By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript
Massive protests that began in the wake of the Aug. 9 presidential election, in which the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko awarded himself an 80 per cent victory, have overtaken Belarus. It was a result that has been declared illegitimate by every serious political observer and has led to mass demonstrations.
Often referred to by many in the media as “Europe’s last dictator,” he was even heckled at a post-election rally that was supposed to be full of his core constituency, workers from the rural parts of the country.
The post-election demonstrations have not subsided and seem to be spontaneous. The pre-election protest leaders, including Lukashenko’s main opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, are mostly in exile or in undisclosed locations, and so the crowds that gather in Independence Square in Minsk are entirely self-organized and autonomous.
About 100,000 people have rallied against him weekly in Minsk -- by far the biggest opposition protests of his rule. Women have been at the heart of the protests. Supporters of LGBTQ+ rights appeared with rainbow flags in the women’s march in Minsk on Sept. 5.
Police arrested more than 400 people as tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators took to the streets of Minsk during the “March of Heroes” protest on Sept. 13.
This has all come as a surprise. After all, Lukashenko centralised power, marginalised all opposition and “won” rigged elections on no less than four previous occasions.
Lukashenko was able to enjoy huge Russian subsidies of cheap oil and gas in return for his political loyalty. A “Union State” between the two nations has existed since 1999, which guarantees free movement and employment in both states.
In early February Lukashenko visited Russia to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the further integration process within the treaty. So the events following the August election have caught Lukashenko off guard.
In the Ukrainian Euromaidan Revolution that removed Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, anti-Russian feeling was very evident. But in Belarus, a country ethnically and religiously close to Russia, anti-Russian rhetoric is absent.
There are no European flags, nor many slogans about Europe or the European Union, nor are there any demands to join NATO.
Instead, we see the colours of the Belarusian National Republic, flown by the short-lived pre-Soviet independent republic of 1918-1919 and again from 1991 to 1995, prior to Lukashenko’s total takeover. Lukashenko had restored a modified version of the Soviet flag as the nation’s banner. The demonstrations have been about ending the dictatorship, pure and simple.
Russia remains the country’s chief ally. They have held joint military exercises and the struggling Belarus economy relies on trade with its powerful neighbour. Russia also maintains two military facilities in Belarus, the Vileyka VLF Transmitter and Missile Attack Early Warning System site in Hantsavichy.
In recent years relations had cooled after Moscow moved to end subsidized oil and gas supplies. However, now that Lukashenko is in trouble, he has again turned to Russia. He met with Putin on Sept. 14 for their first encounter since the anti-government protests erupted in Belarus -- a sign that the two leaders have drawn closer amid the crisis after months of strain over bilateral ties.
“These events showed us that we need to stick closer to our older brother,” Lukashenko told Putin, referring to the protests. He noted that disagreements between Moscow and Minsk can involve any issue except security.
Putin announced in late August that a Russian military contingent is ready to intervene on behalf of Lukashenko “if necessary.” Russia could send them in if the protests got really out of control,” he remarked. Putin also granted a $1.5 billion loan to Belarus.
Moscow’s backing has emboldened the Belarus president. Many foreign independent news outlets have been stripped of their accreditation and several local independent online media sites that have played a key role in reporting on the crisis have been blocked, while members of Russia’s state-owned media have been invited in.
The opposition is not backing down. Tikhanovskaya, living in Lithuania after being forced into exile, told Putin that any agreements made with Lukashenko will not have legal force. “I regret that you have decided on dialogue with a dictator and not with the people of Belarus.”