Belarus election: contested result sparks massive unrest as Europe’s ‘last dictator’ claims victory

Balki Begumhan Bayhan, Coventry University

Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus who came to power in 1994, has won his sixth presidential election. The preliminary results show a landslide victory, giving Lukashenko 80% of the vote and his main opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, just 10%. Nationwide protests have broken out in response and we should view these results as falsely reported.

Election day itself was full of strange anomalies: internet access was reportedly disrupted and independent observers say they were prevented from monitoring the vote. There have even been suggestions that turnout exceeded 100% at some polling stations.

After the state-controlled exit polls showed victory for the president, nationwide protests broke out. Thousands of people who were outraged with the results took to the streets. In more than 30 cities demonstrators clashed with police, who responded to their marches with excessive violence.

There were clear signs that Lukashenko was preparing to face such a backlash from an early stage. During the campaigning period, he seemed more focused on visiting military bases than meeting the public. Anti-riot equipment was brought into the country’s capital before the election.

In Minsk, riot police used rubber bullets, tear gas and shock grenades on unarmed people. About 3,000 were detained during the protests. According to human rights centre Viasna, one person died after being run over by a security-forces vehicle and many other protestors were injured.

Surprise opponent

Lukashenko had been confronted by an unexpectedly strong opponent in this election in the form of Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, a former teacher and a housewife who did not originally plan running at all. It was her blogger husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, who had harboured presidential ambitions. Not long after declaring his intention to run, Tikhanovsky was arrested and prevented from registering as a candidate. His wife took up the torch and managed to become a candidate herself. She has rejected the official results, and more protests are planned for the coming days.

It is perhaps ironic that Lukashenko faced his gravest challenge from a unified front of three women – Tikhanovskaya herself, Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of another opponent who was unable to stand, and Maria Kolesnikova, the campaign manager of another. Tikhanovskaya was allowed to proceed in the election, with Lukashenko not initially seeing her as a great threat. Lukashenko has in the past disparaged the possibility of a female president, claiming that a woman would “collapse” under the weight of such responsibility.

The campaigning efforts of these three women in an authoritarian state like Belarus have been highly impressive. They held rallies across the country to a rapturous response. At one point, a rally in Minsk in support of Tikhanovskaya attracted more than 63,000 people.

The genie leaves the bottle

Despite the result of this vote, the situation is not entirely hopeless in “Europe’s last dictatorship”. Change is, without doubt, in the air. There is a new willingness to challenge the regime, and unprecedented mobilisation – as was seen both before and after the election. In some smaller cities there were reports of security forces lowering their shields rather than reacting violently. This is potentially a sign that Belarus is at a tipping point, although it is difficult to say what will happen next.

Belarusians are increasingly unable to tolerate the authoritarian tactics of Lukashenko and the determination to oust him is clear. While Tikhanovskaya has obviously had a galvanising effect, the protests were not initiated by her but rather represent an outpouring of anger against the regime.

Lukashenko’s power is becoming fragile. He has relied on a mixture of repression and elite loyalty, but also, to an extent, popular support. This latter pillar has been eroding over the years, with the last independent poll conducted in 2016 showing only 30% support for the president. A worsening economy, the chaotic handling of the pandemic, and the emergence of an energising opponent have all served to widen the disconnect between the Belarusian president and people.

Internationally too, Lukashenko walks away from the election weakened. His attempts in recent years to build better relations with the EU to counterbalance the influence of Russia are likely to be undermined, especially after the violent crackdowns of post-election protestors. The EU imposed sanctions after similar repressive actions following the 2010 election, and some member states are already raising the possibility of applying them again.

Improved ties to the west had been crucial to Lukashenko in fending off pressure from Vladimir Putin for closer integration between the two countries. Any damage to these ties is likely to result in the president losing bargaining power with Russia. That would really put Lukashenko in a tricky spot. Whatever the actual results of the election, the genie has been well and truly let out of the bottle.The Conversation

Balki Begumhan Bayhan, PhD Candidate in Politics, Coventry University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Belarus: Raid on Pastor’s House

The following article reports on the raiding of a pastor’s house in Belarus.

Belarusian officials continue to persecute Christian church

Belarusian officials continue to harass New Life Full Gospel Church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. On 4 January the church received a summons from the Minsk City Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Committee, claiming that the church had polluted the ground around its building with oil, causing large amounts of damage.

