The Belarusian capital, Minsk, was seized by protests on Sunday night (9.ag.2020) after the announcement that the country’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko, had won a landslide victory in the presidential elections and was on track to remain 5 years in power. Called the “Europe’s last dictator“, Lukashenko has commanded Belarus since 1994. Opponents say the election was just a facade election marked by fraud.
Images transmitted by international networks showed the police launching tear gas, firing rubber bullets, using water cannons and striking protesters. According to the human rights NGO Viasna, at least 220 people were arrested in the protests, including 55 election observers. The government, on the other hand, said about 3,000 people were detained.
Dozens were injured. Viasna says it has reliable information that 1 protester died after being hit by 1 police vehicle. The country’s internet also suffered constant interruptions throughout Sunday, in what was seen as an attempt to weaken the call for protests and the publication of messages criticizing the electoral process.
In addition to Minsk, protests have been reported in about 20 other cities across the country. Experts who follow the political situation in Belarus told European newspapers that the demonstrations appear to have been the largest on record since Lukashenko took over the country’s leadership 26 years ago.
The protests broke out after the state press claimed that Lukashenko had been re-elected with almost 80% of the vote, defeating candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose campaign gave new impetus to the opposition movement in the country.
According to the results released by the country’s electoral commission on Monday (10.10.2020), Lukashenko obtained 80.23% of the votes, while Tikhanovskaya received only 9.9%.
The vote could not be followed by observers from the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), which aims to promote democracy and human rights on the continent. Several European countries, including Germany, criticized the electoral process in Belarus. In the months leading up to the election, Belarusian authorities excluded the candidacies of several opposition leaders.
Tkhanovskaya, 37, was chosen to run after the authorities imposed strong repression against opposition figures, including her husband. Lukashenko’s main rival, Viktor Babariko, was arrested in June on charges of fraud and embezzlement. Despite political inexperience, Tkhanovskaya represented the biggest challenge ever imposed on Lukashenko. Her rallies have drawn some of the largest crowds observed in the country since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The candidacy has given rise to a new informal protest movement.
The authorities’ reaction was to suppress the movement. More than 1,000 protesters have been arrested since the election campaign began in May, according to the NGO Viasna. On Saturday, the day before the election, at least nine members of the Tkhanovskaya campaign were arrested. The candidate herself went into hiding to avoid being arrested.
Journalists were also detained during the campaign, including the DW Alexander Burakov. The country appears in 153rd position in the press freedom ranking of the organization Reporters Without Borders, which includes 180 countries.
More than two decades in power
In power since 1994, Lukashenko, 65, a former Soviet collective farm manager is often labeled as “The last dictator in Europe” by Western and critical publications. Under his management, the impoverished Belarus, which has 9.5 million inhabitants, is regularly cited in reports on human rights abuses.
Before the vote, Lukashenko warned that dissent would not be tolerated and that he would not give up on his “beloved” Belarus. “We are not going to give you the country”, said Lukashenko, referring to his opponents, when speaking to the nation earlier this week.
In the last vote, in 2015, Lukashenko declared winner with 83.5% of the votes. There were no major challengers, and election observers reported irregularities in the vote count.
More recently, Lukashenko has also been criticized for his management of the coronavirus pandemic. In March, he ridiculed the danger posed by the virus as “frenzy” is “psychosis”. Instead of imposing extensive isolation measures, the leader at the time recommended, without any scientific basis, that the population of the impoverished country drink vodka and go to the sauna to fight the coronavirus.
Belarus officially has more than 68,000 cases of covid-19 and about 580 deaths. Critics say the numbers have been manipulated and the real situation is much worse. Lukashenko announced last month that he was infected with the new coronavirus, but had no symptoms. He defends his management of the pandemic and says that a lockdown would have made the economic situation even worse.