Belarus: Protests, Politics and Outlook

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Cover by TNGO Illustrator Rossella Gangi.

Relentless pro-democracy protests in Belarus have been taking place for over a month now, despite intensified government repression. While resistors to Alexander Lukashenko’s regime maintain their rejection of the 9th August election result, the regime maintains its crackdown on the uprising. Increasing international focus on the country’s political crisis has placed foreign actors either on the side of Lukashenko or his opposition, which is headed by candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Thus, the fight for democracy is no longer exclusive to Belarus’ borders. Instead, it has moved to the global sphere as different international players try to pull Belarus in different directions.

A global arena

Belarusian protestors in Minsk Source: Associated Press

Now deemed illegitimate, the Belarusian government faces widespread conviction that it has falsified the August election results. Officially, Lukashenko won an 80.1% majority , however polling evidence shows Tsikhanouskaya was the rightful winner. Belarusian protestors consequently took to the streets, demanding Lukashenko steps down. Through the use of repressive tactics like excessive force, detention, and abuse, the government is also subject to global condemnation for its actions toward protestors. Despite the global criticism, however, Lukashenko has moved ahead with his presidency via an inauguration ceremony on the 23rd September. Many international actors have therefore focused foreign policy initiatives on supporting Belarusian protestors and their demands, particularly the demand for a new, free and fair election.

Russia and the European Union have emerged as some of the most prominent international voices throughout the protests. The European Union has been persistent in its stance against Alexander Lukashenko and in helping Belarusians achieve their cause. The United States has followed suit, despite accusations it is one of the key actors propelling Belarus’ opposition movement. The President of Belarus has, however, had a friend amid the political crisis sweeping his country. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has stood firmly at Lukashenko’s side since the onset of the uprising.

We are therefore witnessing the evolvement of a larger political clash between east and west. Players like Russia and the EU have exhibited conflicting interests where the current situation in Belarus is concerned. On a larger scale, rivalling visions of democracy, freedoms and human rights are at play.

Russia: Belarus’ only friend?

Russia has been clear in its support for Alexander Lukashenko. Aside from declaring political support for the leader, Putin has also extended monetary and military support. The Belarusian regime will receive a $1.5 billion loan, a reserve police force to be dispatched when necessary, and the organisation of joint military exercises to take place on a monthly basis. Putin’s assistance demonstrates the immense interest Russia has in keeping Lukashenko in power and helping him to combat any incoming challenges.

Lukashenko, Putin hold meeting at Palace of Independence
Alexander Lukashenko shaking hands with Vladimir Putin Source: Official Website of the Republic of Belarus

The extension of defence mechanisms and an economic care package that will help mitigate the impact of an unfolding economic crisis do come at a price, however. Shared government institutions like joint military training schemes have renewed previously expressed interest in deepening the Union of the two states. Foreign actors have already raised concerns over Russia undermining Belarus’ sovereignty as a result, due to it being a much larger, more powerful and more resourceful counterpart. High Representative of the EU Josep Borrell has warned that Russian involvement in Belarus’ political crisis can threaten Belarus’ independence. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has also expressed concerns over Russian disruption to Belarus’ sovereignty and the whole region.

Furthermore, a financial loan will lead to future Russian involvement in Belarus at least on economic grounds. Repayment for the loan will most likely lead to Russian take-over of Belarus state-owned companies and greater involvement in Belarus’ oil industry. Therefore, even without political and military integrative initiatives, ties between the two countries will become inevitably stronger via Russia’s economic assistance alone. While the loan will help Lukashenko and his government cope with Belarus’ economic crisis and incoming sanctions, it will also mean greater Russian influence and control in the country. Despite this, Lukashenko has expressed enthusiasm for Putin’s support. The leader emphasises the friendship between unified Russia and Belarus, referring to Putin as his ‘older brother’.

