Mass protests erupted in the former-Soviet republic following the announcement that President Alexander Lukashenko won Sunday’s presidential election with 80.2% of the vote whilst his rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, received only 9.9%.
Turnout is said to have reached 84.05%, a fall from 87.22% in the 2015 election. It is important to note that these are all government figures and most critics believe such results are fraudulent and that Tikhanovskaya was the real winner.
In the lead up to the election, western media outlets took to calling Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, “Europe’s last dictator” following the arrest of those who raised enough signatures to challenge him in this round of elections. This included Ms Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, whose arrest prompted his wife to run in his stead.
Lukashenko underestimated Tikhanovskaya who went on to draw large crowds to her political rallies and inspire a hope for change. Following the results of the election, protestors took to the streets on Sunday evening and images of violence committed by the police trickled out of the country – inhibited by internet blackouts across Belarus.
Protests were not isolated to Minsk and spread to many other towns. This week has been marked by the slow reveal of the extent of police and special forces (OMON) violence against protestors: stories of rubber bullets, water cannons, as well as brutal beatings and tortures as arrested protestors were forced to kneel for hours on end. Over 1000 protestors are said to have been arrested following the protests.
Striking images came out of Belarus during the week: one video showed what Twitter users called Belarus’ own “Tank Man”; a room full of factory workers all standing up when asked who voted for Tikhanovskaya; as well as an ex-special forces member burning his uniform.
Lukashenko claimed that the calls for protests came from Poland and Great Britain, dubbing those out in the street “sheep who don’t know what they are doing”. As protests started to fizzle out during the week, it was women who marched through the capital and kept the momentum up, chanting “shame” as they went.
Ms Tikhanovskaya, who had made sure to hide her children before her presidential campaign with her husband still in a Belarussian prison, went missing on the eve of the election. She soon emerged in Lithuania where she reportedly hid her children, in a video reading off a slip of paper asking protestors to leave the streets. She said: “I hope none of you will ever have to make the decision which I have had to make, ” leading many to suspect that the government pressured the candidate to leave.
In a joint statement from High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell and Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, the European Union responded to the events of August 9th in writing “only upholding human rights, democracy, and free and fair elections will guarantee stability and sovereignty in Belarus”. The EU has been criticised for its lack of a stronger response; an extraordinary session to discuss Belarus among other issues is set to take place today.
The most recent images, as of Friday evening, show members of OMON special forces facing protesters bearing banners and holding the white-red-white Belarussian flag used in the early 1990s rather than the red-green-white flag which protestors have called “Lukashenko’s flag”. The images of central Minsk show the officers spaced out, holding their riot shields at rest, allowing protestors to hug them and present flowers at their feet.
The special forces have always been the most loyal to Lukashenko – assured by a high salary which an average Belarussian may only dream of – and thus this behaviour leads commentators to question whether this is the beginning of the end for “Europe’s last dictators”.