Belarus: The debris of the 'Red Empire'
Exploring what is happening in Belarus.
The poignant words of one of modern Belarus’ greatest writers and 2015 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, should wake us: “a barbaric era is upon us once again”. Her speech in Stockholm contained many truths relevant to today's situation in Belarus. She spoke during a time when Ukraine was in the heat of a gruesome quasi civil war in the Donbas and Crimea, featuring state sponsored tragedies that the West had thought impossible to occur in the modern era. They did occur, innocent civilians once again felt the deep scourge of war in Europe. The rise of the illiberal forces of the world ought to worry all peace-loving peoples.
The latest unfolding events in Belarus underscore what Alexeievich said in Stockholm:
“Freedom is not an instantaneous holiday, as we once dreamed. It is a road. A long road. We know this now.”
Interestingly, Alexeievich, on 24 August 2020, being a member of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's recently formed Coordination Council, has been called in by the Belarusian Investigative Committee for questioning. As the world looks on with worry, this post will try to briefly explain what has happened in Belarus over these past few weeks.
After elections in Belarus on 9 August 2020, President Lukashenko still clings on to power, despite these elections being widely accepted as rigged and unfair by the international community. As Europe’s longest reigning ruler, President Lukashenko has controlled Belarus since 1994 with an iron fist; quashing basic civil liberties and other freedoms that many readers of this page will have privileged access to. The elections themselves were mired by unfairness. No independent observers were allowed and common tactics to suppress opposition voices were harnessed.
The main opposition candidate, Sergey Tikhanovsky, was imprisoned in May. His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, then took the reins of the opposition and ran in the elections competing against, "Europe's Last Dictator", President Lukashenko. Also arrested in June, was another opposition leader Viktor Babariko. Tikhanovskaya had gathered historic amounts of popular support across Belarus for her reform agenda. By official figures however, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya only gained 10 per cent of the popular vote, while the incumbent, President Lukashenko, received 80 per cent.
Following the elections, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled Belarus out of concern for her own, and her children’s, bodily safety. After being reported missing by her colleagues, she emerged on 11 August. Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Linas Linkevicius, announced in a tweet that: "Svetlana #Tikhanovskaya is safe. She is in #Lithuania". In the interim between the election results and her reappearance in Lithuania however, Tikhanovskaya sought to lodge an official complaint protesting the election results. Thereafter, she was detained for seven hours and made to read off of a script to her supporters that called for: "Belarusians to accept Lukashenko’s 'victory' and 'stop protesting'".
Following Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s reappearance, mass protests in favour of the deposition of President Lukashenko swept Belarus. Protests in Minsk, the capital, have revealed the panoply of violence that President Lukashenko had long used in private against his citizens. At least two protesters are known to have died and thousands have been arrested. The "March for Freedom" has gathered the support of hundreds of thousands of citizens with recent estimates of up to 200,000 protesters in Minsk this week. Meanwhile, the sitting president currently struggles to pull public support together without being jeered off stage by factory workers. In a spectacularly démodé publicity and intimidation stunt, President Lukashenko appeared commanding from his helicopter and alighting with Kalashnikov rifle in hand and flack jacket on chest, to cheer on his squad of guards on 23 August.
Above: President Lukashenko being jeered off stage by factory workers, 17 August 2020.
Below: President Lukashenko appearing armed for state cameras, 23 August 2020.
On 14 August Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and other leaders of the opposition formed the “Coordination Council of Belarus”. In the first official broadcast by the Council on 14 August, Tikhanovskaya sought to apply pressure on Lukashenko by claiming victory in the elections that, by the Council’s estimates, she had won by "60 to 70" per cent of the vote. In a broadcast on 17 August 2020, Tikhanovskaya applied further pressure on Lukashenko to hold a fresh round of elections under international observation and she pleaded for security forces to join the Council’s struggle.
"Just as with Ukraine, Russia is considered likely to intervene if it seemed to Moscow there was a danger of 'losing' Belarus to the West."
- Keir Giles, Senior Consulting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House.
It would be naïve to try to predict what will happen as these intense political tensions unfurl in Belarus. However, what is perhaps more interesting is how Russia plays into the current situation. In the world of think tanks, Keir Giles (Senior Consulting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House) recently published 'Watching Belarus Means Watching Russia Too'. Giles explores how "just as with Ukraine, Russia is considered likely to intervene if it seemed to Moscow there was a danger of ‘losing’ Belarus to the West." Indeed, if Lukashenko falters, which Giles sees as unlikely, there is a possibility that even the opposition, if they gain power, would acquiesce to Kremlin pressures.
There are parallels between the current situation in Belarus and the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2014. The Ukraine conflict was essentially split between West and East; to form closer ties with the European Union or with Russia? What followed was a bloody and protracted conflict filled with banditry and wanton acts of violence such as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014 by Russian-backed separatists. Western powers should do all, within their means, to prevent the current turbulence in Belarus from reaching such levels of inhumane aggression.
However, President Lukashenko actively promotes discourse that creates a sense of fear claiming that: "NATO tanks and planes were massing 15 minutes from his country's border". Of course this is far from the truth, and more importantly, such discourse tries to create a political playing field which forces the choice between West and East in a dangerous and undiplomatic fashion. After communications between Moscow and Minsk, it was made public that: "Russia was ready to provide aid [to Lukashenko] under the terms of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) if need be, and claimed Belarus was facing unspecified external pressure."
The Institute for the Study of War published a worrying report on Russian and Belarusian military movements. "Russia began large-scale exercises with 3,500 personnel in Leningrad Oblast on August 17" however "there is no evidence of an increase of Russian force presence inside Belarus as of August 17". Although, there have been unofficial reports by the Critical Intelligence Team OSINT group that: "more than 40 Russian 'Ural' trucks with soldiers inside driving toward Belarus from Smolensk on August 16". This is in conjunction with Belarusian military forces being deployed rapidly on the country's western border with Poland and Lithuania out of a series of preposterous assertions by President Lukashenko that Poland and Lithuania threaten Belarusian sovereignty.
The crucial geopolitical tensions present in Belarus are currently playing out quite rapidly and may have significant consequences not only for the people of Belarus but also of the wider region. European Union leaders such as the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, have rightfully condemned the actions of President Lukashenko in quelling protests with violence. A great deal is at stake in Belarus, and in a world ravaged by the Coronavirus pandemic, economic and political instabilities, and a loss of diplomatic consensus, the world's eyes are watching closely.