On Sunday 9 August, elections will take place in Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator, has served as President of Belarus since the establishment of the office on 20 July 1994 and is now, after 26 years in power, facing mounting public pressure to step aside.
A tragic normality in the run-up to elections in Belarus, activists and journalists are being rounded up and jailed and opposition candidates harassed, jailed and banned from standing. Yet people say what is currently going on is the most brutal crackdown the country has ever known.
More than 1,100 people, including activists and bloggers, have been detained in Belarus since May, according to estimates from a Belarusian NGO. Out of Lukashenko’s three main rivals in the presidential election, two have been jailed. The third has been denied registration as a candidate.
Belarusian author and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich told RFE/RL:
“Lukashenko thought that he could deceive this silent society, that he could tell tales, scare them with fear. Nothing like that happened. A new generation has grown up [and] middle-aged people have regained their consciousness. These are not the same people who existed 26 years ago, when Lukashenko began to rule.”
Yesterday, 28 July, Belarusian police detained at least 11 journalists in Minsk, the capital, in the latest crackdown on the press. Among those detained were a journalist from Tut.by, four journalists from Belsat TV, two reporters from BelaPAN, a photojournalist from Russia’s TASS news agency, and Reuters journalists.
The detentions come just days after Lukashenko attacked both Russian and Western media outlets for their coverage of developments in Belarus. He called for those promoting “mass disturbances” to be expelled from the country because they “don’t observe our country’s laws.”
On 14 and 15 July, at least 17 journalists were detained while covering protests against the electoral body’s decision to deny opposition presidential candidates Valery Tsepkalo and Viktor Babariko the ability to register in the upcoming election, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
Belarus is also the only country in Europe that enforces the death penalty. According to human rights activists, there are four people currently on death row and rights organisations have said that more than 400 people have been sentenced to death in Belarus since 1991. In a very rare move earlier this month, the Belarusian Supreme Court upheld the appeal of a death-row inmate and annulled his sentence in a murder case.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has emerged as the opposition’s main candidate against strongman Lukashenko. She became a presidential candidate because her jailed husband, well-known vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, was incarcerated after he openly expressed his intention to run for president.
Tikhanovskaya’s allies in the race are represented by two other women, Veronika Tsepkalo, who headed her husband’s rejected campaign, and Marya Kalesnikava, who led Babariko’s effort. The alliance appears to have boosted her chances in the vote, while highlighting the leading role women in Belarus have seized ahead of the vote that many experts say will alter the country’s landscape regardless of the vote outcome.
“The question is, what kind of country do we live in?” Veronika Tsepkalo recently said at a protest. “We can’t clap. We can’t make a chain of solidarity. We can’t go on a bike ride. We can’t stay silent,” she said, referring to previous protest actions that were dispersed by riot police. “Maybe we won’t be able to breathe soon.”
Lukashenko must ensure the vote is free and fair, Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015, said.
“There must be fair elections so that there is no blood. And this is his responsibility to history. Nobody wants blood. I hope he doesn’t want it either,” she said.
Trust in the authoritarian president has taken a blow after he downplayed the coronavirus pandemic as nothing more than a “mass psychosis” that could be warded off with vodka, a tractor ride, or a visit to a sauna. Belarus now has one of the highest per capita infection rates in Europe.
Read IOHR’s report on Lukashenko’s (lack of) response to the pandemic.