The European Union: In a dilemma

The European Union has denounced Lukashenko’s regime, the role it has played in falsifying the Belarusian presidential election, and its violent response to domestic protests. Despite recent complications caused by Cyprus’ derailment of planned sanctions against Belarus, the EU has been firm in its agenda to punish at least 40 Belarusian officials for their recent actions. Sanctions would include asset freezes, travel bans, and a prolonged ban on Belarusian arms sales.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya (R) and European Parliament President David Sassoli attend a news conference, in Brussels Belgium, on September 21, 2020.
European Parliament President David Sassoli speaking with Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya in Brussels
Source: TRT World

Poland and Lithuania have been among the most vocal EU countries to declare support for Belarusian protestors. Both countries have proved particularly resourceful as refuge points for Belarusian opposition leaders and activists following Lukashenko’s crackdown on the movement. Opposition leader Veronika Tsepkalo relocated to Poland, while candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was taken in by Lithuania. Poland has been providing levels of aid to Belarusian protestors and their cause: hospital treatment for those injured in protests, an aid package to sponsor work/study in Poland, and financial support for independent Belarusian media in Poland. Lithuania has also been vocal in its support for Belarusian protestors and their demands for democracy in the nation.

EU countries, and the institution as a whole, have maintained a consistent rhetoric in their statements and actions regarding Belarus. They outline the need to preserve a common European vision of freedom and democracy. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki referred to protestors as showing Europe ‘they want to belong to a Europe of free, democratic nations under the rule of law’. Lithuania’s Linas Linkevicius illustrated the Belarusian protests as a test of European values, which include a liberal democratic society. Belarus’ refusal to align with regional goals is a driving factor in the EU’s denouncement of the governing regime.

However, the EU still faces a collective dilemma. Talks on sanctions have been careful when it came to Lukashenko. There is ongoing debate as to whether the leader should be placed on sanctions lists alongside other Belarusian officials. The European Parliament has presented a decisive Resolution to the bloc, calling for Lukashenko to be sanctioned as well. Sanctioning Lukashenko as an individual dampens any prospect for future dialogue with him, and therefore hopes of persuading him to consider the opposition’s demands. Moreover, EU-imposed repercussions pose a danger of pushing Lukashenko further to the east, away from a common European vision, and into Russia’s arms. The dilemma is this: to what extent can the EU punish a leader whose cooperation it still requires?

The United States: On the periphery or in the centre?

Safeguarded by its geographical distance from the region, the U.S. has provided a relatively slower response to the Belarusian protests, compared to the EU and Russia. Nevertheless, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the U.S. would follow in the EU’s footsteps and consider sanctions against Belarusian officials. It is not clear yet whether such sanctions will target Lukashenko. However, Pompeo has been vocal about his country’s strong disapproval of the repression faced by protestors in Belarus.

Alexander Lukashenko meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk, February 2020 Source: Associated Press

This has not, however, stopped speculation surrounding the U.S.’ role in boosting the Belarusian opposition movement and inciting political protests across the nation. Alexander Lukashenko has recently stated his conviction that the U.S. is behind the Belarusian uprising, orchestrating the people of Belarus, with the help of the global west, to challenge the regime. Director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin has supported the accusations by claiming to have evidence that the U.S. has been funding Belarusian opposition groups in the lead up to the election. The U.S. has not yet provided a response to the accusations. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has disputed the claims by stressing that the situation in Belarus is ‘an internal political crisis’; any remarks suggesting otherwise are attempts to distract from the regime’s actions.

Where is Belarus headed?

While the EU is still debating whether to prioritize an open dialogue with Lukashenko or impose necessary punishments for his political wrongdoings, the Belarusian leader has welcomed Russia’s support with open arms. Finding hostility from his western neighbours to be an attack campaign spearheaded by the U.S., Lukashenko has shown more faith in Putin’s relief despite the liability this will place on Belarus in the future. The EU is nonetheless still trying to maneuver through planned sanctions while figuring out ways to gain Lukashenko’s cooperation.

  • Are international responses to the crisis part of a greater competition between east and west?
  • Have the protests provided an opportune moment for Russia to extend its influence and control into Belarus?
  • Is U.S. involvement in the protests greater than it lets on?

Suggested readings

Ash, Konstantin (2014). “The election trap: the cycle of post-electoral repression and opposition fragmentation in Lukashenko’s Belarus”. Democratization, 22(6), 29 April, 2014.

Erlanger, Steven (2020). “E.U. rejects Belarus election, without demanding a new one”. The New York Times, August 19, 2020.

Gessen, Masha (2020). “After a rigged election, Belarus crushes protests amid an information blackout”. The New Yorker, August 12, 2020.

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