Written by Pippa Davis
With the Western News cycle dominated by fears of postal vote rigging in the upcoming US presidential election, the electoral fraud transpiring across the Atlantic is being largely overlooked by the global community. Belarus, a land locked country of 9.5 million, is caught geographically and politically between Russia and the rest of the European community. President Alexander Lukashenko, “Europe’s last dictator”, has been in power for the past 26 years with his administration coloured by Soviet-style censorship and police brutality. He came to power in 1994 after, ironically, running on an anti-corruption platform, and retained his despotic rule by removing the two-term limit on presidents in 2004. Every election since has been deemed neither free nor fair by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an independent election monitoring body. The 64-year old’s previous success in running sham-elections can be credited to his considerable public support achieved through widespread propaganda that endorses him as the maintainer of stability and the defender against Western influences. However, growing unease at the lack of economic reform and the demand for a democratic administration have been mounting, and Coronavirus was the unexpected final straw that broke this government’s back.
Lukashenko’s response to the global pandemic was at best reckless and at worst fatal. The dictator recommended combating the virus with “vodka, saunas and hard work”. While the rest of the world went into lockdown, Belarus’s sports fixtures continued to draw large crowds to stadiums. The growing dissent between Belarusians and their out-of-touch President becomes apparent when walking down the street where many wear facemasks and maintain social distancing, rising above their leader’s ignorance. Private businesses and volunteers took it upon themselves to raise money for purchasing protective gear for doctors and hospitals, as the government refused to supply funding. This self-reliance style of activism was an endeavour of independence for the people of Belarus and it ignited the confidence within them to demand change.
The 2020 elections operated in the same manner as all of those prior; all political opponents were either forbidden from running, exiled, or arrested. The latter approach resulted in the formation of a female power trinity. When Sergey Tikhanovsky was arrested for running against Lukashenko, his 37-year-old English teacher wife decided to run in his place. By allowing Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to register for the same election her husband was detained for, the President revealed his misogynistic views on the capabilities of women; he referred to Tikhanovskaya as a “poor little thing” and declared that Belarus would never be ready for a female president. In response, she formed a coalition with Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of the former ambassador to the US, who fled after receiving multiple threats to his life. They toured the country drawing crowds of astonishing size, running on a platform promising only two things: they would release all political prisoners and would hold fair and open elections within 6 months. “There has never been a plan other than reminding people of their own dignity”, Kolesnikova stated, as they merged their campaigns to create one of “female solidarity”.
Voting day arrived and with no independent observers allowed during vote counting, fears of electoral fraud spread across Belarus. On Sunday 9th August, President Alexander Lukashenko was reported to have won his sixth term in office with 80.10% of the vote. Tikhanovskaya reportedly won only 10.12% of the vote. In polling stations where the public actively prevented vote rigging by observing the counting process, she won 70% of the votes, suggesting the official figures were fabricated. The response to this result was the largest protests in Belarus’ history, with more than 100,000 taking to the streets of Minsk to demonstrate their rage against the authoritarian administration’s blatant election fixing. In response Lukashenko greeted them with tear-gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades. Police and thugs alike attacked protestors, broke into houses, and demolished personal property. Thousands were injured, 6,000 were detained, and a handful died. Such extreme police brutality led to a new wave of protests. Belarusian women marched through Minsk dressed in white and carrying flowers, unintimidated by the police and masked thugs. Previously overlooked and underestimated, the women of Belarus have become the faces of the revolution.
More concerning than the atrocious brutalities occurring in public, are the appalling violation’s occurring in private. Tikhanovskaya was detained inside the Central Election Commission, forced to renounce her claim to power or face arrest, and intimidated into exile after threats towards her children. Kolesnikova was kidnapped and the attempt to force her out of the country was only unsuccessful because she tore up her passport before reaching the border. She was told she could leave willingly “or in pieces”. She is now being held in a KGB prison. If Lukashenko thinks terrorizing these women will repress the revolution, he is gravely mistaken; they may have started the resistance, but the momentum is with the people of Belarus now.
The response from the rest of the world has been disappointing to say the least. Post-elections, Tikhanovskaya formed a Co-ordination Council to negotiate an end to Lukashenko’s rule and a peaceful transfer of power. Her appeals to the United Nations to force Lukashenko to resign and help establish a democracy were largely ignored. The international community failed these women. Words instead of actions are all that have been issued, and words of condemnation fall off Lukashenko like water off a duck’s back. The President of the European Commission urged Lukashenko to “count votes accurately”, and Angela Merkel expressed “doubts” about the conduct of the election. Such feeble proclamations are just another example of international politics getting in the way of supporting a better future for the citizens of Belarus. Only the Baltic states and Poland, who have previously been under Soviet occupation and can truly sympathize with the Belarusians, have imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and offered support.
Confident in his unwavering backing from President Putin, Lukashenko knows that Russia, as a member of the UN Security Council, can block any action the UN attempt to take against him. The two leaders are comparable in more than just ideology, with Putin allegedly going to the extreme extent of poisoning his own political opposer, Alexei Navalny. When will these men be held accountable for the ruthless brutality they govern with? When will countries put the protection of innocent citizens first, and international diplomacy second? Lukashenko committed electoral fraud, intimidated and harassed women who dared to call for change, and arrested and attacked his own people for expressing their opinions against his oppressive rule. Such misogynistic autocracies should be a thing of the very distant past. So why are the most powerful countries in the world, who promote democratic ideals of equality and freedom of speech, fighting this repressive regime with nothing but weak reprimands and unconvincing admonishments? The people of Belarus deserve more.