What's Going on with Democracy in Belarus?

Op-ed

Mayhem has struck the Eastern European country of Belarus in the wake of President Alexander Lukashenko's landslide victory in the 9th of August elections. It was not long after the country's election commission revealed the president's inconceivable 80% vote share, that riots broke out in the Capital, Minsk, to protest their dismay and discontent. With a tight authoritarian grip since 1994, Lukashenko has antagonized Belarusians into believing a rigged vote had occurred, extending the presidents unfavourable rule.

The Controversial Election

Prior to the election, predictions were pushed onto the public by government-sanctioned polls — the only legal kind — forecasting that Lukashenko was on course to gain an overwhelming lead over the opposition. However, in the months preceding the election, illegal online polls suggested the president was heading towards a colossal defeat, heavily contradicting the legal polls.

The country was submerged in seas of white and red as infuriated Belarusians did not hesitate in swarming the streets in great numbers, from the elderly to young children, expressing their outrage at the state of their country and the undemocratic outcome of the election. Lukashenko has ordered the police into the streets, aiming to tackle the hundred of thousands of protestors; violence became an early defense tactic as protestors were met with stun grenades and rubber bullets to deter their vigour, with the threat of job loss looming in the air. Almost 7000 people were detained, alongside the hundreds of police-inflicted injuries in only the first four days of demonstrations. Generally, elections signify progression and prosperity — apparently Belarus is not so fortunate.

The government has pledged the protection of monuments, at risk of their destruction at the hands of possible violent protestors. The public were warned by the Ministry of Defense that in place of the police, the army would be dispatched in the case of disruption to places of heritage; with demonstrations remaining in full vigour, public outrage has only intensified in their bid to promote improved democracy in the country.

A Dash of Context

The country is a former republic of the Soviet Union, gaining its independence in 1991. Three years later, Lukashenko came into power and for 26 years, Belarus has seen no other leader, his firm hold on the country labeled him as 'Europe's Last Dictator'. The president has faced immense frustration over the state's extensive and exacerbating role in the economy, as well as criticisms for the strain on Belarusian-Russian ties following his accusations that Moscow has been sending mercenaries to destabilize the country.

The leader was scrutinized for his less than satisfactory response in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic; he dismissed the virus as mass 'psychosis', recommending vodka as a means to 'poison the virus', belittling the gravity of the situation which has seen the entire world come to a halt. Further condemnation was faced after Lukashenko's refusal to introduce stricter safety measures to reduce the virus' spread, with cases sky-rocketing in the country as a result.

Response to Election

Leader of the opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has refused to accept or recognise the controversial result, having only won a supposed 9% share of the vote. The former English teacher chose to replace her husband, Siarheir Tsikhanouski, an anti-government blogger who was jailed in early 2020 for his participation in unauthorized rallies against Belarusian integration with Russia. Tikanovskaya fled to the neighbouring country of Lithuania just one day after the election, in fear for her own, and her family's, safety. The opposition leader has claimed she shall return when it feels safe enough to do so and is even willing to negotiate with President Lukashenko.

The 37-year-old believes that the ‘Belarusian people have changed’, no longer willing to accept the tyrannical rule of their President, and seeking for substantial change in the country.

“They were shouting for their future, for their wish to live in a free country, against violence, for their rights,” Tikhanovskaya

Tikhanovskaya has urged Belarusians to step up and scrutinize the government, despite all the intimidation that they may feel from the authorities. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have organised rallies across the country, demanding that Lukashenko’s 26-year-rule be cast aside.

In a recent visit to a state food factory, Lukashenko said the public outrage was ‘my problem’ and one which he fully intends on resolving as his duty to the country.

‘ And believe me, in the coming days it will be resolved’

Lukashenko has stated that as the elections have already passed, he has no intentions of introducing a new election to please the people, furthering angering Belarusians at the lack of democracy. The 65-year-old has assured the Belarusian public that 'Until you kill me, there will be no other elections'.

The EU Stance

Along with the US government, many EU leaders see the President's victory as highly unprincipled, standing with the protestor's demand for a second election to counter Lukashenko's win. To maintain their disapprobation, the European Commission plans to impose a financial sanction on the country, diverting their allocated 53 million Euros away from the government and towards civilians.

The European Council President, Charles Michel, has claimed that they will not acknowledge the result of the election, developing their statement on the situation on Belarus becoming 'increasingly concerning', demonstrated by public upheaval and careful scrutiny of the government.

Michel assured listeners at the emergency summit of EU leaders that 'the EU will impose sanctions on a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence, repression and election fraud'.

“We stand firmly behind the right of Belarusian people to determine their own fate,” Charles Michel

What the Future Holds

While the Belarusian President professes that he respects all women, he simultaneously believes that 'society is not mature enough to vote for a woman', dismissing Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as a 'poor thing' and discouraging voters to side with her. Such comments may not only undermine female candidates aspiring to hold office, but possibly just as degrading to powerful female leaders.

Despite a long history of masculine leadership that precedes them, there have been many successful female leaders who have earned international respect for their productive control and organisation. Angela Merkel became the first female Chancellor of Germany in 2005 and is currently serving her 4th term, renowned for her acceptance of over a million Syrian refugees into Germany, as well as her dominant stance against US President Donald Trump. Though not directly linked to political leadership, Christine Lagarde demonstrates her economic authority as the first female President of the European Central Bank as of late 2019; Lagarde maintains the stability of the European monetary policy and regularly speaks on strategic economic development.

Following 26 years of authoritarian leadership, Belarus is desperate for relief and change. Just a few weeks ago, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo, and Maria Kolesnikova had no plans to challenge the president as the opposing party; since the unification of their campaigns, the population has turned to them as symbols of hope, holding rallies to protest a new election and their thirst for democratic- or potentially just general- change throughout the nation. Albeit the result of the election may have been declared final, the public is not prepared to despair in their quest for significant development.

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Reem Hassan

If one is to be anything, then why not be great? If not that, then at least achieve something that embodies a distinct amount of greatness.


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