In 1966, just two short years before his life would be taken by the infuriated opposition, Martin Luther King, Jr. said in an interview, when asked about “Black Power,” that “a riot is the language of the unheard” (“A riot…”). Though King spoke this about African-Americans fighting to gain their human rights in a country that oppressed them for centuries, the sentiment remains an accurate and important assertion in the world of democracy. Protests broke out in the United States over the summer of 2020, signaling that the American people were no longer comfortable standing by as police violently kill and brutalize the people they are sworn to protect. Violence perpetrated by government agencies and the subsequent lack of discipline to officers displayed to Americans that they could not be protected by democratic institutions.
But this experience is not exclusive to America. We are seeing people in other countries take to the streets with signs and chants in protest of the injustices they experience in their daily lives. The people of Belarus are at the forefront of this civil disobedience as President Alexander Lukashenko was sworn in for his sixth term on September 23rd, 2020. Thousands of Belarusians took to the streets of the capital of Minsk protesting President Lukashenko’s inauguration that took place with little public knowledge (Karmanau). Police have arrested hundreds and injured countless more by methods of dispersal with water cannons, batons, rubber bullets, and tear gas. Videos circulating in the news and on social media show both men and women with bloody injuries to their heads (“Belarus: Mass…”). Since the start of protests in August, thousands of protesters have been detained and injured, while several have died.
What exactly are the Belarusians protesting about Lukashenko’s rule, potentially as a result of his vastly overstayed welcome in the presidency? How does the experience of the Belarusians point to a faltering illusion of democracy? The people of Belarus are speaking out against Lukashenko’s entrenchment in oppressive authoritarianism, made obvious by executive aggrandizement and strategic election manipulation. Lukashenko is gradually destroying the potential for democracy in Belarus.
At its independence, Belarus technically had a Constitution with a democratic framework. However, communist leaders maintained power continually. In 1994, Alexander Lukashenko ran against the incumbent and capitalized his presidential platform on “fighting corruption and re-establishing close ties with Russia” (“Belarus country profile”). To the public, Lukashenko was a populist elected by “the most credible vote ever held in Belarus” (Aslund). Lukashenko made good on his promise to reconnect with Russia, and within a few years of his election, Lukashenko was running a government characterized by heavy reliance on the already feared authoritarian country.
With a 1996 referendum to the Constitution, Lukashenko obtained expanded presidential power, and the reconstituted National Assembly could exercise very little authority to balance this power, causing “checks and balances…to devolve into deadlock and dysfunction” (Levitsky and Ziblatt). Moving forward, Lukashenko shaped the electoral process so that he could continue to run for president, securing the presidency in every election since 1994. Lukashenko’s calculated actions mimic executive aggrandizement, in which “elected executives weaken checks on executive power… the disassembling of institutions that might challenge the executive is done through legal channels, often using newly elected constitutional assemblies or referenda” (Bermeo 10-11). The primary pitfall of executive aggrandizement is that it brings about authoritarian change under the guise of democratic-like changes. In doing so, outside institutions have fewer grounds on which to intervene.
The most recent protests in Belarus began after the August 2020 election that reeked of improper and unfair practices, with Lukashenko supposedly winning a staggering 80% of votes. Bermeo asserts that instances such as these are no longer blatant election-day fraud, but rather an amalgamation of strategic election manipulation that so often pairs with executive aggrandizement. Election manipulation can manifest in multiple ways, including “hampering media access, using government funds for incumbent campaigns, keeping opposition candidates off the ballot… changing electoral rules to favor incumbents, and harassing opponents” (Bermeo 13). Early in his presidency, Lukashenko took to altering electoral rules, and his most recent approach to election manipulation has been a suppression of the media. Human rights organizations recognize his regular behaviors of “suppressing free speech, muzzling the press and denying the opposition access to state media” (“Belarus country profile.”). With state-controlled TV being the main source of news media, Lukashenko has been able to silence his opposition in election years and beyond. Furthermore, prior to the 2020 election, Lukashenko’s political opponent Siarhei Tikhanovskaya was jailed, compelling his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to take up the opposition to Lukashenko. Each of these signals a commitment to silencing the people and his political counterparts.
When discussing his 2020 election, Lukashenko asserted that “‘we didn’t ask anyone to recognize or not recognize our election…the important thing is that it’s in accordance with the Constitution’” (Karmanau). He furthermore said that he could not leave the presidency in the midst of the global crisis of the pandemic because Belarus required security and consensus. Lukashenko’s calculated approach to executive aggrandizement and political gaslighting has made it so that these unfair elections can continually put him in power.
To add further insult to injury, Lukashenko’s response to the COVID-19 mimicked a level of dismissiveness only comparable to American leaders. Lukashenko chalked the pandemic up to “mass psychosis” and advised his countrymen to simply “enjoy a traditional sauna or drink vodka ‘to poison the virus’” (Ilyushina). With over 67,000 COVID cases and over 500 deaths, Lukashenko’s handling of the pandemic only stands to worsen his standing with the Belarusian public. Problematic though the statement may be on its own, it worsens in severity considering Lukashenko justified his reelection partially on the basis of the country needing security and consensus. The Belarusian people see through Lukashenko’s steps toward heightening his executive authority, thus their willingness to take to the streets in protest. Like other protesting bodies across the world, the people are relentless in the face of blatant erosion of democracy.
Aslund, Anders. “Europe’s last dictator: the rise and (possible) fall of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.” Atlantic Council, 9 August 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/europes-last-dictator-the-rise-and-possible-fall-of-alexander-lukashenko/ . Accessed 7 October 2020.
“Belarus Country Profile.” BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-17941131, Accessed 24 September 2020.
“Belarus: Mass protests after Lukashenko sworn in.” BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54262953, Accessed 24 September 2020.
