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Belarusians have created a new sense of self-identity

An Interview with Anaïs Marin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus (OHCHR). Interviewer: Anastasiia Starchenko.

September 14, 2020 - Anaïs Marin Anastasia Starchenko - Hot TopicsInterviews

Photo courtesy of Belsat / Anaïs Marin

ANASTASIIA STARCHENKO: It remains to be seen whether Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus’s self-proclaimed president, will remain in power or if 2020 marks the end of his autocracy, but the election outcomes leave no doubt that Lukashenka rules by brute force and falsification. What are the factors that have ensured Lukashenka’s victory in every election since 1994?

ANAÏS MARIN: The main factor ensuring Lukashenka’s five successive re-elections so far has been electoral manipulation. Although he was democratically elected in 1994, none of the following elections – in 2001, 2006, 2010 and 2015 – was assessed positively by OSCE/ODIHR observers. They systematically recorded numerous manipulations before the start of the campaigning period, and frauds during the voting and counting stages of the process. Neither did they assess parliamentary elections and referenda in Belarus as ever meeting international standards for free, fair and transparent elections. Their recommendations have been consistently ignored to this day.

Elections in Lukashenka’s Belarus are not pluralistic due to a restrictive legislative background that prevents the emergence of challengers and the free expression of dissenting voices. Since 2001 no new political party has been granted registration; opposition leaders and their supporters are systematically denied access to state media, and several faced judicial harassment or arbitrary detention. Few of those able to gather signatures for registering as candidates have been allowed to run, and those who did always scored poorly, at least according to the official results.

For the last 25 years electoral processes in Belarus have been marred by suspicions of fraud. For lack of an independent electoral management body, the executive branch of power controls the work of electoral commissions, from the precinct level (in polling stations) to that of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), whose members are appointed by the president himself. The head of the CEC, in office since 1995, is a loyal supporter of Lukashenka, and she played a key role in ensuring his re-elections with astoundingly high scores (on average, around 80 per cent of the votes).

Among the shortcomings highlighted in previous OSCE/ODIHR reports, which I reminded in my own report to the UN General Assembly in October 2019, several aspects justify allegations of fraud. For example, due to the practice of early voting, a five-day period during which civil servants and workers of state-owned enterprises are encouraged, if not forced, to cast their ballot. This practice is considered as conducive to pressure on voters, with evidence of “bussing”, blackmailing and ballot stuffing when the polling station is closed to the public. The whole process lacks transparency due to restrictions on the rights of domestic and international observers, notably during counting and verification procedures. The tabulation of results is a particularly secretive process, also subject to the adjustment of figures at higher echelons. In the absence of a consolidated voters’ list, and since results are not “ventilated” by region, evidencing fraud remains difficult. Last but not least, the lack of independence of the judiciary has prevented so far the successful challenging of results in courts, and no vote recount has ever been ordered.  

On August 9th 2020, in the absence of international observers – the OSCE/ODIHR did not receive a timely invitation to deploy a monitoring mission to Belarus – only hand-picked domestic observers were able to monitor the process. Independent observers again assessed it as falling short of meeting international standards – which should come as no surprise, since the electoral legislation remains unchanged and the CEC gave no instructions to conduct the vote more fairly or transparently than before. For the first time ever, a majority of Belarusians seem convinced that the vote was indeed fraudulent, in part thanks to several precinct electoral commissions which conducted an honest vote count, and publicised untampered results illustrating Lukashenka’s electoral defeat.

Belarusian media has always existed in repressive conditions, especially in the run-up to the elections. However, as global society becomes more digital, social media and independent channels of information defy the traditional means of influencing public opinion. What has been the impact of the current internet disruption in Belarus?

Due to the limitations on freedom of opinion and freedom of expression, independent media face considerable obstacles when trying to disseminate information which departs from the official line. Those journalists who risk doing so are exposed to judicial harassment, intimidation and even criminal liability, whereas journalists working for foreign media outlets are usually denied accreditation. They were on the frontline of the unlawful arrests and detentions taking place on and after August 9th.

The already restrictive Belarusian law on mass media was amended in 2019 to target specifically internet media, bloggers, and activists using social networks for disseminating alternative viewpoints. Nevertheless, Belarusians being a fairly well connected nation, they increasingly rely on online news platforms (TUT.by notably), YouTube channels and social media to seek alternative information. The most popular bloggers are currently behind bars, including Siarhei Tsikhanouski, who had gained notoriety offline too during the signature collection phase in April. On August 14th a criminal case was opened against Stsiapan Putsila, the student exiled in Warsaw who established the NEXTA Telegram channel, for allegedly coordinating the process.

