#StandWithBelarus: Looking back at six months of protests

By Leyre Castro and Hannah Bieber

This article is part of a project designed to raise awareness about what has been happening in Belarus since August 2020, at the occasion of the Day of Solidarity with Belarus launched by Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya. In order to understand the past and current events better, The Euroculturer Magazine will organize a live interview with a belarusian Euroculture alumni on 07/02/2021. Scroll down to the end of the article for more information!

The elections that sparked the rebellion

On August 9, 2020, Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as the last dictator of Europe and who has been ruling Belarus for 26 years, claimed he had  been re-elected with 80% of the votes after the presidential elections. His main challenger, Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, had allegedly collected only 10% of the votes, despite her strong popular support. This announcement sparked unprecedented protests right after polls had closed. 

Lukashenko had already been accused of vote-rigging in the past and the lack of transparency during elections was nothing new in Belarus. But, this time, his poor management of the Covid crisis made his position more fragile than ever. Citizens took the streets to contest his re-election and were met with police brutality and thousands of arrests

On August 10, reports indicated that one person was killed in the Minsk demonstrations, while many had been injured. In addition, in the aftermath, Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania, implying in a video that her children had been threatened. She had engaged in the presidential campaign after her husband, Sergey Tikhanovski, who was initially running against Lukashenko, was arrested in May 2020. 

Demonstrations against Lukashenko quickly turned into anti-police rallies. At the same time, workers and  students went on strike to express their discontent. The protests peaked on August 16, when tens of thousands gathered in the country’s capital following Vladimir Putin’s phone call with the Belarusian president in which he announced that Russia was ready to provide help if need be. Indeed, Lukashenko threatened that unrest could spread to Russia if the protests were not contained in Belarus.

On August 17, the BBC reported that even state TV staff, who had previously followed the official reports on the elections and protests, had joined the demonstrations. At the same time, many members of the administration resigned. With few allies remaining on Lukashenko’s side, many saw this popular insurrection as the start of the countdown for the country’s dictatorship.

But Lukashenko is still clinging to power to this day. And there are good reasons to think that, as long as he does, Belarusians will keep protesting as they have been doing for months now. While coverage of the demonstrations in mainstream EU media has been scarce since November, police brutality has not stopped.

Human rights at stake

Indeed, human rights’ violations continue to happen against demonstrators in Belarus. In December, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet shared a report at the Human Rights Council meeting that over 27,000 arrests have been reported since the beginning of the peaceful protests in August 2020.

Belarusian security forces violence against protesters has long been a common practice. Already in 2006 and 2010, demonstrations that erupted as a consequence of elections in which Lukashenko allegedly won with 84.4% and 79.65% of the votes were violently repressed. But this time, the actions against demonstrators seem to have turned more severe.  While the protests have been peaceful, victims of police brutality tell stories of being thrown into vans with no license plates and being beaten up, tortured and even threatened of rape.

On September 17, 2020, member states of OSCE invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate the human rights crisis taking place in Belarus. One day after, on September 18, the UNHRC adopted a resolution to tackle the situation. Even after these measures and the condemnation by the European Parliament of the brutality of the Belarusian security forces, the numerous arrests continue to this day with allegations of injuries and ill-treatment in the process continuing to emerge. Furthermore, intimidation and repression are becoming increasingly common in the country. 

Where is the EU?

It took ten days for the EU to take a stand after the violent repression of the first protests. Finally, on August 19, an extraordinary online meeting was organized between European leaders, to discuss whether sanctions should be implemented against Belarus. At the end of the meeting, Charles Michel announced on behalf of the EU member states: “We don’t recognize the results presented by the Belarus authorities.”

Since August, three rounds of sanctions have been implemented by the EU against Belarus officials and Lukashenko, who are all held accountable for the repression. In October, Brussels also pledged €53 million to help the victims and to relieve Belarusian health services who are also struggling against coronavirus. In parallel, EU leaders had calls with Vladimir Putin. Moscow tried to discourage foreign interference in the Belarusian crisis, all the while reassuring that Russia was not planning any military intervention in the region. 

However, one can question the efficiency of these diplomatic actions. For instance, Politico clearly expressed its doubts regarding the implementation of economic sanctions. It pointed out that such strategies had already been implemented against Belarus twice, in 1997 and 2004, and had failed. The media identifies a “pattern — crackdown, sanctions, rapprochement, relaxation” that “continues to repeat itself to this day” and that is not enough to tackle the current crisis.

As a matter of fact, the EU’s response to the situation so far has been quite moderate, given the unambiguous proof of widespread violent repression that circulated in the media and was denounced by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – to name only a few. In the end, Lukashenko might think that he can keep acting the way he does with impunity. But the situation is also tricky: how to implement stricter sanctions without them impacting negatively the population?

The effective powerlessness of the EU when such events happen at its own borders is sadly reminiscent of the 2014 Ukraine crisis. And protests against the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny in Russia have also been violently repressed, without any action taken from the EU to this day. There are thus good reasons to think that Brussels’ diplomatic levers might not work this time if they have failed before.

After years of repression, it seems that democracy has now a chance of turning into a reality in Belarus. External powers’ support needs to be consistent as it may help bring down Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime. It is also important to remember that this is not the EU’s fight either, but that of Belarusian people, whose power must not be underestimated.

What Can You Do?

Poster of the Day of Solidarity launched by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Although it is in the hands of Belarusians to change the path of their country, there are several ways in which you can show your solidarity with Belarus. Here are some suggestions:

Finally, if you are interested in learning more about what is happening right now in Belarus, register here to attend our interview with a Belarusian Euroculture Alumni on 07/02/2021 at 7PM CET.


Picture Credits: Pexels, Artem Podrez

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