Article by Angelachiara Allegretti | Illustration by Niccolò Cedeno
The official results of the Belarusian presidential election of 9 August 2020 overwhelmingly sanctioned the victory of outgoing President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has led the country for the past 26 years. In the weeks before and after the election, numerous peaceful protests have spread across the country, demanding change and denouncing massive electoral fraud.
In the run-up to the ballot, Viktar Babaryka, Sergei Tikhanovsky, and Valery Tsapkala decided to throw their hat in the ring and challenge Lukashenko in the presidential election. Following the announcement of their candidacy, the first two were arrested, while the latter was forced to flee abroad. In the face of open repression, three women resolved not to stand down.
In the aftermath of her husband’s arrest, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya decided to run for office, joining forces with other opposition figures, namely Maria Kolesnikova, director of the presidential campaign of Viktar Babaryka, and Veranika Tsapkala, the wife of Valery Tsapkala. Differently from her husband’s, Tsikhanouskaya’s candidacy was not met with repression by the establishment, who instead preferred to authorise it to make the elections look more credible and democratic. After all, since Tsikhanouskaya had no previous political experience, Lukashenko had no reason to think that she would pose a threat. However, her commitment to release all political prisoners and her support for fair elections generated great enthusiasm in the population, allowing her to gain significant backing.
The morning of the election, concerned by the possible high turnout –84% of the electorate eventually went to the polls–, the authorities declared the state of emergency throughout Belarus, blocking the internet and deploying the military and the riot police. In the evening, after national TV revealed the election results, surprisingly granting 80% of the votes to the incumbent, people began protesting peacefully, demanding a new vote count. However, their non-violent demands were met with brutality by the police.
Coming in second with 10.12% of the vote, Tsikhanouskaya refused to recognize the outcome of the election and fled in self-exile to Lithuania to continue pressing her demands. In August 2020, during a videoconference with the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, she said, “Belarus is waking up. (…) We are no longer in opposition; we are the majority. It is not an anti or pro-Russian protest, nor an anti or pro-European revolution. We just want to freely decide our destiny”.
Undeterred by the international outcry, the Belarusian government has authorized the police to use “lethal weapons” to suppress the demonstrations that continue shaking the country. According to the June 2020 report of human rights association Viasna, since the beginning of the election campaign, 600 protesters were put under arrest for participating in the peaceful demonstrations in Minsk and other locations. The November 2020 report of the same organisation relates that over 900 individuals have been targeted by criminal cases during the presidential campaign and in the post-election period.
Besides persecuting protesters domestically, in October 2020, Belarusian authorities added Tsikhanouskaya to the list of wanted people, on account of “damaging national security”. Moreover, an interstate arrest warrant was issued against her to expedite her repatriation. In accordance with previous bilateral agreements signed with Moscow, the warrant is also applicable in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin, long-time ally of Lukashenko, has made clear that Russia considers the Belarusian presidential elections valid and recognizes Lukashenko as the legitimate winner.
Which side did the EU take?
It is generally agreed that the European Union has not reacted vigorously and promptly to the human rights violations taking place in Belarus after the election. The first official response came from High Representative/Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell and Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, who jointly condemned the violence in a statement, asking for the immediate release of all detained during the night of the election, and demanding an accurate and impartial counting of the votes. Only in November 2020, the EU agreed on sanctions against Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
Despite reacting feebly against the widespread use of violence on protesters in Belarus since the election, the EU eventually accepted Tsikhanouskaya’s appeal not to recognize the result of the vote, which it currently sees as lacking legitimacy. In fact, the EU advocates for the democratic right of the Belarusian people to elect their president through new free and fair elections, without external interference. Besides this, the European Parliament no longer recognizes Aleksandr Lukashenko as president of the country, contending that his mandate expired on 5 November 2020.
The Sakharov Prize
Every year since 1988, the European Parliament has awarded recognition to individuals or organizations that dedicate their lives to the protection of human rights. On 16 December 2020, the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to the Belarusian democratic opposition, for peacefully protesting again the fraudulent re-election of Lukashenko.
The Award was presented to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala by President David Sassoli, who declared, “I would like to congratulate the representatives of the Belarusian opposition on their courage, their resilience and their determination. (…) Here is my message to you, dear winners: continue to be strong and do not give up your fight. Know that we are with you”.
Receiving the award, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya stated: “Every single Belarusian citizen who takes part in the peaceful protest against violence and illegality is a hero and a heroine. Each of them is an example of courage, compassion, and dignity. (…) Without free Belarusians, Europe is not completely free either. I have only one wish for this year. I want that all Belarusians who are now in prison or have been forced to live in exile to return home”.
Of course, EU involvement in Belarusian affairs is not always welcome. Reacting to the European Parliament’s decision to award the Sakharov Prize to the Belarusian democratic opposition, Russian State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs Head Leonid Slutsky has criticized the move, condemning it as another example of the European Parliament’s political manipulations.
Despite the violence continuously used against them, Belarusian demonstrators have never stopped taking to the streets to protest peacefully throughout the country. The white-red-white flag displayed in the demonstrations has become the symbol of freedom against government repression, and a permanent reminder that a different Belarus is possible. From its exile, the Belarusian democratic opposition gave people hope for tangible change, becoming a source of continuous encouragement and support for protesters to continue their struggle.
Undoubtedly, 2020 has been an awful year for many, but it might also go down in Belarusian history as a year of radical change for the better.