PROTESTS CONTINUE IN BELARUS AFTER CONTENTIOUS PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

Belarus

By Alex Pollock

Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of Belarus, said on Monday (17 August) he would be ready to hold new elections and hand over power after a constitutional referendum, an attempt to pacify mass protests and strikes that pose the biggest challenge yet to his rule. (Reuters)

The Election

Belarus – an Eastern European country bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia – has experienced several violent protests since the 9 August presidential election saw long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko win yet another term. Mr Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and has been referred to as “Europe’s last dictator.” The election was widely believed to have been rigged by Mr Lukashenko who defeated opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with 80% of the vote.

Concerns over corruption started long before election day, as several opposition leaders were detained ahead of the vote. Ms Tikhanovskaya was declared as a candidate after her husband was detained. No independent observers were invited to oversee the election, and an internet blackout that lasted several days preceded the vote.

Belarusian authorities approved the election results, denying any tampering. Ms Tikhanovskaya disputed the results before fleeing to Lithuania, where she has continued to speak out against the results.

Protests

While Mr Lukashenko has built his support over the last two decades on his tough nationalist ideals such as defending the country from foreign influences and guaranteeing “stability,” his support has been dwindling over the last several months, as citizens have endured increasing corruption and poverty.

Protests over the election results began just one night after they were announced, with thousands of people gathering in the streets of several major cities, including the capital city of Minsk. Over 3,000 people were arrested in Minsk in the violent clashes that saw police forces use tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades on protesters.

Protests continued for several days, with another 3,700 arrests throughout the country. The opposition rallies, which drew over 100,000 people, were countered with support rallies for Mr Lukashenko, which drew approximately 65,000 people. The opposition protests are the largest ever recorded in Belarus since its independence in 1991.

Several of the detained protesters shared videos of the events on social media, which incited further protests, against police brutality. Many friends and family members of those detained gathered outside overcrowded detention centres, while some women marched through the streets dressed in white and carrying roses.

Mr Lukashenko also faced opposition during a rally at a state-owned enterprise. Mr Lukashenko often received the support of state workers in former elections, but he was met with chants of “leave” and “step down” during his speech at the facility. Several workers participated in walk-out strikes to protest diminishing wages, while media companies also experienced employee strikes in protest of increased censorship.

Ms Tikhanovskaya has responded to the protests via video message from Lithuania saying she is ready to step up and run the country as an interim leader until new elections are held.

Mr Lukashenko has since agreed to discuss the possibility of new elections and to hand over power after a constitutional referendum. “We’ll put the changes to a referendum, and I’ll hand over my constitutional powers. But not under pressure or because of the street,” Lukashenko said in an interview quoted by the official Belta news agency.

International Response

Several European Union foreign ministers have agreed to prepare sanctions against Belarusian officials who are “responsible for violence, repression, and the falsification of election records.”

The United Kingdom said it would not accept the election results as foreign secretary Dominic Raab called the actions of Belarusian authorities a “horror of violence.” US President Donald Trump said his administration is following the “terrible” situation closely.

Meanwhile, Mr Lukashenko has been in conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Mr Putin promised to assist in the event of any external military threat. The two men have also spoken about how to handle the pressure the republic is being put under from “outside influences.” Despite talks, there is no evidence that Russia will immediately involve itself in Belarus’ affairs. While Mr Lukashenko’s opposition is not anti-Russia, it is also not pro-EU. The current discontent voiced by protesters is that of conditions inside Belarus and the issue of election rigging.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev (a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College), in an article for The National Interest, states: “While it has been overshadowed by subsequent events, it bears remembering that the US and Russia found common cause in ensuring a ‘soft landing’ following the Georgian Rose Revolution in 2003. We also have the example of the initial deal worked out by the EU-3 in Ukraine—before it was overtaken by events on the Maidan. If an opportunity emerges to facilitate [Mr] Lukashenko’s departure under terms that Moscow can accept, that is an option that we [the US] —and our European partners—should embrace.”

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

A Christian contact within Belarus has shared some insights regarding the current situation in the country: “It is quite tense; protests are continuing throughout the country. They are largely peaceful, especially after the initial violence. People are quite fearful, but in many ways, Christians have become bolder, less fearful. Especially from smaller church communities, they are joining protesters in the street and they are praying and singing and sharing. They are trying to promote peace. We are a peaceful nation and we do not want war and violence.”

Belarus’ religious landscape is like many other Eastern European countries, with the Orthodox Church dominating society. Over 80% of the population identifies as Orthodox, with just under 2% registered as evangelical Christians. Out of the almost 90% of the population that claims some sort of religious affiliation, less than half relate their religious identity to personal faith. Religious identity is more often viewed as a part of social or political affiliation.

One way the Church has been able to show up in society is through activism. After the implementation of a law signed by Mr Lukashenko in 2002 that further restricted the Church’s ability to gather, several faith groups participated in protests in Minsk calling for reforms of the law. Mr Lukashenko formerly referred to himself as an “Orthodox atheist,” creating a religious environment like that of soviet Russia.

While the constitution currently grants religious freedom in Belarus, the government has widely restricted religious activity in practice. All religious denominations are required to be registered with the government, a process that highly favours Orthodox groups. Protestant groups are rarely granted registration, making church growth difficult. All religious gatherings must also be approved and are required to take place in approved buildings. This restriction makes it difficult for protestant groups to grow, as home churches and bible studies are a common way for the church to meet in restricted countries.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission has appealed to the Belarusian government to repeal the registration requirement, citing current practices that are in violation of rights guaranteed by the country’s constitution.

Please pray with us:

  • For Mr Lukashenko to be willing to hear the concerns of his citizens, and to be prepared to make the necessary changes, without resorting to violence
  • For international leaders to respond wisely to the situation
  • For believers to continue to boldly share their faith and hope in Christ

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IMAGE:

REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

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