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, January 2016, pp. 5-19.
Ilyushina, Mary, and Rob Picheta. “Belarus President dismissed Covid-19 as ‘psychosis.’ Now he says he caught it.” CNN, 28 July 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/28/europe/alexander-lukashenko-coronavirus-infection-intl/index.html. Accessed 7 October 2020.
Karmanau, Yuras. “Over 360 more detained in Belarus in protests against leader.” ABCNews, Associated Press, 23 September 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/360-detained-belarus-protests-leader-73214987, Accessed 24 September 2020.
Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. “How a Democracy Dies.” Excerpt from How Democracies Die, The New Republic, 7 December 2017.
Hello Grace, this is such an interesting topic for a blog post! I am not up to date on what is happening in Belarus so I appreciate the chance to learn about protests and democratic backsliding occurring there. Given that democratic erosion has been occurring for decades without much resistance, it is interesting that this is the year where mass protests are happening. I think it just goes to show how difficult it can be to recognize and mobilize around backsliding until it is harder to reverse. Given that we are seeing a government crackdown on the protests, I am curious to see what will happen in the future. Will the government successfully quell the protests or will they serve as a catalyst towards democratic consolidation in Belarus? I also liked the comparison you made between Belarus and the United States that really makes it clear that state violence against its citizens is something that does happen in the US that should not be normalized. It also emphasizes that citizens are sensing an erosion of democracy and the importance of protests in protecting democracy. I think Belarus is an example of how the pandemic has led to an awakening in many countries around the world and helped people realize the ways in which their countries are failing to support and protect them.
Grace—your post on democratic erosion in Belarus provides a really comprehensive overview of the political factors that have stoked the ongoing protests in the country. Personally, while I have heard about the protests, I appreciated the opportunity to read an analysis that clearly lays out their underlying causes, as well as why we should be concerned about the possibility of severe democratic erosion in the country. Your argument that Lukashenko’s actions match Nancy Bermeo’s definitions of executive aggrandizement and strategic election manipulation really clarifies what is at stake here, as it situates the current political climate in Belarus in established political theory. I thought your outline of the actions Lukashenko has taken to expand his power, such as reducing the authority of the National Assembly and suppressing free speech and the press, really strengthened your argument. It would be interesting to examine why these protests started recently, even though Lukashenko has been taking measures to undermine democracy in Belarus for decades; how were the conditions in 2020 particularly conducive to the rise of mass protests, compared to past years? I would also like to know more about the protests themselves: what do they hope to accomplish, and is there a possibility that ongoing political unrest can change the trajectory of the nation’s politics?
One of many aspects I find fascinating about Lukashenko’s response to the ongoing pro-democracy protests is the elevation of the role of his youngest son Nikolai. As the protests gained momentum, videos and photos were released by Belarusian state media showing the 15-year-old taking on a pronounced politico-military role. One video showed him flying in a helicopter over a protest in downtown Minsk dressed up in full military garb and holding an assault rifle. Another series of images showed him in discussion with his father, both sitting at a large government meeting table again with an assault rifle laying next to Nikolai. While we have not thoroughly discussed succession of power in the context of authoritarian regimes in this class, it is very interesting to see President Lukashenko wield his teenaged son as a tool to signal that the Lukashenko family not only rules now, but will continue to rule far into the future. The image of the young Nikolai as a successor figure to his father seems to be a direct state tactic to counter the point you present in your article about an intensive response by younger citizens to blatant democratic erosion through protests.
Grace, your breakdown of Lukashenko’s power solidification is fantastic, especially your analysis of how suppression in state-media effectively forced the opposition to be silent (until now, of course). I also really enjoyed how you analyzed the various methods of executive aggrandizement that occurred with constitutional changes to favor Lukashenko, eliminated checks and balances, and gave favorable elections to incumbents. Despite how suppressed the media of Belarus may have been, the people were able to recognize the injustices happening before them and their protests clearly show this. Very great read considering I went in with a basic idea of Belarus’s situation at most, definitely allowed for people not already in the know to get caught up to speed.
Grace, I really enjoyed your take on democratic erosion and the protests that have been occurring in Belarus. Demonstrations and riots have been taken place ever since the election on August 9th that was considered fraudulent by foreign officials. After a lot of my own research I learned that human rights violations in the country are systemic, with the regime suppressing freedoms of speech, assembly, and association, subverting many political freedoms, and many holding political prisoners. Poor economic exacerbate the struggle faced by Belarussians. It’s preposterous to think that following the covid outbreak Lukashenko dismissed the dangers that could result from the virus and stated that “Vodka and Saunas solve everything”. I agree that Lukashenko’s handling of the pandemic only stands to worsen his standing with the Belarusian public. Ironically, Lukashenko was originally elected in 1994 due to his anti-corruption platform, he continues using fear and empty promises in order to get his way. Although the people of Belarus want a more democratic society yet, Lukashenko is using executive aggrandizement and violating a lot of human rights in order to keep his power in an autocratic regime (Wilson 2011). I like how you compared Belarus to other countries such as the U.S having experience fighting for their human rights. Why do you think America hasn’t stepped in to help Belarus if they have experienced people’s rights being suppressed?
: First off, I like the comparative application you make between Belarus and the United
States. Specifically, about how certain mechanisms of democratic accountability have seemingly failed in
recent days – like the judicial system holding police officers accountable. One inquiry I had, was as to
what spurs the mobilization of individuals? That is to say what changes and causes a previously
apathetic population to protest? We know that police brutality in the United States is a new problem,
yet it has only recently come to light and elicited such mobilization. In Belarus, the historically apathetic
population only recently mobilized against the fraudulent elections. So, I ask, what changes? I believe
the role of civilian and civil society protests and mobilization is a critical component of revitalizing