20th October 2020

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What is happening in Belarus?

Belarusian police summoned Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich to question her about a criminal case against a new opposition council. The council, founded by exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was created after contested elections earlier this month.

  • Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, is a member. The move comes a day after more than 100,000 people demonstrated against President Alexander Lukashenko.
  • Two opposition figures were also arrested on Monday. Olga Kovalkova and Sergei Dylevsky were detained outside the Minsk tractor factory, where staff are involved in an anti-Lukashenko strike. Opposition leader Ms Tikhanovskaya is in Lithuania, which is currently in diplomatic conflict with Belarus.
  • Lithuania’s foreign ministry said it summoned the Belarusian ambassador on Monday to protest a violation of its airspace. He alleges that a Belarusian military helicopter Mi-24 crossed the border on Sunday evening to blow up eight balloons.
  • An image posted on Twitter shows a large red and white balloon; the colors of the flags that are displayed in opposition protests.
  • According to the Belarusian Ministry of Defense, the balloons were “anti-state symbols” and “thanks to the crews of the Mi-24 helicopters, the flight of the balloons was intercepted without resorting to weapons”.
  • The “provocation” occurred around 7:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. GMT) in the Ashmyany neighborhood.
  • In solidarity with the Belarusian opposition on Sunday, people teamed up in Lithuania to form a human chain from the capital Vilnius to the Belarusian border.
  • Tensions remain high in Minsk amid widespread anger over Lukashenko’s crushing re-election on August 9, which the opposition and many governments have denounced as fraudulent. Police brutality also sparks anger; many protesters accuse police of beatings and unprovoked torture during the crackdown.
  • Lukashenko was filmed on Sunday in riot gear and carrying an assault rifle, praising his security forces near the presidential palace. He denounced the demonstrators as “rats” or “Nazis”.
  • The opposition now claims that a strike leader at a potash fertilizer factory, Anatoly Bokan, has also been arrested.
  • Last week, the attorney general launched a criminal investigation into the 35-member coordinating council, accusing it of trying to seize power.
  • Several board members are said to have resigned as a result. Not all council members are in Belarus.

Belarus – the basic facts

Where is Belarus located?

It has Russia, the former dominant power, to the east and Ukraine to the south. To the north and west are Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, members of the EU and NATO.

Why is this important?

Like Ukraine, this nation of 9.5 million people is caught up in the rivalry between the West and Russia. President Lukashenko, an ally of Russia, has been called “Europe’s last dictator”. He has been in power for 26 years, keeping much of the economy in state hands and resorting to censorship and police repression against his opponents.

What’s going on there?

Now there is a great opposition movement demanding new democratic leadership and economic reform. Lukashenko’s supporters say his harshness has kept the country stable. Belarus is in the throes of massive protests, sparked by an election reportedly rigged in favor of longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko.

  • The scale of the opposition protests is unprecedented in Belarus; more than 100,000 people gathered in central Minsk on August 16 and again on August 23. Mr. Lukashenko’s demonstrations were much smaller.
  • After fierce clashes with opposition protesters, numerous complaints of police brutality, processions of white-clad women with roses and strikes at large state-owned companies, let’s see how it all happened.

What is the context?

  • Europe’s oldest ruler, President Lukashenko, ruled Belarus for 26 years and came to power in 1994 amid the chaos caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
  • Often described as the “last dictator” of Europe, he tried to preserve elements of Soviet communism.
  • Much of manufacturing remained under state control and the main communication channels were loyal to the government. The powerful secret police are still called the KGB.
  • At the same time, Lukashenko tried to present himself as a tough nationalist outright, defending his country against harmful foreign influences and ensuring stability.
  • These factors have, so far, given him a solid base of support, although the elections under his reign were never considered free or fair.
  • The opposition protests have been fueled by allegations of widespread corruption and poverty, lack of opportunity and low wages. Discontent has been compounded by the coronavirus crisis.
  • Opponents view Lukashenko’s bravado over the virus – he suggested fighting it with vodka, saunas and hard work – to be reckless and a sign that he’s out of touch.
  • Then a crackdown on opponents prior to the presidential elections, with two opposition candidates jailed and another fleeing the country, led to the creation of a powerful coalition of three women closely involved in these campaigns.

What happened during the elections?

One of the trios, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, registered as a candidate in place of her arrested husband Sergey Tikhanovsky. The 37-year-old English teacher and her two allies toured the country, drawing record crowds of people frustrated at the lack of political change.

  • Election day came amid widespread opposition fears of possible fraud. In the absence of invited independent observers, these fears appeared to be justified and many apparent irregularities were documented. An internet blackout began that lasted for several days.
  • Voting was closed and exit polls were released that closely resembled the results to be released the next day, suggesting that Lukashenko won with 80 percent of the vote. Ms. Tikhanovskaya only earned about 10%, they said.
  • These results were later approved by the authorities, but the main opposition candidate insisted that where the votes had been counted correctly, she had obtained between 60 and 70% of the votes.
  • Disbelief and anger at what appeared to be a rather blatant alteration of the results quickly spread to the streets.
  • The night after the elections, violent clashes led to 3,000 arrests in Minsk and other cities. Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades, never seen before in Belarus, to disperse the crowd.
  • More nights of violence saw 3,700 more arrests across the country.
  • The day after the elections, Ms. Tikhanovskaya tried to complain to the electoral authorities about the falsification of the result. They detained her for seven hours and forced her to leave for Lithuania, where she had previously sent her children.
  • In a moving video address to supporters, she said she overestimated her own strength and left for the sake of her children.
  • She subsequently launched a coordinating council to negotiate a transfer of power, made up of civil society activists, lawyers, and respected cultural figures.
  • And in a video address from Lithuania on August 17, she said she was ready to lead Belarus, pending new elections, and urged security officials to switch sides.
  • Lukashenko reacted with hostility, refusing to negotiate with the new council, some of whose members were later arrested and interrogated. Prosecutors accused the council of conspiring to seize power.

How have the demos evolved?

During post-election clashes, details of alleged police brutality emerged, with detainees brutally beaten and forced into overcrowded prisons. Many sought medical help and posted photos of their injuries on social media after their release. This produced a new wave of protests. Friends and relatives gathered in the detention centers to inquire about the inmates and women dressed in white, carrying roses, tied arms and marching through the streets.

  • At major state-owned enterprises around the country, workers sought answers from managers and local officials about election irregularities and treatment of protesters. Some called strikes and joined the protests.
  • On 17 August state TV staff walked out, joining the protests against Mr Lukashenko’s re-election. Earlier there were several high-profile resignations there. Previously the channel had followed the government line on the elections and protests.
  • Mr Lukashenko was booed by striking workers when he visited a tractor plant.
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