Belarus in turmoil over a disputed presidential election

When elections for national leadership lose their legitimacy, chaos can be unleashed.  In Belarus, the presidential election of August 1, 2020 has been challenged as a travesty, generally regarded as fraudulent, with the official result a landslide victory for the incumbent.  The result has been large demonstrations in the streets in Minsk, the capital, and other cities, with some protesters erecting barricades, while the police have used tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, and water cannons, against the peaceful protestoes of whom 6,000 have been detained.

YouTube screen grab.

Belarus is not unknown to Westerners.  It was the birthplace of Marc Chagall, and it was for a short time the home of Lee Harvey Oswald, the presumed assassin of JFK, who lived in Minsk in 1961–62.  The country of Belarus is strategically located among Russia, Ukraine, and Poland.  The country under a different name, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, was a founding republic of the Soviet Union in 1922.  It declared its sovereignty in July 1990 and its independence from the Soviet Union on August 25, 1991.  Its name was changed to Belarus at that time.  

The two countries, Belarus and Russia, are linked by history, language, and culture, and industrial ties.  Belarus was a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union, a key project of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to integrate former Soviet republics.  Lukashenko supported the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.  He is a hockey player like Putin, and they played together.  Lukashenko agreed with Russia in 1999 to allow citizens of each country to travel freely to and live in the other country.  Belarus had access to Russian reserves and markets.

But he was neutral over the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and differences have emerged over oil and gas supplies and other issues such as Russia's push for closer collaboration.

At present, there is a flexible tug of war over Belarus between the U.S. and the E.U. on one hand and Russia.  Something of a rapprochement and some cooperation have developed in recent years with the West, with the U.S. and the E.U. trying to create a buffer against Russia growing its influence.  Both sides remember that during the Second World II, the country was occupied by the Nazis, who killed 1.6 million.  The once thriving Jewish community was liquidated in the Holocaust as 90% of the Jewish population, 800,000, were murdered.

The E.U. in February 2020 reached an agreement with Belarus on cooperation in fighting drug abuse and drug-trafficking.  At that time, secretary of state Mike Pompeo offered to sell Belarus all the oil and gas it needed at competitive prices.  In early 2000, the U.S. and E.U. put sanctions on the country but lifted them for a time after Lukashenko agreed to free political prisoners.  The U.S. and the E.U. have strongly condemned the conduct of the 2020 election.

Since its independence, Belarus has been governed by Alexander Lukashenko, who has been president since June 1994.  Lukashenko, brought up by a single mother and from a poor background, is Europe's longest serving ruler.  His early experience was in the Soviet armed forces and as a state farm director while the area was under the control of the Soviet Union.

He has been termed the last dictator in Europe, in charge of a largely state-owned economy, responsible for unfair elections, virtual suppression of political opposition, imprisonment of critics, a judiciary lacking independence, and a secret police even named KGB.  He regards opposition critics as sheep controlled from abroad.  Critics, in fact, have left the country or disappeared.  In macho fashion, he is outspoken, proclaiming that to anyone joining an opposition protest group, "we will wring their necks as one might a duck."

In 1996 Lukashenko disbanded the parliament which had tried to impeach him.  In 2004, the referendum he organized ended the two-term limit on presidents, this paving the way for him to rule indefinitely.  He has described himself as being authoritarian, "a style of rule characteristic of me, and I have always admitted it.  You need to control the country."

The presidential election on August 9, 2020 was between the 65-year-old incumbent, President Lukashenko, eager for a sixth term in office, and his main opponent, the 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.  In spite of polls indicating the opposite and the arbitrary detention of hundreds of people, estimated at 1,500, the official result was that the incumbent had received 80% of the vote and the challenger 10%, in a turnout of  84%.  All objective commentators argue that the election was rigged.  International observers were not allowed to monitor the election, but electoral irregularities were evident.

A number of would-be challengers tried to contest the election, and they attracted large crowds at electoral meetings.  But they were soon legally disqualified.  One of them was Sergei Tikhanovsky, a video blogger, who was arrested on May 29, 2020 by the authorities. His wife, Svetlana replaced him as a candidate.

The 37-year-old Svetlana was a teacher of English who had spent some time in Ireland. Lukashenko said the country was not ready for a woman president, but Svetlana, who leapt from being a stay-at-home mother to a role as immediate politician, held mass rallies that attracted thousands. She condemned the official treatment of women opposition activists and the threats to take children away from opposition figures.  She was herself threatened.

The inexperienced Svetlana explained why she was a candidate, to free not only her husband from prison but all political prisoners in Belarus, to introduce democratic reforms, to lessen any union with Russia, to restore the two-term limit for presidents, and to introduce free and fair elections.  Despite the official result, she considered herself as the legitimate winner of the election.

The consequences are sobering. The day after the elections, Svetlana formally asked the election commission for a recount of the election result. This was denied but instead she was apparently threatened while there. She immediately, either voluntarily or by coercion, left the country, fleeing to neighboring Lithuania, saying it was for her own well-being and the welfare of her children, the "most important thing in our lives."  But In a video, which is almost certainly a forced statement made under duress, Svetlana called for respect for the law and said that the people of Belarus had made their choice. She did not want blood or violence.

Her political role appears to be over. But the role of women is not over. Noticeably, a large number of women, all dressed in white and carrying flowers, in a line of solidarity have protested against the regime. Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature condemned the police violence. She urged Lukashenko to go peacefully before he threw people into the abyss of civil war.

Not unexpectedly, Russian has defended Lukashenko and the actions of the police by stating that unprecedented pressure was exerted on Belarus authorities by foreigners. In contrast, the EU is considering imposing new sanctions, a travel ban, freezing of assets, on Belarus because of the false election result and crackdown on protestors.

The problem is that strong measures might push Belarus into arms of Putin. This remains a dilemma for the U.S., though Pompeo has expressed deep concern that the election was not free and fair, that there were undesirable features, restrictions on access for candidates, intimidation, no independent observers, and detaining of peaceful protestors. As an absolute minimum, there should be release of the detained prisoners.

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