In “Europe’s last dictatorship”, President Alexander Lukashenko has been popular and at the same time suppressed his critics. His position as the country’s leader has thus been undisputed – until now.
Every day since the controversial presidential election on August 9, 2020, Belarusians have taken to the streets demanding that Lukashenko step down after 26 years in power.
Although many have protested against the Lukashenko regime in the past, this autumn’s demonstrations are much larger, more enduring and more widespread. Most opposition leaders are either in prison or in exile, but the protest movement lives on.
Weeks of protests have resulted in a preliminary “draw”: Opposition leaders have organized themselves into a “coordination council”, so that they have a unified platform to advance their demands and possibly negotiate with the president. However, Lukashenko controls the state apparatus, including the police and military.
In a closed and unannounced ceremony on Wednesday, September 23, Lukashenko was inaugurated as president for a new term, but secrecy underscored his weak position. The situation is being followed with an arguing eye by Russia in the east and the EU countries in the west. What is really happening in Belarus?
2: A mix of the Soviet Union and Silicon Valley
The former Soviet republic of Belarus, with 9.5 million inhabitants, has retained important features of the Soviet Union’s economic and political system: the state dominates the economy, and it is very difficult to be politically oppositional.
The secret police are still called the KGB, as it was known in the Soviet Union, and have wide powers. Although elections have been held, no elections under Lukashenko have been free and fair, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) .
Freedom of the press is also very limited. State-controlled media dominate the media picture, and independent journalists risk reprisals.
There is also no room for challengers inside the system either. Mr Lukashenko has made sure that everyone in the politically important position is loyal to him.
According to SEARCHFORPUBLICSCHOOLS, the Belarusian economy is a form of modernized planned economy, with a large state-owned sector, especially in industry and agriculture. Because the state has a huge share in the economy – around 70 percent of GDP – many depend on the state to have a job.
Welfare schemes are extensive, health services and education are well developed and accessible to all, and there are small economic differences between people. Belarusians have therefore experienced economic security and stability, which may explain why Lukashenko’s support has long been felt by large sections of the population.
At the same time, Belarus has been called Eastern Europe’s Silicon Valley. In addition to the Soviet-like economy, a growing IT environment exists. In an attempt at economic modernization, the authorities have made the IT sector a top economic priority, and a high-tech park has been established outside the capital Minsk. Attempts at economic modernization have nevertheless not been sufficient, and the economy is stagnating completely.
With economic stagnation as a backdrop, and a presidential election planned for August, the corona epidemic came to Belarus in the spring of 2020, and Lukashenko took some elections that he later probably regretted.
3: Lukashenko’s first mistake: ignored the corona pandemic
In the face of the corona epidemic, Lukashenko chose to completely ignore the risk. He described the corona as a “mass psychosis”, let the hockey season continue, and held a grand parade on May 9 to mark the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II. In the absence of measures, the number of cases of infection accelerated. Lukashenko himself was infected, but not seriously ill.
Instead, the people volunteered on their own, and various organizations raised $ 300,000 for medical equipment. Civil society organized itself during the corona crisis.
Poorer finances and non-management of the coronavirus made Lukashenko less and less popular. Earlier in 2020, an unofficial poll showed as little as three percent support for President Lukashenko. The real number was probably higher, but indicated low support anyway, and memes with the nickname “Sasja 3%” abounded on social media (Sasja is a short form of the president’s first name Aleksandr).
With growing dissatisfaction, the presidential election campaign became unusually lively, but President Lukashenko prevented many of his opponents from running for office. There were three prominent challengers, but Valery Tsepkalo fled the country and Viktor Babariko and “YouTuber” Sergei Tikhanovsky were imprisoned. Tikhanovsky became known for his popular videos of “real news” from Belarus as an alternative to state-controlled news. Here he traveled around the country and talked to ordinary Belarusians about their everyday problems.
But it was another person, a woman, who should stand out the most in the election.
4: Lukashenko’s second mistake: underrated women
When Tikhanovsky was jailed in May, two days after announcing his presidential candidacy, a figure emerged who would soon gather the opposition and large crowds: The blogger’s wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, ran in his place. Sveta, as she is often called, is a former English teacher and was at this time a stay-at-home mother of two with no political experience or political ambitions. The regime probably allowed Tikhanovskaya to stand for election because Lukashenko did not see her as a real challenger. In addition, the election would gain greater legitimacy by having her on the ballot paper.
Sveta’s popularity grew, but that did not frighten Lukashenko. In the election campaign, he stated, among other things, that Belarus’s constitution is not for women, because it gives the president so much power, and called Tikhanovskaya “a little girl who does not know what she is doing”.
Sveta’s growing number of supporters obviously disagreed. Thousands cheered for Tikhanovskaya at her campaign events, where she lined up with her close campaign staff Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo. Later, white-clad Belarusian women carrying flowers led the protests at street level, and 73-year-old great-grandmother Nina became an icon of the protest movement.