by Annalisa Demarch
translated by Chiara Canale, proofread by William Stupp
Alexander Lukashenko, “the last dictator in Europe”, will remain in power. According to official results, he won almost 80% of the vote in last Sunday’s elections. Lukashenko has served as president of the post-Soviet republic for 26 years. The country is not ready to turn the page, or maybe it’s the regime itself which is not willing to change. More than the absurdly high vote tally (which doesn’t quite match Kim Jong Un’s 99.99% victory in 2019) or the fact that it marks Lukashenko’s sixth term in office, the election will be remembered for the protests that shook Belarus both before and after the election. Minsk, the capital, has seen the most severe demonstrations and police violence.
Tasha, a Belarusian artist who studies visual arts in the Netherlands, told 31mag about her experience during the last week: “Every night after 7 pm people protest in the streets,” she says. “We do not have a stable Internet connection, so everything is arranged by the citizens. There is no leader, everything is spontaneous: people just take to the streets. Everyone talks about what’s going on, from friends to neighbours to strangers at the bus stop.”
Tasha returned to her country to vote and to make a documentary. She says that, because the internet is not working properly, people continue to organize through word of mouth.
People use alternative solutions to get around the regime’s censorship. “We use Telegram to communicate. Tut.by and Onliner.by post news about the situation every hour. But of course, you never know if they are reliable or not”, the artist says.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the foremost opposition leader, has fled to Lithuania, where she is now safe, as reported by the Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister.
— Linas Linkevicius (@LinkeviciusL) August 11, 2020
Before escaping Belarus, Tikhanovskaya left a video message to people inviting them to give up their demonstrations. But most of her supporters in Minsk believe her message is not a genuine of her wishes. “She said that she is a weak woman, that she did it for her children and that she doesn’t want anyone to take to the streets to protest,” Tasha said. “But we don’t believe it. She was detained for three and a half hours, but we don’t think she would ever leave.”
What is the situation in Minsk?
“Soldiers are everywhere, they’ve blocked off the main streets of the city. There were shootings on Monday,” Tasha said.
Thus far, two people have died during the protests. The first one died in the clashes, “but the government tried to blame the man, claiming he had a criminal background,” Tasha says reluctantly. The second died in police custody.
No one expected democratic or transparent elections – given the history of vote rigging for which the country is famous. For weeks, the opposition had been hoping that Tikhanovskaya and her coalition would meet success in a fair election. Belorussians hostile to Lukashenko’s regime rallied around her after other candidates dropped out due to arrests and intimidation.
Forecasts were almost impossible: independent electoral polls are forbidden and official media have always claimed that the Belarusian “dictator” was ahead.
Citizens launched a creative initiative to allow independent observers to count the votes against Lukashenko. In the beginning, the idea was to get people to wear white bracelets to symbolize their support for opposition candidates. “At least half the population is against Lukashenko,” Tasha states.
“People continued to wear bracelets even after the result as a way to demand democratic elections,” Tasha explains. “Last Sunday, we saw long lines of people at the polls patiently waiting to vote and wanting fair elections, but the results of some polls were not even announced”.
“The voting finished at 8 pm. At a polling station, the police wanted people to leave, but voters rebelled and stayed until midnight, when the results were released. In the largest polling station, where we all think Tikhanovskaya won, they never announced them”, Tasha continues.
How will the situation evolve?
“Someone says it’s almost like a civil war, others say it could become a kind of guerrilla,” says Tasha. “But other forms of protest can develop. For instance, a national strike of companies, announced by the Nexta Telegram channel.
“It will depend a lot on how the government reacts to the demonstrations; whether they employ many military forces to repress the population or not,” the Belarusian artist says. Meanwhile, the self-organized movement is waiting for the internet to work again to organize protests. “People are afraid to take to the streets because they don’t know what can happen. Those who do bring everything necessary with them, because they know they can always get arrested. You never know if you’ll be detained for a day, two days or more. And you could face very harsh sentences of 7 years or more.”
Supporters of independent candidates have been protesting for two months while the regime was repressing them. “At the beginning of the campaign, the protests were peaceful: people demonstrated mainly to support the registration of new candidates. But then the police began to arrest a lot of people,” Tasha concludes.
It seems certain that the protests will go on in Minsk. So far more than 6000 people have been arrested, according to the Belarusian Minister of Interior. Witnesses like Tasha say that some people – such as journalists and bus drivers – got injured even though they were not taking part in the demonstrations. One of them is NRC journalist Emilie van Outeren, who was shot in the thigh while reporting anti-government demonstrations in the capital city. She has been the Dutch newspaper’s main correspondent in Eastern Europe for the last 18 months. She had to go back to the Netherlands because of her injury.
What does the Dutch government say?
The Dutch Government is concerned about the elections in Belarus and the increase in police violence. However, it did not comment on the election results.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stef Blok said in the Parliament that, according to the information now available, “the elections were neither free nor fair”. Blok said that the Dutch government is monitoring the situation, together with other EU Member States. “We need to proceed step-by-ste
p, slowly increasing pressure on the Belarusian authorities,” he said. The EU’s Head of Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell also sees it that way.
However, some members of the Dutch Parliament think it’s not enough. Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, MEP of D66 party, said that “trivialities are not appropriate”. Christian Democrat MEP Pieter Omtzigt asked the EU “to take a stand,” he said, “either with Lukashenko or Tikhanovskaya.”