In recent years, the Republic of Belarus has become a pertinent example of democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe. Nowhere was this clearer than during the 2020 Belarusian presidential election season and the reactions from both the incumbent government and Belarusian citizens to Alexander Lukashenko’s controversial sixth consecutive election to the position.
Beginning in May of 2020, protests occurred in Belarus against Alexander Lukashenko, who had been the head of Belarus since 1994 and had been referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” as part of a pro-democracy movement in the country. These protests took place leading up to and during the 2020 Belarussian presidential election, when Lukashenko tried to gain a sixth term in office. However, candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya received approximately 60-70% of the actual vote and thus created the Coordination Council for those who believed the official election results to be false.
Because of the results of what many believed to be a rigged election, there were numerous protests in major cities of Belarus such as Minsk, Brest, and Gomel, where those protesting were violently treated by authorities; in a statement by the United Nations, there were more than 450 documented cases of beating, torture, mal-treatment, and abuse and rape of women and children during these protests. The aggressive crack-down of the Lukashenko government against the protests is one of the most obvious ways in which Belarus is experiencing major democratic backsliding.
Moreover, thousands of Belarussian students boycotted the start of their 2020 school year in response to the election results; in Minsk, students were seen waving opposition flags, staging marches, and collecting signatures outside various Minsk colleges as a way to call for Lukashenko to step down. Video footage exists of students in Minsk being dragged away from a crowd and detained by masked security forces. Authorities also detained seven journalists who were covering the protests in what the government claimed were “document checks.”
Additional protests occurred at two power plants, the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant and the Minsk Tractor Works, which represent Lukashenko’s Soviet-inspired economic model, as well as at the Belarus Hi-Tech Park. During these protests, United Nations human rights investigators reported human rights abuses, which were denied by the government, and protestors were described by Lukashenko as “rats” who are backed by foreign powers according to Reuters (2020). Moreover, Lukashenko had members of a would-be opposition party prosecuted and jailed on the claim that they had been attempting to seize power illegally and were a national security threat. Thus, not only can citizens of Belarus not freely express themselves through the right to publicly assemble and protest, but there is also essentially no chance that any opposition party would be able to present candidates to participate in a democratic election process if Lukashenko maintains his presidency.
In response to the grave human rights violations and corruption exhibited by the Belarussian government following election day, countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have imposed travel bans on Lukashenko as well as 29 other government officials. The European Union has also denounced the Lukashenko government’s systemic abuse of peaceful protesters. In fact, 27 European Union foreign ministers reportedly agreed that action must be taken against the Belarussian government, action that will involve holding individuals responsible for the falsification of the presidential election and human rights abuses against protesters facing asset freezes and travel bans, and even sanctions, which must be agreed upon unanimously by the states in the European Union.
The United States has also been considering imposing sanctions on seven individuals who were believed to have played a part in falsifying the election results and in exhibiting violence towards protesters. According to a senior United States Department official, as reported by Reuters (2020), this was done in part to “show that when people both steal elections and commit violence against peaceful protesters exercising fundamental freedoms of assembly and speech that there needs to be some accountability.” More recently in August 2021, the US government announced new sanctions against Belarus as well as its allies in line with a new executive order to make it easier to impose costs on the Belarussian regime. The United States’ Treasury Department reported that it was sanctioning a total of 23 individuals and 21 groups linked to the Belarussian government through either the brutal crackdown on protests, the financing of the authoritarian regime, or the forced landing of a flight in May to arrest a member of the opposition. The United States’ response poses a contrast to Russia’s, as last year Putin remarked that he would be willing to set up a police reserve consisting of riot police and the national guard to send into Belarus if necessary for security reasons involving the protests. Putin’s willingness to assist Lukashenko this past presidential election season is not surprising given the countries’ mutual Soviet history and general political alliance, but notably demonstrates a concerning ability for external forces to interfere with the Belarussian people’s right to the freedom of protest and expression.
The backlash towards the Lukashenko government by its citizenry and international community, and the violent retaliation against protesters of the election results, reveal that regardless of what action is taken to alleviate authoritarianism in Belarus, democratic states worldwide believe that the state should make a move toward democracy so that Belarussians may have truly free and fair elections.