Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

If you don’t keep up on international politics with a hawk eye, it would be very easy to overlook Belarus. This tiny landlocked country in Eastern Europe is populated by only just over 9 million people and since independence from the USSR in 1990 it has had little political upheaval. However, when you look into the reasons why the country has stayed relatively quiet on the international scene, a much more insidious side of the country and its incumbent regime are revealed.

The current President Alexander Lukashenko has held office unopposed since 1994, and acts as a dictator, whose legitimacy comes from fraudulent and rigged elections. The current unrest in the country has been moved into action by the result of the presidential election on the 9th August, and the events leading up to it. Firstly, Lukashenko jailed 2 opposing candidates, and forced one to flee the country. Then a coalition of three women, who were powerful in campaigns of the three men began to lead the protests. The wife of jailed candidate Sergey Tikhanovskaya, Svetlana, registered in place of her husband and toured the country campaigning on an anti-government ticket. She gained a lot of traction due to the national feeling of frustration after 25 years of oppression and a failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On election night, it was announced that Ms Tikhanovskaya had only won less than 10% of the vote, and Lukashenko had won with a landslide of 80%. This sparked mass protest, as the opposition refused to accept the result, and in response the state cracked down with police brutality against protestors and 3000 arrests made on the night of the 9th August. Ms Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee the country to Lithuania for the safety of her children, but in a video address to the nation she said she was willing to lead as an interim President until a fair election could be held. States such as the UK and US have refused to recognise the results of the election, and the EU held an emergency summit on the 19th August to discuss possible sanctions against Belarusian officials.

Now the sequence of events is important to understand, but the human impact of the incumbent regime also needs to be discussed in order to understand the severity of what is happening. Political, civil and legal rights have been ignored and abused throughout Lukashenko’s 25-year rule. Independent political NGO Freedom House releases an annual report on the state of democracy and freedom across the world. They give countries a score out of 100, with 40 of these points coming from political rights, and 60 coming from civil liberties. The higher a country scores, the better the quality of their democracy. In 2019, Belarus scored 19 out of a possible 100 points; which gives them the classification of ‘not free’. In their report on Belarus they detail how in the 2019 parliamentary elections, candidates associated with Lukashenko won every single seat in the lower house. Belarus also has a horrendous human rights track record, with the constitution explicitly banning same sex marriage, and domestic violence being incredibly high. There are currently no laws in Belarus against domestic violence, and the Lukashenko has publicly dismissed the idea as ‘nonsense from the west’. In addition, the lack of employment opportunities has led to many women becoming victims of the international sex trade.

The issues highlighted by Freedom House point to the fact that the protests in Belarus are so much more than just campaigning for a new regime. It should be seen as a nation fighting to gain social and political rights for the first time.