Big Trouble in Little Belarus
Source: Atlantic Council
Since the end of WWII, the number of authoritarian regimes in Europe has been slowly declining. Stalin’s communist Soviet state fell in 1989, approximately forty-five years after the fall of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s regimes in the mid-1940s. Then came peace in the Balkan region in the late 1990s after the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. Indeed, less than a hundred years removed from the deadliest conflict in human history, the words “dictatorship” and “Europe” do not seem as though they belong in the same sentence. Yet there is still one dictatorship operating in Europe. Alexander Lukashenko has been serving as the leader of Belarus for the past twenty-six years. The leader known as “Europe’s last dictator” has been accused of imprisoning journalists and “rigging” the electoral process to remain in power.
Thousands have gathered in the streets of Belarus to protest Lukashenko’s recent reelection, which has led to massive crackdowns by Belorussian authorities. There have been a number of reports alleging indiscriminate beatings of protesters in Belorussian prisons and the detainment of opposition leaders who have emerged to run against Lukashenko. The Belorussian leader has even gone as far as to welcome Russian military support to quell the protests. Many journalists who have attempted to cover these protests have also been detained.
The egregious actions by Belorussian authorities have prompted an international response. The Biden administration has announced against Belarus and the 46th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva is expected to address the post-election crackdown next week. International human rights watchdogs such as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have taken particular notice to the actions of Lukashenko and have called for an end to the various human rights abuses that are occurring.
Despite such attention, Lukashenko appears unwilling to relinquish his power anytime soon. He has declared himself as the rightful winner of the August election in what he calls a landslide victory. The possibility of such an outcome being legitimate, however, appears to be quite remote. The original opposition candidate in the 2020 elections, Viktor Barbariko, received over four-hundred thousand signatures in his bid for president, far more than the one-hundred thousand signatures required to run for the office and a record for any candidate since 1994. He also polled better than Lukashenko, polls had Barbariko at twenty-nine percent support compared to Lukashenko’s twenty-seven. Before the election could occur, Barbariko was arrested for money laundering and bribery, which he claims to have no knowledge of any such crimes.
Barbariko backed opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran in her husband’s, online activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, place following his arrest. Despite these occurrences and the polling data, the official results of the election state that Lukashenko won with over eighty percent of the vote compared to Tsikhanouskaya’s ten percent. This margin appears fantastical, and given all available evidence, there is no credible justification for how Lukashenko could have won by such a margin without some form of tampering. As a result, opposition candidates have called on the international community to recognize Tsikhanouskaya as the winner of the election. The European Union and the United States have officially stated that the election should be re-conducted, and that Lukashenko is not the legitimately elected leader of Belarus.
As a world leader, there are numerous difficulties associated with recognizing an opposition candidate as the legitimate leader of a state. Such actions can spark further oppression by the authoritarian government and even spark civil war within the country. The international community should tread carefully, however, that does not mean that it shouldn’t tread at all. Lukashenko’s crackdowns will only continue to escalate as protesters continue to take to the streets. The Belorussian government has already imprisoned journalists, beaten protestors, and attempted forced deportations; there needs to be an independent commission to investigate the actions of Lukashenko and an electoral commission to conduct a free and fair election. The only realistic way to conduct either program is with Russian support, which may be unlikely given Lukashenko’s strong ties to Putin. In any event, if the international community wishes to end the last dictatorship in Europe, they must act before the situation escalates any further.
Originally published at http://thecentralpost.org.