As of writing this, more news come out about protests in Minsk and all over Belarus. Maybe, by the time this piece will be published, the situation has changed, and new elections are being thought of. Or maybe, the crackdown on protesters by police will be more aggressive, and thus it will become harder for Europe to stand aside to this situation.
What I would like to show in this article is how these past few days are only a reflection of one of the least liberal and, above all, least democratic countries in Europe.
To start let us go over the situation. After last Sunday’s Belarusian presidential elections, the incumbent president Aleksander Lukashenko, who has been in power since the break of Belarus from the Soviet Union 26 years ago, won by a landslide with 80.08% of the vote. His opposition is being led by Svyatlana Tsikhanouvskaya, who had a total of 10.09%. Svyatlana is married to the blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, who was arrested for calling the president a “cockroach”, in a violent arrest which was mostly politically motivated. This is an example of the lack of Freedom of speech in Belarus, even if the constitution grants that right.
After the elections, Svyatlana rejected the results claiming the elections weren’t neither free nor fair. And many situations can prove this. To begin with, the aforementioned arrest. Syarhey is not just the husband of Svyatlana, but also her campaign manager. His arrest is a direct attack to her campaign. Another opposition figure that was banned to run for president, Mikalay Statkevich, was arrested. Mikalay was very vocal about how Lukashenko is handling the COVID-19 crisis, accusing Lukashenko of purposely creating measures that would go against protecting people from the virus. Measures like the banning of remote work for public workers, private workers and banning remote learning for students.
Lukashenko also forced a WWII victory parade, despite growing concerns of COVID-19 spread.
Photo by Sergei Grits
Two other opposition candidates also tried to run for president. Valer Tsapkala, that ended up not being allowed to run due to lack of signatures, and Viktar Babaryka: a banker that was prohibited from running due to his arrest on suspicion of money laundering. Although an arrest on suspicion of money laundering is enough to prohibit candidates from running in most democratic countries, in this case it is believed that it was politically motivated, with the European Comission president Ursula Von der Leyen stating that Viktar was “arbitrary detained”.
In addition to all these situations, there are European reports which conclude that elections in Belarus have not been free since 1994, with incongruencies in vote counting and possibly fraud. And the elections look more like an unjust representation of the people.
You might ask, "what about parliament? Or the forces that could impeach Lukashenko?"
Right after his election in 1994, Lukashenko proceeded to hold a referendum guaranteeing him more power as a president, and thus having more authority than the forces that could impeach him, having the possibility of passing decrees without the approval of parliament, strengthening his power and making him a stronger figure than parliament itself. There is some questioning if this referendum was democratic, since all major democratic activities since have also been under such critics.
Nevertheless, parliament is mostly held by people of Lukashenko’s party. A report by the freedom house points out that not only there is “no opportunity for genuine opposition candidates to gain power through elections” , the simple involvement by individuals in political activism can result in “unemployment, expulsion from educational institutions, smear campaigns in the media, fines, and the confiscation of property.”.
If you think this sounds Orwellian, then you are right. The Freedom House has given a mark of 19 points out of 100 in its Freedom in the World report from 2020, classifying Belarus as a NOT FREE country. With restrictions on democratic process, freedom of speech, freedom of belief, little rule of law and little personal autonomy and individual rights. Compare it with other European Neighbours and it ranks as one of the lowest. The closest to Belarus is Russia with a score of 20 out of 100, and lower than this, only the region of Crimea with a score of 8 out of 100, which is a region that has been troubled by the Ukrainian crisis, the Crimean crisis, and the Russian Annexation.
So where is the situation right now?
Tsikhanouvskaya is now in self-imposed exile in Lithuania for fear on her life and her family’s safety. She urges supporters to demand an investigation on last Sunday’s elections, which is contrary to the video that was published by the Belarusian media of Tsikhanouvskaya urging supporters to not protest. Media Outlets and supporters of the candidate argue that this second video uploaded by the Belarusian media was recorded by police pressuring Tsikhanouvskaya.
Protests have been going on the whole week with hundreds of protesters being arrested, or violently beaten. Several of these protesters were later freed, with what the media is calling a surprising act on the part of the Belarusian state. But these freed protesters recount moments of violence, sleep and water deprivation and torture with cigarettes and electrical shocks. People from all social classes came out to protest, condemning the crackdown on protesters last Thursday night. The booming IT industry in Minsk that sustains and provides hope in an economical downturned country, has had 500 of its top employers asking for new and fair elections.
In conclusion, it is obvious why protests have erupted this week. It is hard to remember but technically the Belarusian people live in a democracy, their constitution is similar to many in Europe and of the United States, with right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the guaranteeing of a democratic state. But in practice, and as I have shown above, it is everything but a democratic and free country. To say that Lukashenko has disrespected the Constitution of Belarus is a euphemism at this point, I would argue that most of the rights granted in the constitution have been violated by Lukashenko. As John Locke writes on Two Treatises of Government: “whenever the Legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience”
The Belarusian people are in their right to protest peacefully, the continuous violations of their constitution and physical assault by the state gives them every right to engage in violent revolution, but it is still impressive that the protests are peaceful
One can only hope that new elections are held, and that the opposition who has been actively suppressed finally has a fair shot at tearing down Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime. Then, and only then, will the Belarusian constitution finally be respected.