This time last year the pandemic was transforming societies beyond all recognition. But not in Belarus, it seemed. There, the football league carried on as before – briefly attracting the attention of the world’s sports-starved fans – and the Victory Day parade went ahead as normal last May, commemorating the end of the Second World War.
Twelve months on, it’s tempting to think still nothing has changed in Belarus. The football calendar rolls on, albeit amid less global interest, and the latest Victory Day parade has just been held, presided – as it has been every year since he came to power in 1994 – by Alexander Lukashenko.
Yet the past year has seen his dominance of Belarus, long known as Europe’s last dictatorship, under threat as never before. And despite the semblance of normality on display at this year’s Victory Day parade, it would be wrong to assume the drama has yet been fully played out.
It was the decision to press ahead with the 2020 parade, despite the fact that coronavirus was tearing its way through Europe, that helped galvanise a series of factors into a new force of resistance against his regime.
A YouTuber by the name of Sergei Tikhanovsky had just put his name forward for the presidency, launching a challenge against Lukashenko. For months, the political novice had toured the country speaking to everyone from factory workers to farmers and pensioners.
The breaking point would come in August, when falsified presidential election results gave Lukashenko an impossible 80% of the vote. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demand new elections and a transitional government led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Tikhanovsky’s wife, who had been the main opposition candidate in the vote. Tikhanovsky himself had been jailed two days after officially announcing his intention to run.
For weeks, the country seemed to be at standstill. What had begun as a student-led revolt had spread across the population. When Belarus’s tractor factory workers joined the protests, it seemed Lukashenko’s days were numbered.
The president then did what he had previously promised himself he would not do – he turned to the Kremlin. Abandoning his brief attempt at asserting independence from Russia, Lukashenko went cap in hand to Vladimir Putin, asking him to help crack down on the dissent.
Putin acquiesced, but not out of affection. He saw a double jeopardy in the Belarusian protest movement – the prospect of a pro-Western, potential Nato member, on his doorstep, and further encouragement to protest movements against his own regime.
Bolstered by Putin’s security forces and a $1.5 billion loan, Lukashenko was able to trigger a brutal wave of repression across the country. Over the course of the nine months, more than 35,000 protestors were arrested, and many were beaten and tortured.
“Just when you thought the government couldn’t go any lower, it did,” says Tatyana Movshevich, Amnesty International’s regional campaigner on Belarus. “They came for one woman, the director of a hospice for terminally ill children. She had to flee the country and now the hospice is at risk of closing. Those kids have nowhere to go for treatment.”
Opposition leaders like Tikhanovskaya also fled. Others were jailed. By autumn, it became clear the despot was showing no sign of going anywhere.
Lukashenko’s tactics were textbook and the scenes that played out in Belarus were not dissimilar to those seen in Hong Kong, Myanmar, or neighbouring Russia, when Putin cracked down on protestors who supported the jailed opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.
But his crackdown also included more subtle forms of coercion. At the heart of his strategy was the need to decouple the protestors from the wider population. Workers at state enterprises make up 90% of the working population in Belarus, but when they took to the streets in a spontaneous protest against police violence, unions buckled under the threats of job losses.
Meanwhile, internet shutdowns and arrests of journalists gathered pace. Belarus has consistently been at the bottom of media freedom rankings; in the latest analysis from Reporters Without Borders, published in April, Belarus was ranked the most dangerous country for journalists in Europe, below even Russia and Turkey.
It has been almost impossible to report on the severity of the coronavirus crisis in the country too, which has been downplayed throughout by the authorities. Belarus has begun rolling out Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, though statistics on the number of people inoculated are likely to also be rose-tinted.
In order to justify the increasingly repressive state, Lukashenko comes up with increasingly theatrical threats. In the last few weeks, he and Putin have ostentatiously accused the US of a conspiracy to take out the Belarusian leader.
A US-Belarusian citizen, Yury Zenkovich, and a Belarusian dissident, Alexander Feduta, were accused of being behind the plans and were swiftly detained. On this year’s Victory Day, Lukashenko signed a decree announcing that his 20-strong security council would take over in the event of his own death.
Hopes that the EU, the US, Britain and others would intervene in any meaningful way seem to have been dashed. Speaking on Good Morning Europe recently, opposition leader Pavel Latushko called for Brussels to take stronger measures.
“At this moment you are saying that the sanctions against 88 people and seven enterprises that have no significance for the country’s economy are sanctions? Well Lukashenko, unfortunately, only laughs at this,” he said.
Latushko also used the opportunity to call for further protests on Victory Day – which he reminded viewers was “the only opportunity to legally take part in mass events on the territory of Belarus” – but that did not seem to happen.
So what hope, if any, is left of unseating Lukashenko?
In the short-term gloom, there may be grounds for longer-term optimism. “For the first time, those who are unhappy with the status quo have realised that they are the majority in their own country and this qualitative change is long lasting,” says Katsiaryna Shmatsina, an analyst from the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.
Although protests have waned, more covert forms of solidarity have been emerging. People have been crowdfunding detainees’ legal fees and organising travel for those who have to flee the country.
Last year, in the midst of Lukashenko’s Covid-denial, citizens were pulling together to sew makeshift PPE. A play about the street protests, Insulted Belarus, has been translated into 19 different languages and performed in 29 countries.
Some still believe that the protesters could eventually prevail. Yury, who did not want to give his full name for fear of reprisals, is a Belarusian activist in London. He says he is planning to go back to his home country for the “big surge” – when people will come out to the streets and refuse to leave “until we’ve won”.
It is hard to imagine Putin would ever let things go that far. More likely is that the Kremlin will conclude that Lukashenko is becoming too much of a liability. He would then be replaced by a younger and superficially more modern member of the regime, on Russia’s terms. A 21st century state might emerge, but one in which democracy would still be a distant hope.
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