Thursday, August 20, 2020

Chaos in Belarus

Since the August 9 presidential election, thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets in opposition to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. On Sunday, more than 100,000 people gathered in the capital, Minsk, to call for his resignation.  Protests erupted after the results of the presidential election were announced. The Central Election Commission reported that Lukashenko had taken a staggering 80.1% of the vote.  Voters feel betrayed. Protesters aren't just angry about the sham election: They want to see far-reaching political change. Lukashenko's regime has deployed water cannons and tear gas over the past week and a half. At least 6,700 people have been arrested; government forces have killed several protesters. The violent official response has only further galvanized the opposition. It is expected that the protest movement will continue to grow in the coming days. 

Lukashenko has stepped up efforts to reassert his control after 10 days of street protests and strikes triggered by disputed elections. In a move which possible signals an escalation Lukashenko says he has given orders to end the unrest in the capital Minsk.
 "There should no longer be any disorder in Minsk of any kind," he told his security council. "People are tired. People demand peace and quiet," he added. He said he had ordered border controls to be tightened to prevent an influx of "fighters and arms". He warned that workers at state media who had gone on strike in protest at the election and the subsequent crackdown on protests that they would not get their jobs back. Russian replacements have reportedly been brought in. Lukashenko also accused those picketing outside factories of harassing workers. Strikes at factories around Minsk have also been obstructed by police.
The exiled leader of the opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya,  said Lukashenko had "lost all legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world" and urged the EU to back what she called the "awakening of Belarus". She said: "People who went out to defend their vote in the streets of their cities all across Belarus were brutally beaten, imprisoned and tortured by the regime desperately clinging on to power. This is taking place right now in the middle of Europe."

 "People want real autonomy and the power to determine their own political future," Felix Krawatzek, of the Centre for East European and International Studies, told DW. "This time, the opposition is symbolically charged, and there is real hope for fundamental change," Krawatzek said. "People were furious about this massive vote rigging and took to the streets," he added.  

 Belarusians have endured Lukashenko since he took power in 1994 — the only  election that was not rigged in his favor, analysts say. Just one month after taking control, Lukashenko brought television broadcasters under his control. Following a referendum in 1996, he dissolved the parliament and Supreme Court. He acquired the power to single-handedly impose laws. The opposition has been suppressed ever since.

The protest movement started with young Belarusians and has grown to includes people of all ages and from all walks of life. Factory workers have protested alongside members of the symphony orchestra. The resistance is not limited to the capital, Minsk, demonstrations are nationwide.

Many women have joined the rallies, often barefoot, wearing white, with flowers in hand. Whenever possible, they hug Belarusian police officers, putting flowers on their shields. "This alters the protest strategy, pitting peaceful resistance against state violence,"  Krawatzek said.  

He added that opposition politicians such as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo had helped draw women to the protest movement. 

"Their authenticity, humility and credibility have helped mobilize the masses," Krawatzek said. 

A key difference with the 2014 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine , however, is that the protests have  focused on the rigging of elections and Lukashenko's repressive regime.  Unlike in previous years, when Lukashenko's elections results were only slightly adjusted upward in Lukashenko's favor, this year's vote was a blatant sham. Belarusians have had enough. And they are making their anger known.

"This movement is not about becoming part of Europe," Krawatzek said, "but about political self-determination." 

Lukashenko is a master of self-deception. Each year, the ardent ice hockey fan organizes tournaments that — rather unsurprisingly — his own team ends up winning. Lukashenko has often talked down to ordinary people — at times referring to them as sheep — and showed little respect toward even the ministers he has appointed to his own government. Now, however, he is reaping what he sowed. Belarusians have had enough of being disrespected and having their rights trampled on.  His authoritarian  grip on power is waning.  

On Monday, Lukashenko addressed workers in the capital, Minsk, who are striking to protest the official election result. The president, who once considered the working class his electoral base, was met with boos and  chants of "get lost!" 

The only leader in the world who has any influence over Lukashenko is  Vladimir Putin. It must be made clear to Putin that any military intervention in Belarus on behalf of Lukashenko would have catastrophic political and economic consequences.  Russia has largely held back from providing direct aid to Lukashenko, in public at least. However, Sergei Lavrov, Russia's  foreign minister,  accused Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and the EU parliament of attempting to meddle in Belarus.

“No one is hiding that this is about geopolitics, about the struggle for the post-Soviet space,” he said. “We have seen this struggle in previous stages after the Soviet Union ceased its existence. The last example, of course, was Ukraine.” He accused protesters of provoking riot police.

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