James Brennan ’21
Every authoritarian regime has a breaking point: an event or circumstance that leads to its downfall. In 2020 Belarus, that event was COVID-19, but the outrage had been growing long before then. In the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, corruption and oligarchy have plagued the new, post-Soviet states. This phenomenon is alive and well in Belarus, where one man arose to fill the power vacuum in his country. President Alexander Lukashenka has run the Republic of Belarus since 1994 and has retained power through multiple fraudulent elections, control of the military, and silencing political opponents.
As COVID was spreading rapidly throughout his country, Lukashenka was unprepared for the further toll it would take on his public image. He promoted pseudoscientific conspiracies and downplayed the seriousness of the virus, saying that “97% of our people go through this illness without symptoms.” He called the disease “psychosis” and suggested that Belarusians protect themselves by drinking vodka and visiting the sauna. This lack of leadership caused Belarusians to question his authority at a critical moment in his political career.
In August’s presidential election, Lukashenka faced an unlikely challenger: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. A 38-year-old former English teacher and mother of two, her political career began when her husband, presidential candidate Sergei Tsikhanousky, was thrown in prison. Tsikhanouskaya saw no choice but to take her husband’s place on the ballot. Lukashenka was immediately dismissive of her candidacy, saying, “Our Constitution is not suitable for a woman. Our society is not ready to vote for a woman.” But in the weeks before the election, Tsikhanouskaya and her party held massive rallies and energized Belarusians both young and old.
The election results were predictable: Lukashenka “won” with an astounding 80.1% of the vote. This was hardly the first time he has rigged a vote. The results were quickly discredited by the democratic world and accepted by other dictatorships. Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee to Lithuania for fear of arrest, but the sham election only energized people further. Hundreds of thousands marched in Minsk in the following days, with similar actions occurring daily ever since. The protestors have ditched Belarus’s current, Soviet-inspired national flag and instead embraced the tricolour, red-and-white flag that flew over Belarus from 1991-1995.
In response, Lukashenka sought to intimidate using beatings and mass arrests by the OMON special police force, but the Belarusian people have remained resilient. It’s difficult to maintain order when the people aren’t on your side. Since then, Tsikhanouskaya has met with many European leaders to discuss the situation in her country and won the 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Lukashenka launched a new “All Belarusian People’s Assembly,” but it has been widely mocked as a propaganda stunt that doesn’t represent most citizens. In the meantime, Belarusians keep protesting and resisting. We’ll have to see how this story ends. But for now, it appears this is not just a moment, but a movement.
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