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We believe! We can! We will win! A week that changed Belarus

Lukashenka is running out of options as the mass protest of Belarusian society continues with no sign of weakening.

August 18, 2020 - Maxim Rust - Articles and Commentary

Protests in Minsk on August 16 2020. Photo: Maksim Sikunyets (cc) wikimedia.org

The past week was one of the most important in the recent political history of Belarus. The dynamics of the events that have followed the presidential election changes every hour. Although the pictures of the huge demonstrations in Minsk and other cities are a cause for optimism, the real situation remains nervous and very uncertain.

Peaceful demonstrations, which began on the day of the election, were met with violence not seen in the last 20 years from the Belarusian security forces. Demonstrators who expressed their dissatisfaction with the government’s policy and spoke out against the rigged elections were severely beaten in city streets. The brutal pacification affected not only the demonstrators, but also ordinary citizens. Hundreds of people who were simply in the streets in the first days of the protests were imprisoned. According to official data only, more than 10,000 citizens were detained during the protests, but the real figures could be even higher. There is information about the first people killed in the fighting on the streets, and the number of people missing is now almost 80.

Very disturbing reports have been coming in from prisons and detention centers. The facilities are overcrowded and the detainees are experiencing humiliating and degrading treatment. What the demonstrators in custody have gone through was not only inhuman – it also resembled the darker pages of Belarusian history. The detainees were tortured and raped. There were barricades in the streets of Minsk, and the images of the protests looked more like a civil war than a peaceful protest.

In the first days of the protests, authorities shut down the internet across the country, and independent news portals and social media were blocked. The situation looked bizarre – the whole world knew what was happening in Belarus, but not most of the Belarusians themselves. In the middle of the week, the internet was restored. Authorities expected an intimidating effect – the protests were to subside as people saw the determined and brutal stance of the police and OMON. But pictures of tortured and mutilated demonstrators began to appear on the web. This made Belarusian society even more furious.

As the police became less aggressive, more and more demonstrators appeared in the streets. Decentralised actions of civic solidarity began to take place. A chain formed by women’s solidarity was of particular importance – hundreds of Belarusian women dressed in white lined the streets with banners calling for an end to violence. The defying acts of some employees of the security apparatus was a disturbing signal for the authorities. Some special forces, army and police officers began to publish videos where they discarded their uniforms and decorations. They would declare that they had sworn to defend the nation, not to brutally pacify and kill citizens. Citizens’ solidarity is also expressed in numerous online fundraisers – several million US dollars have already been raised to help and support the repressed.

The international reaction, as was expected, was not unequivocal. The leaders of China and Russia were the first who congratulated Lukashenka with his election victory. The reaction of the EU and the US was temperate at first, but has become increasingly decisive as violence escalated. It can already be stated with almost 100 per cent certainty that this year’s presidential elections in Belarus will not be recognised by the West as free and equal. Lukashenka’s victory will therefore not be accepted. That will be a huge problem for the Belarusian leader on the international arena. The first signal that European policy will head this direction was sent last week, when the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius, called Lukashenka the “former” president of Belarus in a Twitter post. The Belarusian Election Commission delayed the publication of the official election results for a long time. Despite the opinion of the society and the international reaction, it was announced last Friday that Alyaksandr Lukashenka won the elections with 80.10 per cent, while his main rival Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya only received 10.12 per cent of the votes.

It was noticeable that the ruling elite was losing its sense of control and stability. Last Sunday in Minsk a chaotic support-rally was organised for the president (people from all over the country were forcibly brought to participate in this demonstration). Lukashenka showed up in person at the rally, which was a big change, as he had not appeared in public on the street for many years, usually speaking in a staged scenery of government locations. During the speech it was clear that Lukashenka could not hide his nervousness. It had also become evident that he was losing touch with reality. He threatened his followers with destabilisation, foreign intervention and NATO troops. He also said that “there will be no new elections”, “he will not kneel to anyone” and that “even as a dead man he will not give up power”. Only a few thousand people gathered for the demonstration, although Lukashenka himself announced that he saw 50,000 followers. But he did not do the most important thing – he did not apologise for the brutal violence against his own citizens.

On the same day in the afternoon and evening the largest demonstration in recent Belarusian history took place – the Freedom March. Rallies of many thousands were held all over the country, from the largest cities to villages. A record number of participants gathered in Minsk – according to various data, over 200,000 citizens protested peacefully in the capital. That is a record. At the same time, it is a critical mass the Belarusian regime knows it can no longer control.

Currently, various scenarios for the further development of the situation are possible with history happening before our eyes in Belarus. One of the most important issues is the character of the protests. They have already broken records, but remain largely decentralised. This is their great advantage and disadvantage. Even the largest protests, without definite and specific political leaders, may not be able to achieve the desired outcomes. Contrary to earlier reports, Tsikhanouskaya, who is still in Lithuania, did not declare herself president. She has agreed to lead the way in the process of a peaceful transit of power. The second important question is whether the authorities themselves will be ready for any mediation and dialogue with their own society. Some officials and members of the ruling elite, including the largest state broadcasters, began to shift to the side of the protesters. The president’s declarations about possible changes to the constitution and the referendum are so far nothing more than a play to gain more time. The possible reaction of Russia is also questionable.

The ongoing strike of state-owned factories and enterprises will be crucial for the authorities. The largest (and most important for the state budget) enterprises have already started to strike. For example, on Monday Lukashenka visited the striking employees of the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, and they openly chanted “Go away” in his direction, something which had never happened before. Employees of other enterprises have also announced a strike. While the active part of Belarusian society is a natural opponent to the government, the military, retirees and budget workers have always constituted the hard electorate of Lukashenka. The situation is very uncertain. But it seems that Lukashenka can no longer be sure of the loyalty of a majority of the society, closest circle and hard electorate, or the core of his power – the police, army and state media.

Maxim Rust is a political analyst and researcher of political elites in post-Soviet area. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Warsaw. He is also a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe.

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