Belarus and the endless battle for democracy

Article by Matilde Monteleone | Illustration by Francesco Moretti

Presidential elections will be held in Belarus on August 9th, and most likely the outcome will not come as a surprise. For 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the country undisturbed, despite strong criticism and numerous complaints from within the country, international organizations, and human rights movements. This time, however, the dissent of the Belarusian people has resulted in demonstrations that have been going on for months now which is a symptom of radical change within society. Indeed, the protests have involved the young generations, who have never seen their country governed by a leader other than Lukashenko.

The last dictatorship in Europe

After independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and with the drafting of the Constitution and the first elections in 1994, Belarus became a presidential republic, led by President Lukashenko and a National Assembly. In 1996, the President held a referendum to amend the Constitution and extend his term of office, which was due to end in 2001. Also, during this time he consolidated relations with Russia by making the Russian language equal to the Belarusian language and strengthening economic relations between the two countries.

The elections of 1994 were the only free presidential elections ever held in the country. Since then, the elections of 2001, 2006, 2010 and 2015 were denounced for the lack of transparency and the repressive measures taken by the government against political opponents. The critical political framework and the systematic violation of human rights led the UN Human Rights Council to establish the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus in 2012. In 2018 the former Special Rapporteur Miklós Haraszti stated that:

“Belarus continues to be governed by a deeply entrenched repressive legal framework, which is aggravated by cyclically recurring waves of massive violent repression against those who attempt to claim their human rights (…) The impact of the powers amassed by the President who has been in office for a quarter century, the lack of independence of the judiciary, and rigged elections, should make the international community vigilantly watch the forthcoming elections in 2019 and 2020”

Since May, hundreds of political activists, journalists, and demonstrators have been illegally arrested by the police. Another factor why Belarus cannot be considered a democratic country is the existence of the death penalty, which was introduced in 1991 and never abolished. The death penalty is carried out with a gunshot wound to the back of the head and the relatives of the detainee are not informed about the time of execution or the place of burial. In January this year, the case of two brothers, Stanislaw and Illya Kostsew, aged 19 and 21, who were sentenced to the death for murder, caused a stir.

These reasons, combined with the existence of the KGB 29 years after the implosion of the USSR and a 70% state-controlled economy, are why it’s understandable that many people attribute the nickname “the last dictatorship of Europe” to Belarus.

Relations with the West

Lukashenko’s violent, repressive dictatorship has had a major impact on Belarus’ foreign relations. The amendment of the Constitution in 1996 was not recognized by the European Union. Since then, due to human rights violations and rigged elections, diplomatic relations with the EU have been rather strained. One example of this is the withdrawal of the Belarusian ambassador to Sweden and the closure of the embassy in Stockholm in 2012, following a diplomatic dispute. In 2005, the European Parliament denounced the Belarusian Government as a dictatorship.

On the other hand, Lukashenko has never concealed to be an authoritarian leader. This is clear from the answer given in 2012 to the then German Foreign Minister Guido Westerweller, who accused the president of being the last European dictator. Lukashenko’s response was “Better to be a dictator than gay”, referring to the sexual orientation of the German politician, openly homosexual.

Since 2019, however, diplomatic relations between Belarus and the EU have improved slightly. The EU alleviated the sanctions imposed on Minsk for human rights violations and, in October, approved the plan to make it easier for Belarusian citizens to obtain a Schengen visa, thus adopting step-by-step diplomacy.

The tensions in foreign policy do not affect only the EU. Due to electoral fraud during the 2006 presidential elections, the United States implemented travel restrictions and targeted financial sanctions on nine state-owned entities and 16 individuals, including President Lukashenko. Two years later, given the continuing human rights violations, Washington issued economic sanctions against Belarus, and Minsk responded by expelling the US ambassador from the country along with 30 other diplomats. Only recently, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Hale announced that the US and Belarus would exchange ambassadors and resume diplomatic relations that had been blocked since 2008.

This time it is different

After 26 years of dictatorship and disastrous management of the COVID-19, Lukashenko is one of the negationist political leaders, and dissent within society is stronger than ever. Belarusians, especially young people, have begun to take their protests to the streets given the 2020 elections, which like the previous four will not be recognized by the international community. The most popular demonstration was the “Slipper revolution”, where people would bring slippers to “smash the cockroach (Lukashenko)”, which was organized by the candidate and YouTuber Syarhey
Tsikhanouski. The Tsikhanousk was arrested by the authorities, as was another candidate Viktor Babaryko with his son Eduard.

These actions demonstrate the government’s fear of a radical change in society. It also shows a young generation that uses social media to mobilize and protest old authoritarian politics and stagnant economic growth. Most likely this will not stop Lukashenko from winning the elections, but unlike the previous ones this time the participation in the protests is much higher. Moreover, this wave of dissent comes very close to the Euromaidan, which led to the deposition of Janukovyč in Ukraine in 2014 which represents the Belarusian dictator’s biggest fear.

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