Belarus Protests: What You Need to Know
Belarus Protests: What You Need to Know
After the longtime president of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, claimed 80 percent of the vote on Sunday in what many Western governments said was a sham election, protesters across the country have been met with a fierce police crackdown as the government tries to maintain its grip on power.
Three nights of violent clashes, which included the spraying of tear gas by the police and thousands of arrests, gave way to smaller demonstrations on Wednesday, as some protesters became fearful of police violence. But other protesters turned more aggressive, at times throwing stones at officers.
A political crisis continues in Belarus, an Eastern European nation of 9.5 million people, with many opponents of Mr. Lukashenko insisting they will fight on. Thousands of protesters are believed to have been detained, and videos of civilians being beaten by the police continue to emerge, potentially further galvanizing public anger.
Here are the basics on the events leading up to the protests and what happened in the bloody showdowns.
A long history of falsified elections.
Mr. Lukashenko, who has often been called “Europe’s last dictator,” was first elected in 1994 in what outside observers believed was a fair and free election, but every election since then has been disputed. In 2006, he boasted that he publicly lowered his share of the vote — 93.5 percent — to 86 percent because the original number seemed too high.
It is difficult to gauge the popularity of Mr. Lukashenko because independent polling is mostly illegal and government polls are typically kept secret. Observers believe he generally enjoyed wide support until recently, with a faltering economy and mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic among the main sources of discontent.
But they never doubted that he would be declared the winner of the election as he controls the electoral system.
Opposition candidates were arrested or exiled.
Svetlana G. Tikhanovskaya emerged as Mr. Lukashenko’s main election rival after several other opposition leaders were jailed or exiled. They included her husband, Sergei, a blogger who was considered among the top opposition candidates before he was jailed.
It was clear Mr. Lukashenko was in peril even before the election. Tens of thousands of people participated in rallies to support Ms. Tikhanovskaya last week, the largest antigovernment demonstrations in decades.
The authorities arrested 33 Russians accused of being mercenaries sent to disrupt the election in July, and Mr. Lukashenko claimed other saboteurs were targeting Belarus.
“A hybrid war is going on against Belarus, and we should expect dirty tricks from any side,” he told security officials in Minsk, the capital.
International election observers, who have said in past years that the elections were neither free nor fair but were allowed to monitor them, were barred on Sunday.
Improbable results led to immediate protests.
The announcement that Mr. Lukashenko had won an overwhelming 80 percent of the vote on Sunday was met with protests across the country, most notably in Minsk. For three nights, beginning on the night of the election, the police aggressively crushed the largely peaceful demonstrations with tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and batons.
Internet access and mobile phone service were largely shut down, much of the center of Minsk was cordoned off, and the police said they had detained thousands of demonstrators. Many protesters were injured, along with dozens of police officers, and at least one protester died when an explosive device detonated in his hand, according to officials.
The police in the southwestern city of Brest fired live rounds at protesters, injuring one, according to the Belarusian interior ministry.
Ms. Tikhanovskaya left the country on Tuesday, appearing in cryptic video messages that appeared to be filmed under duress. Two of her associates said the Belarusian authorities had pressured her to leave for Lithuania.
Mass arrests and violence appeared to be geared at scaring people off the streets, but protests against Mr. Lukashenko continued across the country on Thursday.
Footage circulating on social media showed workers walking off the job at the BelAZ truck factory in the city of Zhodzina, a crown jewel of Belarusian industry, chanting the protest movement’s message to Mr. Lukashenko: “Leave!”
Thousands of people, mostly women in white shirts, came to the city’s main avenue on Thursday afternoon, waving flowers to protest police violence.
What’s next, and how did the rest of the world respond?
The police response indicated that the force remained loyal to Mr. Lukashenko, increasing the likelihood that he would remain in power. But the protests pierced his aura of invincibility.
International condemnation was swift and wide-ranging. The election was dismissed by much of the world, including the United States; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the United States was “deeply concerned about the conduct” of Sunday’s election.
But China endorsed the results, as did Russia, traditionally Minsk’s closest ally despite recent tensions. President Vladimir V. Putin congratulated Mr. Lukashenko on his victory. However, several high-profile Russian politicians who are allied with the Kremlin have called the election results falsified and urged Mr. Lukashenko to leave, indicating that his support in Moscow is far from rock-solid.
The United Nations condemned the police violence. Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement on Wednesday that the number of arrests indicated a “clear violation of international human rights standards.”
“People have the right to speak up and express dissent, even more in the context of elections, when democratic freedoms should be upheld, not suppressed,” she said.