed, most media outlets being controlled by the government, and one in which the very idea of democracy is a farce, all the seats of both houses of the National Assembly being controlled by the president and people that are loyal to him. President Lukashenko’s fifth term in office’s final year was marked by a most controversial management of the covid epidemic, the government refusing to lockdown the country, instead encouraging citizens to drink vodka and go to saunas to stay healthy…
It is within this context that the campaign for the 2020 presidential election began in May. From the very start vast amounts of pressure were put on the different opposition candidates. On May the 29th, popular blogger and Youtuber Syarhei Tsikhanouski having announced his candidacy less than a month ago was arrested, detained and his candidacy rejected by the Central Election Commission (CEC), the institution in charge of organising the elections. In reaction to this and the mounting pressure that he was receiving by the government, his wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya decided to run in his stead. On the 11th of June, a state-led investigation was launched against Viktar Babaryka, another main presidential candidate, resulting in him being arrested and placed in custody a week later. A month later on the 14th of July, Barbaryka’s candidacy was also officially rejected by the CEC. These impediments to the smooth and free running of the elections were severely criticised by Western democracies as well as from Amnesty International, the latter depicting Tsikhanouski and Babaryka as “prisoners of conscience, prosecuted solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights and expression of their political opinions”. The candidates that the CEC did register were nonetheless not spared the pressures that top opposition figures such as Tsikhanouski and Barbaryka underwent. In June, Tsikhanouskaya released a video in which she and her children were being threatened and put under pressure to stop campaigning resulting in her sending them abroad for their safety. As Tsikhanouskaya gradually emerged as the main opposition figure to Lukashenko, pressure on her campaign continued to mount throughout the final weeks leading to the election, notably with several visits organised by her team in the beginning of August which they were all forced to cancel due to decisions taken by local authorities seemingly in connivance with Lukashenko’s campaign. Protests against the government and the cancelling of Tsikhanouskaya’s mettings broke out in the final days before the elections in Minsk with the Head of staff of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign’s chief of staff as well as another member of her headquarters being arrested and detained without any apparent reason. The pressures from Belarusian authorities during the campaign sparked protests around the world, protestors gathering in front of Belarusian embassies on several occasions in cities including New York, Paris, London, Dubai, Tel Aviv, Vienna, Berlin and Madrid to denounce the “full scale purge” (Amnesty International) going on in Belarus.
Election day on the 9th of August saw internet being blocked in Belarus throughout most of the day as well as all roads in Minsk blocked off by police and the military. As soon as the government- controlled national TV aired the official results in the evening, giving Lukashenko victory by over 80%, peaceful protests took to the streets in all major cities including Brest, Grodno, Vitebsk, Gomel and Minsk. The capital city saw the situation escalate through the night as law enforcement officers sought to disperse the protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets as well as proceeding to over 3000 arrests. Protests continued throughout August in all major cities of the country as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya published a video announcing that she had left for Lithuania, furthermore declaring that she had won the election and encouraging supporters to sign an online petition to call for a recount of the election. In spite of the massive backlash that the election results had on Lukashenko’s already faltering legitimacy as well as the waves of protests and of civil unrest, the CEC declared on the 19th of August that he would be inaugurated as president for a new term within two months, the inauguration finally taking place a month later on September the 23rd. Although Russia, China and Turkey were amongst the countries that were quick in congratulating Lukashenko in his re-election, most developed countries have been more reserved such as the European Union who announced through the voice of the president of the European Council Charles Michel that it didn’t recognise the election results on the 18th of August. Economic sanctions have furthermore been imposed by most countries of the European Union and both the UK and Canada have addressed personal sanctions towards Lukashenko through the freezing of his assets abroad.
Almost five months after the elections the crisis is yet to die down and it seems more and more unlikely that Lukashenko will eventually give in to the pressure and step down. Protestors continue to take to the streets on a weekly basis as the 13th of December saw thousands protest through the streets of Minsk and eventually clash once again with members of the law enforcement resulting in almost 300 arrests. A week later on the 20th, a reported 152 more people were detained. The lack of consequences of international sanctions on the regime as well as the stubbornness of an ever more isolated leader have drawn the situation to a stalemate. It is yet to be determined how long the Belarussian people will have to wait before the flame of democracy is revived once again in White Russia.
Thomas Lezeau is the Head of Research and Events at European Horizons Bangor. He is currently pursuing a double degree in French and English law at the University of Toulouse and Bangor University.