Europe’s Last Dictatorship: Is There Finally Hope For Belarus?

Sunday, 9th August 2020, saw a familiar narrative repeated in Belarusian history. Alexander Lukashenko, better known as ‘Europe’s Last Dictator,’ celebrated another landslide victory. He is now set to begin his sixth presidential term. For a man who has been in power since 1994, this is not unheard of, and there is no sign that Lukashenko intends to give up his power any time soon.

But this decision may not be his to make. In the face of discontent and protest, Lukashenko’s power is diminishing. For the first time in decades, this year’s election was met with a genuine threat from the stay-at-home mother cum political activist Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Despite Lukashenko’s sustained pledge to Belarusian stability, everything has become uncertain. Could this be the end of Europe’s last dictatorship, or will this glimmer of hope be engulfed by the dictator’s iron grip?

Alexander Lukashenko is the first and only Belarusian president. He has enjoyed 26 years of relatively undisturbed power, having shaped the country as an authoritarian state. A 2004 referendum abolished the constitution’s two-term presidential limit, and political opponents are in constant danger of arrest or exile. According to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Belarus ranks 153 out of 180 nations.

Yet this year’s election has been accompanied by several new threats, the most significant of which being Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Despite being defeated by the president in Sunday’s election, she refuses to believe that Lukashenko genuinely won 80% of the vote.

Tsikhanouskaya claims that widespread vote-rigging was at play, a common practice in Belarusian politics. According to independent exit polls led by foreign embassies, Tsikhanouskaya received 76.69% of the vote, with Lukashenko scraping up a mere 6.25%. It is no wonder that the opposition considers herself “the winner of this election.”

What made Tsikhanouskaya stand out as a challenger was her credentials. The 37-year-old former teacher was a stay-at-home mother before the arrest of her activist husband, Sergei Tsikhanouskaya. She sent her children abroad and began campaigning for the presidential seat in place of her husband.  

July saw the largest rally held in Belarus since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. Approximately 25,000 gathered in Minsk’s Bangalore Square alone to support Tsikhanouskaya – an unmistakable sign that this year’s election was going to be different.

In response, the authoritarian state attempted to destabilise the opposition by speaking of a “revolution”. Tsikhanouskaya’s answer? “We just want fair elections. What does a revolution have to do with it?”

Tsikhanouskaya, then, seems to represent a fresh, emerging face in Belarusian politics. Like many others in the country, she is an ordinary citizen whose disaffection towards the government has reached breaking point. She has put everything on the line to secure a more optimistic, democratic future for Belarus.

Even more significant is what Oliver Carroll describes as her ‘unmistakably feminist, modern slant.’ Veronika Tsepkalo – the wife of a would-be candidate – and campaign manager Maria Kolesnikova helped Tsikhanouskaya to form an inspiring team of women ready to take on a male-dominated political sphere.

These women did not prepare a detailed manifesto or vast programme of future policies. Indeed, Tsikhanouskaya did not even intend to keep the position for more than six months. The goal was simple: oust Lukashenko, call fresh, fair elections and free all political prisoners.

The cracks in Lukashenko’s authority are beginning to show, with thousands of citizens taking to the streets on Sunday evening in protest. It, too, seems that ordinary citizens are beginning to recognise the power they have in their own struggle for freedom.  

Protests broke out across the country in quick succession – not only in the capital of Minsk, but also in areas such as Brest, Gomel and Grodno. This is not the fight of a niche, political group. Discontent is widespread and arguably always has been, the difference now is that citizens are no longer held back by fear.

Lukashenko’s ‘popularity’ is evidently diminishing in all corners of the country. This is not surprising considering his non-existent response to the coronavirus pandemic, the result of which will only help to exacerbate years of economic stagnation. Lukashenko’s attempt to play off the virus, suggesting it can be cured by drinking vodka, has resulted in 70,000 cases and nearly 600 deaths.

A ravenous virus, far-reaching demonstrations and police violence do little to support Lukashenko’s political brand of stability. Belarusians are fed up with a government that does little to support its citizens and infringes upon their basic rights. The thought of having to endure this for yet another presidential term has triggered a watershed moment in Belarusian history where anything is possible.  

External and internal forces are working together to place pressure on Europe’s last dictator. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has demanded the publication of election results, and the country has never seen such a high level of popular protest from its own citizens.

For now, Lukashenko has guaranteed his electoral success. But a situation in Belarus is emerging that has never been seen before. Citizens have realised their important role – not in the election but in what comes after. Protests, pressure and perseverance will continue to threaten the volatility of Belarus’ political climate. Belarusian citizens are finally giving us hope that, this time, their country’s narrative may look different.

Words by Katie McCarthy

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