This year’s COVID-19 pandemic, along with the economic crisis it’s provoked, has resulted in less impactful perception of world news. While most news this year might seem bleak there is one inspiring historic event that has largely been ignored on our island: the revolution in Belarus. For twenty-six years Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus being considered by many as Europe’s last dictator. During this time he has rigged five elections, claiming victory with over 80% of the vote in all of them. Lukashenko’s regime ensured that any competitors in these elections had no chance of winning. Freedom House considers Belarus an authoritarian state where Lukashenko controls the military and police, as well as the state-run press. For years protesters have been routinely detained without reason and tortured. Lukashenko has administered the country horribly, resulting in a stagnant economy, and when the pandemic began he dismissed the threat of COVID-19, claiming people should just “drink vodka and go to the sauna.”
During this summer the usual opposition campaign began, but after various male candidates were arrested, their wives and campaign managers, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova took over the election campaign. They decided Tsikhanouskaya should run for president and united the opposition to rally behind her. Thousands soon began joining rallies to support her campaign and it was evident that it would be hard for Lukashenko to rig this election. Even with the momentum behind the protest, reporters and protestors were harassed and arrested days before the election. On the night of August 9 when the election results were released, Lukashenko claimed victory again with 84% of the vote. This result caused an immediate anger that had been building up for weeks among the general population to morph into a revolution.
Two weeks after the vote 200,000 rallied against the regime, taking part in the largest protest in the country’s history. Since then the nation has been covered with red and white flags, the symbol of the protest which supporters want to use as a replacement for the current flag. The protests have transcended age, class and gender. It is very important to recognize the feminist aspect of the protest. Not only are the icons of the protest women, but also rallies have been carried out exclusively for women and thousands have taken part in these. While protests continued to spread, Tsikhanouskaya led the opposition to create a council that brought together dozens of human rights defenders, including Nobel Laureate Sviatlana Alexievich, to plan a peaceful transition of power towards democracy. The opposition shows all the qualities of a successful change of government, but it is yet to be seen what Lugashenko’s fate will be in the long term.
Lukashenko has responded violently to the protest by arresting thousands, opening a criminal case against the opposition and wearing full body armor while holding a rifle to demonstrate he is still in control. The regime is also attempting to censor all news of the protest by blocking 50 websites. International support for the protest has grown, with many nations refusing to recognize Lukashenko, including the United States and the European Union bloc, the latter of which stated his mandate lacked any democratic legitimacy. The risk to this revolution is not only Lukashenko, the neighboring President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has also threatened that he will intervene if the Belorrussian autocrat is ousted. Tsikhanouskaya has been forced to seek shelter in Lithuania to avoid being arrested by the government. As of the time of writing, the protests are already in their tenth week with neither side conceding. The mass movements in Belarus have shown the best side of the Belarusian people in the face of a violent regime. Regardless of what happens next Lukashenko will never be able to return to the time where he could rule without Belarussians shouting for his resignation at the gates of his presidential palace, as one economist stated “We have woken up to the fact that we want to be free, we want to be human,”
To hear directly from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya about the revolution in Belarus and her role in as the leader watch the NYT interview: