Alexander Lukashenko claimed he won the August 8th election. Well, on April 25 he also claimed that there is no Coronavirus in Belarus. Same credibility. Now thousands are protesting, as they believe the regime stole victory from the opposition candidate. The government answers with unprecedented police brutality and massive internet shutdowns all over the country. However, more and more people in Belarus start to believe that change is possible, and it's near.
Journalists and civic activists tell us why some people of Belarus feel that this time will be different, after 26 years under “Europe’s last dictator”.
Digital Iron Curtain
"I don't know if I'll be able to respond later. Either the internet will be down again, or I'll also get arrested", Aleksandrina writes to me on Messenger. She's a freelance journalist, based in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. We agreed to have an interview today. However, before we were able to talk, her husband got beaten by the police and arrested.
"We were just standing near a police building and waiting for the people who were arrested yesterday. We assumed they would let them go today. We were quiet. We did not even shout anything. But all of a sudden OMON (special police forces) attacked us. My husband was brutally beaten", says Aleksandrina.
She disappears for several hours and later lets me know that she's fine. Almost all digital communication channels are down, and under given circumstances, the protests are hard to organize. The only way to use the internet is to have a VPN "Psiphon." As a result, many people have no access to the news and information about the country's latest events.
But tens of thousands of people are determined, and this is not stopping them. Telegram channels actively publish news, as well as bits of advice to protesters. Realizing that police violence is inevitable, people prepare for self-defense.
Protests in 33 cities of Belarus have been going on for the fourth day in a row. According to the central elections commission, Alexander Lukashenko won the elections with 80.2% of the vote. His main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has 9.9%.
Civil society brings different data to our attention. The opposition organized an alternative vote count on the Internet platform Golos, which showed exactly the exact opposite as a result - more than 80% of the votes for Tikhanovskaya.
Light grenades, rubber bullets, battens, and police brutality are the only arguments the government has against peaceful demonstrators and their demands. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, about 7,000 people were detained, of which about a thousand were in Minsk. 50 citizens and 39 police officers were injured "as a result of clashes", some were hospitalized, one protester died.
"The more they beat us, the less we believe the official results", one of the protestors told Fox News.
"The police don't need an excuse to attack us. Its task is to intimidate as many people as possible", Vladimir Kovalkin, a civic activist from Minsk tells me in a phone conversation. From time to time, his voice is cut off. Vladimir is angry. He says that the government stole people’s voices.
"Everyone understands that Tikhanovskaya was elected. Those who voted for her went to the polls with white ribbons and white clothes. Everyone saw that these people were in the majority. But Lukashenko won anyway."
According to Vladimir, the protesters will not disperse until their demands are fulfilled: "New elections. Without Lukashenko's participation."
Tikhanovskaya is now in Lithuania. Members of her campaign say she left the country unwillingly and under pressure from the authorities, in exchange for the release of her campaign manager, Maria Moroz. Later this day, a suspicious video was published, where Tikhanovskaya calls on her supporters to cease all street protests.
Falsification of dominance
The democratic nature of the elections was in question long before they were held.
The opposition fielded three major candidates:Viktar Babaryka, a banker, Valery Tsapkala, a retired diplomat, andSiarhei Tsikhanouski, a popular blogger. The latter was imprisoned before the opening of electoral operations, but his spouse Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaia was allowed to run and registered as a candidate for elections. Others were prevented from running by the decisions of the Central Electoral Commission.
It's not the first time that elections have been rigged. Besides, the persecution of political opponents, journalists, and all dissenting people has long been the norm. Belarus is the only country in Europe that still has not abolished the death sentence. Moreover, it's not a member of the European council, which means that the country isn't under the jurisdiction of the European court.
The Lukashenko regime has long been characterized as Electoral authoritarianism. According to researchers, this type of regime uses a monopoly on information to control the electorate. It tries to show that there's no alternative to the current government. The opponents are presented as socially unacceptable individuals; thus, joining them is also unacceptable.
Youtuber and political blogger Maksim Katz notes that Lukashenko has another habit: For him, the falsification of results is not enough. What he also needs is the falsification of dominance. "People need to feel his dominance and strength. This is demoralizing for the opponents and their supporters. Moreover, it hijacks the trust in the election itself, as people know that everything is decided in advance", he says. Lukashenko looks extremely calm when commenting on the protests. He called demonstrators "sheep" and said that he would not allow "to destroy the country." According to him, the protests are controlled from abroad.
Julia Aleksveeva (26), a journalist from Belarus, lives in Warsaw. She says that a lot of Belarus students, who were expelled from universities for their political views, are now studying in Poland. For her, it's no surprise that Lukashenko mentions the foreign force.
"There are people here who are in exile and spread information", says Julia. She adds that slandering emigrants is part of the state propaganda. Naturally, the authorities say nothing about why these people had to leave.
What has changed? And why did the current election become a boiling point? In Belarus, this question is now asked by many.
Maksim Katz thinks that we have to consider three separate factors:
Despite protests, fellow authoritarians already congratulated Lukashenko, including the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
Analysts believe that, from the Kremlin's point of view, the more problematic the re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, the more the presidential chair will sway under him. Eventually, the more accommodating he will be in negotiations on rapprochement with Russia.
What will happen next? According to Vladimir Kovalkin, a cold civil war begins within society today. And the authorities will throw all their strength into the fight against dissidents.
How is it different from what the country has experienced for the previous 26 years? "The main difference is that now society is much more consolidated, and the wave of protests is huge as never before. Something similar to Poland during the "Solidarity movement at the end of the 80’s", says Vladimir.
He believes people who demand change are not going to stop. But some are sure that the most important changes have already happened, namely, in the citizens' minds.
Julia Aleekseva thinks that now is a moment of truth. Despite all external factors, she believes that the fate of Belarus depends on the courage of its people. And she doesn't care if it sounds naive.
cover picture: Khareba Kavtaradze
pictures: Nexta, Paperdabba