Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 147, 19 August 2020

Belarus: One election sparks the largest protests against an autocratic President
Sourina Bej

In the news 
On 18 August, amid weeks of anti-government protests, the Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko called for a power-sharing agreement with the opposition but on his own terms. This followed after the President was heckled by workers on a visit to a factory on 17 August as anger mounts over his disputed re-election. Workers chanted "leave" as the former Soviet leader defended his victory and said, "We held the election. Until you kill me, there will be no other election." Police violence towards opposition supporters, as well as the alleged poll-rigging on 9 August, has fueled the biggest protest rally in the capital Minsk. Following the rigged election, the opposition leader went in exile and since has been communicating with the protestors with messages to restore normalcy, free political prisoners, and proposal to lead the country. 
 
Issues at large 
First, long-standing discontent against the regime as the cause. President Alexander Lukashenko has been seen as Europe's last autocratic leader trying to preserve elements of Soviet communism through state control over media, institutions, and the public space. In the post-Soviet Belarus, Lukashenko's strong policies have been seen as the reason for stability as protests remained constant in its neighbourhood. These factors have been the base for the support for the President, though elections under him have never been free or fair. The present shift in the mood of the people has come amid complaints of corruption, poverty, a lack of opportunity, and this is compounded by the pandemic. 

Second, a disputed election as a trigger. The shift in the public perception against their leader got reflective in the election. A wave of anger has been rising since the Central Election Commission said Lukashenko had won 80 per cent of the vote and the revered opposition contender Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya has won 10 per cent. The trajectory of the opposition leader coming to contest the election was around the demand to release her husband, an influential blogger, who challenged Lukashenko, is in jail. As the protest broke out, it gave the space for Sviatlana to outgrow her political agenda. Now, she not only symbolizes the protests as being a middle-class woman against an elite male autocrat but also as a beacon of hope leading the country out of corruption by the incumbency. 

Third, the nature of the protest. Hundreds of protesters have been wounded and two have died in clashes with police over the past week. Some 6,700 people have been arrested, and many have spoken of torture at the hands of security forces. After the President's rally on 17 August, he has been losing his strong support base from the workers. This protest that has continued for a week has been spontaneous, impulsive with only an exiled leader as the face of the protest. Heavily dominated by the demographic group representing women, the middle class and workers are other two social groups that called out the ousting of the President; all as they risk being arrested. 
 
In perspective 
First, the protest curve has expanded from middle-class women to labourers crying anti-government slogans. The protest is likely to continue and intensify as this is the first time when a majority of the population has continued to come together in spite of the heavy clampdown. The slogan for solidary that echoes at the moment is "now or never for the country" to stand against the last of the post-Soviet era leaders. For the first time since 2010, the people in Belarus have set aside their fears, recaptured their sense of dignity, and aimed to own their political consciousness. 

Second, strong police action against the protestors have continued but will also be contingent on the present warming tone of the government and larger regional dynamics. Six years on, the parallels of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine has been reflective in Belarus. As Poland and the Czech Republic led EU meeting over sanctioning against Belarus, the threat of considering a Russian intervention looms large. But such a move by Russia would be counter-productive as the protest in Belarus is anti-Lukashenko and unlike in Ukraine, it doesn't echo an anti-Moscow sentiment.

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