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.