The authoritarian ruler of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has been facing massive protests since last Sunday (August 9), when a controversial presidential vote showed him winning by a landslide. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in capital Minsk, demanding that their dictator of more than a quarter century step down.
Lukashenko, 65, who has been running the East European country since 1994, has sought help from Russian President Vladimir Putin for tiding over what has been described as the most vulnerable period of his dictatorship.
Lukashenko’s iron grip over Belarus
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus became a sovereign nation, and its first presidential elections were held in 1994. Lukashenko, who worked as the director of a collective farm during the Soviet period and served in the Soviet Army, won the polls.
After coming to power, Lukashenko solidified his control over Belarus’s legislature, judiciary and media, and used the KGB spy apparatus inherited from Soviet predecessors to crush dissent. After 1994, Lukashenko claimed victory in five consecutive national polls, despite criticism that the elections were unfair.
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The strongman was able to remain in power thanks to generous support from Russia in the form of cheap oil and gas supplies, and by avoiding the tumultuous privatisation route that many post-Soviet countries adopted.
However, in the months before his sixth election on Sunday, Lukashenko faced widespread criticism for his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The leader had dismissed Covid-19 fears as “psychosis”, and urged people to drink vodka and go to the sauna to stay healthy.
Sunday’s disputed vote
After elections were held on August 9, polling officials said Lukashenko had won 80 per cent of the vote, to the dismay of several Belarusian voters who were hoping for an upset.
A day later, Lukashenko’s main challenger, 37-year-old former teacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, urged voters not to organise anti-government protests – a message that many believe was coerced. On Tuesday, Tsikhanouskaya fled Belarus to neighbouring Lithuania, where she said an ultimatum involving her family caused her to leave.
Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, a pro-democracy blogger barred from elections, has been in jail in Belarus since May. From Lithuania, Tsikhanouskaya challenged the election results, saying she had won by 60 to 70 per cent in many precincts, and asked for a recount.
Since the results were announced, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in capital Minsk every day. The leaderless demonstrations, largely peaceful, have been met with a ferocious crackdown– including severe beatings, stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets– that has caused further resentment against the ruling government.
How Lukashenko has reacted
For Lukashenko, the countrywide protests are being seen as the most sustained challenge to his presidency since he first took over 26 years ago. Thousands among the pro-democracy demonstrators are factory workers, who traditionally formed Lukashenko’s support base. Belarus’s ambassador to Slovakia has also expressed solidarity with protesters, as have members of the police force and the state-run media.
The United States and the European Union have both condemned the post-election violence, and talks of imposing sanctions against Belarusian officials are underway.
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Lukashenko has responded by mending ties with his country’s main ally, Russia, and on Saturday spoke to Putin on phone. Belarus-Russia relations had recently turned sour – in 2019, Lukashenko expelled the Russian ambassador after accusing Moscow of treating Belarus like a vassal state, and last month had 32 private Russian military contractors arrested on charges of planning to stage riots ahead of the presidential vote. Russia had also scaled back subsidies to Belarus.
While Russia was yet to confirm as of Sunday that it would provide Belarus military support, analysts expect Kremlin to protect its interests in Belarus – which hosts pipelines that carry Russian oil and gas to the West, and which acts as Russia’s buffer zone with NATO and the EU.
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