Church members reject the allegation, Sergei Lukanin noting that "for some reason they only took samples from the road which comes into the car park. Of course they’re going to find traces of oil there."

Belarus also continues to persecute people for the "offence" of unregistered religious activity. Challenged about two heavy fines of a pensioner for this "offence", Lyudmila Paprakova of Grodno Ideology Department told Forum 18 that "we don’t have such persecution here. We’re absolutely democratic." After a woman was fined for allowing her home to be used for unregistered worship, Alla Starikevich of Brest City Ideology Department described the role of officials who started the case as "to maintain mutual relations with religious communities."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Europe brought to notice human rights violations in Belarus

On November 19-20 in Tallin (Estonia) and Helsinki (Finland) a Belarussian human rights advocate, expert of the Humanitarian Technologies Agency (Minsk), Denis Hil made a speech. The subject of the meeting was a presentation of the report about problem of faith right violations in Belarus, reports center "The Other Europe".

Representatives of Finish and Baltic public organizations took part in the meetings and learned that the recent statements of Lukashenko about a possible liberalization and a European course of Belarussian inner policy is not more, than a political game. Its aim is to mislead public opinion of the EU.

Denis noted, that today there is a danger, that the EU can ignore the human rights violations in Belarus for economical benefits. "Unfortunately, we have to state the fact that the Lukashenko statements do not correspond to reality. Recently, situation with liberty of faith don’t become better. On the contrary, new obstacles have appeared in activity of even registered churches and church unions", said Denis Hil in Tallin.

In Helsinki took place a similar meeting with representatives of public organizations and journalists in office of IRR-TV. Denis Hil took part in a program for Finish 7th channel, several radio stations and print medias.

Today the situation with human rights in Belarus fills with misgivings. According to law of liberty of conscience for 2002 year, any religious activity without state registration is prohibited. An artificial legal paradox was created. The matter is that to get a registration, a religious organization should have at least 20 followers. But it is prohibited to lead any activity to get these followers.

Thereby, legally registrate its parish can just traditional churches: Orthodox, Catholic, in some cases Lutherans. Other Protestant churches are significantly dead in rights to spread their beliefs.

Such laws create prerequisites for restraint on activity of registrated religious organization. According to the 25th article of law of liberty of concscience, religious organizations cant arrange religious meetings (worships) in rented (not church) buildings without permission of public authorities.

Religious congregations don`t have a right to establish their own mass medias and educational institutions, to train priests, invite foreign religious workers etc. Such rights have just registered religious organizations.

According to the news law, a religious organization can be created if it has no less than ten congregations, one of which worked in Belarus not less, than 20 years. Many of recently appeared religious organizations wont be able to create a union in the nearest future. It puts obstacles in the way of confessing one`s faith.

Members of religious organizations can`t spread their religious views, preach, give spiritual literature, worship etc, out of the place, where the congregation was registered. According to the new law, activity of a religious organization can be realized just on the territory, where act registered congregations, ingressed into the union. That is why, any missionary activity becomes illegal and spreading of religious views is restricted.

State authorities recently without any reason refuse religious organizations permission to get places for building churches.

State mass media of Belarus often spread insulting inadequate information about activity of religious organizations. Many organizations are called "sects" and "contrasting with Orthodox confession, which is traditional for Belarussian people". First of all, such information is spread by state mass media.

The Belorussian expert underlined the necessity of common actions of public and religious organizations in protecting the basic human rights, one of which is liberty of faith.

During the discussion in Tallin, a representative of a center "The Other Europe" (Latvia) Pavel Levushkan said, that people in Baltic countries understand problems in Belarus very well, because several years ago religious confessions in our countries were experiensing persecutions in Soviet times. He also said that "The Other Europe" realizes constant monitoring of the situation. "Just real actions, not declarations, should be taken into account by EU authorities", added the Latvian guest.

An expert of portal Liberty of Faith Dmitry Sargin has drawn attention of the present on the fact, that Lukashenko didn`t explain yet what happened with the missing opposition representatives. "What is the role of Belarussian president and secret services in the disappearing of people? What were the results of the investigation? We don`t have answers yet. What dialogue is possible with the country, where disappeare people, having opposite views from the official? If Belarus wants to dialogue with the EU, its authorities should take norms of civilized politician discussian".

Report from the Christian Telegraph