“Europe’s Last Dictator” Sparks Protest in Belarus Following Contested Presidential Election
Belarus has been gripped with violent protests caused by the controversial re-election of president Alexander Lukashenko. According to CNN, the country’s Central Election Commission announced that Alexander Lukashenko won with 80.23% of the vote, while opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya stood at 9.9%.
Tikhanovskaya has demanded a recount of the votes, a request denied by the government, CNN reports. Tikhanovskaya has since fled the country to an undisclosed location with several of her officials, citing fear for her safety. Apparent corruption and ballot-stuffing was brought to the attention of Tikhonovsky and the international community through the work of NGOs on the ground. These organizations have stated that the true results are essentially reversed, with Tikhanovskaya winning 80% of the vote. There are also reports of unusually high discrepancies between votes counted and overall voter turnout.
According to Time Magazine, the protests that began on August 9 are the largest challenge to Lukashenko’s 26-year presidency, with some protests drawing in crowds of over 200,000 Belorussians to the capital of Minsk.
So far, an estimated 7,000 people have been arrested by the Belorussian state, with some protestors being killed and beaten by police, Time reports. Lukashenko’s government has come down hard on independent press by revoking the accreditation of several journalists, including some that worked for the BBC and the Associated Press (AP).
In a report from Time Magazine, Lauren Easton, AP’s director of media relations, stated, “The Associated Press decries in the strongest terms this blatant attack on press freedom in Belarus. AP calls on the Belarusian government to reinstate the credentials of independent journalists and allow them to continue reporting the facts of what is happening in Belarus to the world.”
This suppression of opposition and attacks on the free press, which are not uncommon under Lukashenko’s rule, has led to many world leaders to call out the Belorussian president, Reuters reports. Foreign ministers at the European Union are seeking sanctions against Belarus to pressure President Lukashenko to hold new elections as Tikhanovskaya’s party appealed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel for help. Tikhanovskaya told German newspaper Die Welt, according to Reuters, that Merkel could “contact Lukashenko directly or explain the situation from her point of view to the Russian president.”
According to Reuters, Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu said sanctions should be imposed on officials who helped rig the election, those who ordered the crackdown, and those accused of violence against demonstrators. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who is chairing the Berlin meeting, stated, “The discussion will be important because the level of sanctions, whom to sanction, has to be something that is fully considered,” referring to concerns that sanctions can be challenged in court if not properly prepared. Lukashenko himself is not expected to be sanctioned at this stage.
It seems now that Lukashenko’s fate lies in the hands of the Kremlin, which must decide whether to stick with him. The former Soviet republic of Belarus was the USSR’s closest ally among its satellite states and is now facing what looks to be a long-term political crisis.