As expected, the authorities further restricted freedom of expression online starting on election day, by disrupting access to the internet in the whole country. In Minsk, even mobile phone communications were tempered in the areas where peaceful protesters were gathering. These disruptions – which the authorities denied, claiming instead that the country was under a foreign cyber-attack – had two purposes. First, preventing the conduct of independent exit polls by blocking communications with a mobile application set up by the opposition to allow voters to send pictures of their ballots to Golos (an independent Russian elections watchdog –editor’s note). Second, the goal was to disrupt the organisation of protests and limit the dissemination of images of police repression on and after election day. This partly failed for failure of controlling Telegram channels which continued to serve as an information platform between protesters and with the outside world. Yet, as a result most Belarusians realised the extent of the fraud and the harshness of the crackdown from Wednesday August 12th onwards only. Those three days of almost total internet lockdown and the sudden inflow of footage on police violence on the 12th caused the population a traumatic shock. The shutdown had a disruptive effect on the economy as people could not pay with their credit cards in shops and business incurred serious losses. Most importantly, for lack of internet access and mobile communications, relatives had difficulty finding where their relatives were detained or hospitalised.

Following the arrests of opposition candidates, political activists and journalists, Lukashenka’s regime has reached a new low point in the extreme use of violence, cynical abuse of power and arbitrary detentions with physical and psychological harassment against largely peaceful protesters and innocent passers-by. What immediate mechanisms of safeguarding basic human rights are currently available to Belarusian activists and advocacy networks?

In spite of repeated appeals from the United Nations, the Belarusian authorities have failed to establish an independent national human rights institution: people who suffered unlawful arrests and beatings have no one to turn to; for lack of a comprehensive legislation against torture, those who suffered ill-treatment in detention are left with few avenues to seek redress. In fact, and quite cynically, intimidation and threats are such that people are afraid of filing complaints with the police or in court. I have heard of injured passers-by who, after declaring in hospital that their wounds were not accidental, were summoned to visit the nearest police station where they received additional threats meant to silence them.

This means that the state is deliberately failing to provide Belarusians with a chance to seek redress for their physical wounds, the inhuman and degrading treatment they suffered in detention centres, and not least importantly for the psychological trauma they endured. I am particularly concerned about the fate of children, who have been victims or witnesses of police violence.

I hope an independent investigation will shed light on the whole range of human rights violations committed during this latest crackdown. Meanwhile, victims should of course seek to register medical evidence of their wounds and report to human rights defenders’ organisations that compile records and testimonies, such as Viasna, or the new committee for the investigation of torture that was established by the NGO “Legal initiative”. This is a crucially important stage, in view of an international inquiry mechanism that will hopefully be launched to investigate what could well qualify as crimes against humanity.

Belarus has now changed significantly. The events of just two weeks provided a wide-scale opportunity to strengthen civil resilience against authoritarian methods of governance.  Do you think this dissent might result in an irreversible social change?

Indeed, from what I could see by monitoring social networks and talking with Belarusian experts and other people on the ground over the past months, I am convinced that the society has awakened and will not tolerate that such violence repeats. Belarusian society has been evolving over the past years, and this is what led to the mass, but still predominantly peaceful protests, that we have witnessed throughout the electoral campaign and in the aftermath of the vote. The events of the spring and summer 2020 created a new sense of self-identity (epitomised by the slogans “We are 97%”, “Fear no more”, “We are many – we will win”), which contrasts with the traditional reputation of the Belarusian population as an apathetic and depoliticised one.

More importantly, even regime insiders – civil servants including people directly appointed by Lukashenka, such as the now ex-Governor of Hrodna, and several diplomats – have expressed discontent over the electoral fraud and police violence. Some were courageous enough, in spite of the threats of retaliation, to openly defect and lose their job as a result, as did the workers from state-owned enterprises who went on strike. Henceforth, the current social movement – or revolution, if you wish – is now at a critical point. Can people sustain the pace long enough for obtaining the democratic changes that they have been calling for so massively – to no avail, up until now? How resilient is the autocratic system established by Lukashenka in the course of his reign and to what extent can such a delegitimised leader count on the unconditional loyalty of his subordinates in the state administration, the justice system and the military?

These remain open questions. Having crossed so many red lines already, I doubt that the acting government and its supporters can resist the current wave of protests: Belarus will never be the same again.

Anaïs Marin is the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus (OHCHR), an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and an associate fellow with Chatham House.

Anastasiia Starchenko is an editorial intern at New Eastern Europe and a recent MA graduate of European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin. She has a BA in Law from the Ukrainian Academy of Banking and a BA in International Relations from Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia.

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