On August 9, 2020, Belarus held its presidential election. This is the first time in many decades where the current president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been seriously challenged by an opposition candidate. This election has been criticized from around the globe, but especially in Belarus where many citizens have been protesting the unfair results of the election. Furthermore, the handling of COVID-19 in Belarus has been widely scrutinized and found to be insufficient as Lukashenko in the past described the virus as “mass psychosis.” With this handling of the virus and the results of the unfair elections being disputed, will change finally be seen in Belarus?
Belarus’ President, Alexander Lukashenko, has been the president of Belarus since 1994. Lukashenko has been classified as an authoritarian figure and even by some as “Europe’s last dictator.” Lukashenko has ensured his long grasp on power in Belarus by instituting strong powers to the federal government, including a firm hold on the economy, censoring the media, and oppressing political opponents. These are all major red flags for demonstrations of modern democratic erosion as indicated by Levitsky and Ziblatt. Although Lukashenko has held a firm hold on power for decades now, there has not been serious opposition until this year. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya became a surging favorite coming up the 2020 presidential election as the first real challenge to Lukashenko’s seat. Tsikhanouskava became the voice of those who were tired of the Lukashenko regime and its ever-increasing hold on all matters in Belarus. On election day, the election committee stated that Lukashenko had received around 80% of the vote and won the election. However, this seemed dubious to many around the world and Tsikhanouskava claims to have received 60% of the vote in the first round of elections. As a result, almost all the opposition leaders to Lukashenko have filed complaints to the Central Election Commission to have the standing results of the election to become void.
The press in Belarus has been facing increased censorship since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, both limiting what the press can say and arresting journalists who criticize directly and indirectly the Lukashenko regime’s handling of the pandemic. There have been many reports of the government falsifying infection numbers, deaths, and facts, such as 97% of people are asymptomatic. Lukashenko endorsed the use of vodka and other home remedies for Belarusians who exhibit symptoms. Many of the journalists who work for state ran media already have a huge barrier put between them and what they can report because of Lukashenko’s hold over the media, and now independent journalists are being silenced through imprisonment, such as Sergei Satsuk who criticized Belarus’ health care system in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases. However, even as Lukashenko cracks down on the media and continues to attack its ability to speak freely, journalists and ordinary citizens are turning towards alternatives in order to receive a free form of media. Belarusians are turning towards decentralized forms of media that will allow them to store information on their devices and share it between themselves in close proximity to avoid the censorship that the Belarusian government employs.
Beyond the media censorship and rising criticism of Lukashenko online, Belarusians have been taking to the streets to protest Lukashenko beginning in the spring of this year. Many protestors have been detained by Lukashenko and major political opponents such as Tsikhanouskava have had to flee Belarus due to threats coming from the Lukashenko. Moreover, Lukashenko has been accused of even killing his political rivals and keeping their families silent out of fear. Even as Lukashenko orders the police to crack down on protesters, many refuse to back down and the amount of people who are protesting in Belarus seems to be increasing, especially as people such as Tsikhanouskava encourage Belarusians dissatisfied with Lukashenko to continue to protest peacefully.
Lukashenko exhibits features of leaders who have taken the mantle of democracy and have in return muddied it with their actions. However, unlike other leaders in modern history such has Erdogan in Turkey and Orban in Hungary, Lukashenko has been doing this since 1994, the year when Belarus probably had its only free and fair election. Back in 1994, Lukashenko ran as a populist leader who was an alternative to the old Communist establishment who was left over after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lukashenko was able to exploit his power in a democratic system for 26 years, causing for countless people to be silenced, killed, and oppressed. Finally a change might be coming to Belarus, and as more people flock to the protests, it will be interesting to see how other leaders in the region, such as Vladimir Putin, will respond to the increasing pressure on Lukashenko to step down as the European Union and the United States place pressure and sanctions on his regime.
Works Cited: Åslund, Anders. “Europe’s Last Dictator: The Rise and (Possible) Fall of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.” Atlantic Council, August 19, 2020.  Baydakova, Anna. “Belarus News Media Are Testing Decentralized Tech to Resist Censorship.” Yahoo! Finance. Yahoo!  “Belarus.” Freedom House.  “Belarusian Journalist Arrested for Criticizing President’s Covid-19 Approach: Reporters without Borders.” RSF, March 31, 2020.  Ilyushina, Mary, and Rob Picheta. “This President Said Covid-19 Was ‘Psychosis.’ Now He’s Had It.” CNN. Cable News Network, July 28, 2020.  Karáth, Kata. “Covid-19: How Does Belarus Have One of the Lowest Death Rates in Europe?” The BMJ. British Medical Journal Publishing Group, September 15, 2020.  Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York. Crown, 2019.  Raphelson, Samantha. “Massive Protests Continue In Belarus As Demonstrators Demand Lukashenko Resign,” September 13, 2020.