Ballot-Rigging and False Accusations-Protests in Belarus

Rigged votes, a secret swearing-in, and the continuing reign of long-term Belarus President led to mass protests on the streets, spiraling Minsk into a void of violence, destruction and mistrust. 

August 9th, 2020, marked the beginning of street-wide protests, with citizens refusing to accept President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko as their new leader. How did this come to pass? 

The long-standing dictator of Belarus was challenged during this year’s elections, by three women- Maria Kolesnikova, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo-who formed the opposition parties. After the preliminary counts, the final result stated that Lukashenko had won by a landslide of 80.23% of the votes. The opposition accused the polls of being rigged, due to the scrutiny being done miserly. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya claimed that, in the places where the votes were properly counted, she had won no less than 60-70% votes. However, when the counts were unveiled, she was shown to have won just 9.9% of the votes. 

Presidential ceremonies in almost every country are a thing of publicity; a chance for the winning party to showcase their victory. 

However, at the 2020 elections at Belarus, this was not the case. President Lukashenko was elected, and was sworn in as President in a somewhat ‘secret’ and unannounced manner. At this event, which was attended by only a few hundred of his loyal followers, he said that he could not abandon Belarus and that the country needed security and consensus while being on the brink of a global crisis. The uproar by the opposition, as well as the public, that followed the revealing of the numbers, was unimaginable.

The protests, encouraged by the opposition, escalated quickly, resulting in a life-threatening situation for their leaders and the public. Following the elections, tension rose in the streets of Minsk, where protestors decided to confront the unwanted government head-on. Water cannons, stun-grenades, batons, etc. were used by the police to manage the dreadful situation. The irony was that while the President swore ‘security’ for the population during his tenure, brutal tortures on the peaceful protestors continued after the elections. The public has commented on the party in power, saying that the President is only genuine towards a handful of supporters, lying officials, and the riot police (called the Omon). Blood, brutality and barbarism paved the way for an unexpected and mammoth outcry, consisting mostly of down-right assertions by the public for their disapproval towards the party in power and their demands for it to resign immediately. Cries of the people turned into a mockery as they crowded the streets wearing fake crowns to depict a false investiture. The combined denial by them spread rapidly from Minsk to other cities of Belarus, such as Lida, Grodno, Zhodino, etc. 

According to Lukashenko, the protests were nothing more than “an indefinite action of civil disobedience,” which they had complete control over. However, more than a month following the elections, the objection has not seemed to subside. The activists and journalists- present on the streets during the uproar- were subjected to the most brutal crackdown the country had ever witnessed. Over 120 citizens were detained, and as per claims by the human rights group of Belarus, at least one person had died due to police brutality. This, however, had been denied by the ruling government. These protests manifested themselves into an embodiment of danger, not solely restricted to the public, but having severe adverse effects on the three aforementioned leaders of the opposition parties who were subjected to kidnapping, forced self-exile, and other inhumane activities. 

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was one of the main oppositions during the elections, but was swatted to the side as an unimportant figure by President Lukashenko, who described her as a ‘poor little girl, manipulated by foreign puppets.’ 

Once the calculation of the preliminary votes happened, Ms Tikhanovskaya made her contradicting opinion on the matter quite evident. She claimed that if the election took place in an unbiased manner, it was in no way possible that she had won only 9.9% of the votes. She had won no less than 60-70%. After the riot police conducted a massive crackdown on the aggravating protests in the streets, she had no other option but to leave the country along with her children, and thus, fled to the neighbouring nation of Lithuania. She even made an official statement after fleeing, saying that she would not accept Lukashenko as the legal or legitimate head of Belarus, and urges the people who felt as though they had been stifled, to ensure that their opinion was getting heard. Ms Tikhanovskaya’s key campaign manager, Veronika Tsepkalo, also fled from Belarus to Moscow due to safety reasons. She is now in self-imposed exile in Poland.

Another opposition leader who suffered due to the cruelty imposed on her by the police was Maria Kolesnikova. Even though the previous two leaders took flight from the country, Kolesnikova stayed and continued to voice her opinion. However, the Belarus police kidnapped her and forcibly deported her to Ukraine. She reported that they placed a bag over her head, carried her forcibly to the border, and on resistance, threatened to deport her “alive or in bits”. As an act of rebellion, Kolesnikova tore up her passport and refused to leave. At present, she is in jail at Minsk for undermining national security. 

Other countries, depending on their support or opposition towards how the elections were conducted, have given statements regarding the current scenario in Belarus. Being an ex-soviet leader, Lukashenko was congratulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with leaders from various countries such as China, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc. However, he received criticism from the United States of America. The authorities advised the government to respect the rights of those people who have peacefully assembled. They also suggested curtailing the use of too much force to contain them. 

As of now, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has demanded President Lukashenko to release the voting results publicly. She claimed that it was wrong how the situation was handled, and that “harassment and violent repression of peaceful protesters have no place in Europe."

What is the future of Belarus? Will Lukashenko continue his iron-handed reign, or will the mass of protestors finally get to breathe with the emergence of democracy? These are the questions only the future can answer.

-Anushka Srivatsan