Main Image Credit Protest rally against Lukashenko, 16 August 2020. Courtesy of Raviaka Ruslan / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0.
One year after Belarus was rocked by nationwide protests in the wake of a falsified election result, what does the country look like now?
It is a year since Belarusians flooded onto the streets in protest at an election stolen by a dictator, who has been in power now for 27 years. Human chains, mass demonstrations and factory strikes: Belarusians caught the world’s attention and surprised even themselves with the strength of feeling. A brutal crackdown followed, however. And if it was widely seen as an isolated dictatorship before, today Belarus is much worse.
Lukashenko has Lost Legitimacy
Large protests have accompanied elections before in Belarus, but the consensus had long been that President Alexander Lukashenko would win even if there could be a fair vote. The only independent polling consistently gave him a strong majority. Many Belarusians saw him as a guarantor of security and stability, but also didn’t believe there was a credible alternative worth voting for. In 2020, on both accounts that changed.
The events of last year created new leaders who captured the public’s imagination. Chief among them was the presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (now in exile), who decided to run after the arrest of her activist husband in May 2020. Whereas Lukashenko gave himself an unbelievable 80% of the vote, the civic initiative ‘Golos’ set out to establish the real result by collecting copies of thousands of ballot papers and individual polling station results. Golos concluded that against all the odds, Tsikhanouskaya won not only the most votes, but an absolute majority of at least 52%.
Not only did Lukashenko steal the election, he subsequently ordered the arrest and torture of thousands who tried to peacefully protest the result. Accounts of the violence are horrifying: women pulled by their hair and threatened with rape; men held in stress positions and electrocuted; and relentless beating. Countless photos of bruised bodies flooded social media in the days after the election and for the first time, people previously uninterested in politics felt this could happen to them. A line had been crossed.
Lukashenko’s irredeemable loss of legitimacy was visible in the huge demonstrations across Belarus that started in August and continued for months. Peaking at an unprecedented 200,000 people, even factory workers and pensioners – previously seen as loyal regime supporters – joined in large numbers.
Unprecedented Political Repression
Under the Lukashenko regime, civil society and opposition activists have always worked in a very restrictive environment where surveillance, censorship and the risk of arrest is a part of life. But in response to the protests, repression has been escalated to a new level, aiming to uncompromisingly crush dissent. If he cannot rule by popular consent, Lukashenko must rule by fear.
There are now well over 600 political prisoners in Belarus: journalists, businessmen, members of the political opposition, leaders of the Polish ethnic minority and human rights activists, but also many whose only crime was to exercise their right to peaceful protest – such as Stsyapan Latypau, who was sentenced to 8.5 years on 16 August for trying to stop police painting over an opposition mural. To put this into context, in 2010 (when there was a similar post-election crackdown) there were around 30 such prisoners. It is also a significantly higher number of political prisoners than neighbouring Russia has today. Young mothers have been separated from their children, family members unable to attend parents’ funerals, and careers cut short, in conditions described as inhumane. Each week there are more arrests and show trials.
Journalists and independent media are a particular target. Whereas TV has long been totally state-controlled, Belarusians have had access to increasingly popular independent news media online. The biggest of these, Tut.by, was blocked in May, its offices raided and editors arrested; new legislation endangers anyone criticising the government; and 26 individual journalists are now in prison for doing their job. The Belarusian Association of Journalists, which does essential work helping media workers, was dissolved by court order at the end of August. As Reporters Without Borders made clear in their annual report, Belarus is ‘the most dangerous country in Europe for media personnel’. Civil society in general is losing the little freedom it had to act. Human rights groups and civic initiatives are being formally liquidated, offices raided and staff forced to emigrate.
Back Under Sanctions
In a show of resolve against the ‘violence, unjustified arrests, and falsification of election results’, it took just five days after the stolen election for EU foreign ministers to convene and decide unanimously to introduce sanctions – although it took two months for them to come into force. Coordinated with the US, the UK and Canada, the EU initially only targeted high-level individuals with asset freezes and travel bans. A year on, the EU has imposed four rounds of sanctions which now encompass 166 individuals and 15 entities – including state-owned exporters – and sectoral sanctions restricting trade in petroleum products, tobacco and potash, as well as access to bond markets.
Sanctions are having real impact. Although difficult to measure, some estimate that sanctions have so far cost the country 2.9% of its GDP – or $1.68 billion – with the majority of losses stemming from financial restrictions. With the UK, Switzerland and others joining sectoral sanctions, losses will only grow. Recent US sanctions barring key state-owned companies from conducting transactions in dollars are already having a significant effect, with even non-sanctioned Belarusian banks experiencing problems with accessing the SWIFT transaction system.
Sanctions are intended to send a strong message to the regime, but also to raise the costs both to Belarus and to Russia, which is being forced to increase its subsidies to its smaller neighbour. The sanctions’ message is undermined by loopholes, however. Among these is the fact that the type of potash most imported by the EU is currently excluded from sanctions. Furthermore, the IMF allocated almost $1 billion in Special Drawing Rights for Belarus, despite the possibility of unrecognised regimes being excluded (as Venezuela, Myanmar and Afghanistan under the Taliban have been). The Belarusian regime is also no stranger to sanctions, and has traded prisoners’ freedom to end sanctions on three previous occasions.
Sanctions are just one manifestation of Belarus’s isolation. Although hardly the most internationally engaged country before this crisis, Belarus has now become a regional pariah. The right to host the 2021 Ice Hockey World Championship (previously hosted in Minsk in 2014) was taken away in January this year. Ukrainian chief negotiator Leonid Kravchuk made clear in April that Minsk can no longer host peace talks to resolve the war in Eastern Ukraine. And in June, Belarus withdrew from the Eastern Partnership, the EU initiative for cooperation with its eastern neighbours.
By forcibly landing an international airliner and provoking a migrant crisis by intentionally flying over Iraqi asylum seekers and sending them to the Lithuanian and Polish borders, the regime seems to have embraced its isolation and given up on a long-held policy of balancing between East and West.
More important, however, is how increasingly cut-off Belarusians themselves are from the rest of the world. Since the forced landing of the Ryanair flight, no airlines have been flying to Belarus from the EU, the UK or Ukraine. Restrictions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic have closed land borders to foreigners, and Belarusians themselves are also facing much stricter requirements to be allowed to leave. In this way, the government hopes to stem the exodus of young people in particular, which is estimated to have reached at least 160,000. Not only is contact with the outside world now harder, but so is the possibility of escape.
As a consequence of this isolation, Belarus is increasingly dependent on Russia politically and financially. Moscow has so far released two-thirds of a $1.5 billion loan agreed last year, and as sanctions bite this dependence will only grow.
The ‘Donbasization’ of Belarus
As Belarusian analyst Tadeusz Giczan writes, on its current trajectory the country increasingly resembles the Russian-backed separatist territories in Eastern Ukraine. This would mean the destruction of civil society and the middle class and the ‘transformation of Belarus into a criminal quasi-state under the Russian umbrella’. For years restrictive but stable, Belarus has now changed for the worse with little prospect of a return to the status quo ante. The least Western governments can do now is to be clear in their message to the regime and generous in their support for Belarusian civil society, both inside the country and in exile.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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