On August 9, 2020, voters across the eastern European country of Belarus went to the polls in a presidential election. The incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, referred to as “Europe’s last dictator”, has held power since 1994 and been accused of limiting electoral and press freedoms during his decades-long reign.
Opposing him was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former english tutor-turned-candidate after her husband, opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, was jailed in May for announcing his intent to challenge Lukashenka in the August election. In his absence, Svetlana emerged as the face of the opposition to Lukashenka, earning the backing of other opposition leaders.
In her campaign across Belarus, her rallies attracted huge crowds — some of the largest in decades for the authoritarian country. Rallying Belarusians behind her calls to improve education and healthcare as well as hold free and fair elections in six months, Under the dictator, Belarus’ economy has stagnated and job prospects for young people are increasingly rare.
Additionally, Lukashenka’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been harshly criticized; in March, instead of implementing lockdown measures to curb the spread of the disease, the president recommended that Belarusians enjoy a trip to the sauna or drink vodka to “poison the virus.”
As the date of the election neared, Lukashenka cracked down on opposition leaders and made efforts to discredit Tikhanovskaya and her campaign. On the eve of the election, the opposition’s campaign manager was arrested and held for several hours. Several weeks earlier, in late July, Belarusian police arrested 33 Russian mercenaries and accused Moscow of attempting to destabilize the country before voting began.
Accusing opposition parties of soliciting these fighters, investigators opened a criminal case against Tikhanovsky, another prominent opposition leader, and the accused mercenaries. At the same time, an Investigative Committee launched another probe that accused Tivkanovskaya’s husband of inciting “social hostility” and violence against state law enforcement.
With the official results of the election giving Tikhanovskaya just 10% of the vote, opposition parties and international observers have cried foul. Even with expectations low going into the election, suspected electoral fraud has sparked protests in cities across Belarus. After submitting a formal complaint to the Central Election Commission, Tikhanovskaya was held in detention for over seven hours before being released. Likely under duress, Tikanhovskaya has fled to Lithuania, and called for peaceful demonstrations.
Since demonstrations broke out on the night of the election, multiple protesters have died and several hundred have been wounded in clashes that saw police forces use live ammunition to dispel crowds. The United Nations raised alarm over this as well, as the arrest of upwards of 6,700 people in connection to the protests. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet pointed to a “disturbing trend of massive arrests in clear violation of international human rights standards,” in her statement on the events in Belarus, but clashes continue. Furthermore, members of the press in Minsk and other cities have had their equipment targeted by police and a dozen journalists have been detained.
On Friday, August 14, workers at many of the state-run factories in Belarus went on strike to show solidarity with the protest movement. Workers in these factories have traditionally made up the core of the President’s base. In response, Lukashenka agreed to release detainees but refused to cater to the protesters’ demand of his resignation. This gesture seems to have had little effect on protesters, who gathered in the tens of thousands for a rally only one week out from the disputed election.
Despite the presence of its mercenary forces in the county, Moscow has denied any interference in Belarus. The Russian Foreign Ministry claims that the military presence was hired by a Belarusian group and en route to Istanbul at the time of arrest. On Friday, August 14, Belarus returned the mercenaries to Russia, but details of their release have not been explained.
Moscow has traditionally been the most important economic and political partnership for Belarus, but recent incidents have destabilized this relationship. As Russia has pushed for greater cooperation or even political unification, Lukashenka’s unwillingness to entertain these proposals has deepened a rift between the two partners. Despite this, it was reported over the weekend that Lukashena had spoken to Russian President Vladamir Putin several times about security assistance from Moscow in the event of an outside military threat.
The European Union was quick to accuse Lukashenka’s government of election meddling and using disproportionate force against protesting civilians. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also raised concerns that the August 9 vote was neither free nor fair and reassured that the United States was closely monitoring the situation. In response to ongoing violence in the country, the EU is scheduled to hold talks on the crisis in Belarus, and UN member-nation Estonia called on the UN Security Council to discuss the issue.
Moving forward, Poland and the three Baltic States have called for new elections and offered to mediate a peaceful resolution, which could mark the beginning of an EU initiative to support Belarus and spur economic growth. As for Russia, the protests have caused Lukashenka to seek the assistance of his larger ally, though EU diplomats see any kind of military action as unlikely given the response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.