Politics

Why Belarusians Have Been Protesting For Months

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There are protests on the streets of Belarus, where hundreds of thousands of people are demanding that the president resigns.  

This uprising has been happening for over two months now and the government’s response has been violent.  

So, what’s behind the unrest in Belarus, and is this going to be a turning point for the country?

What The Protests Are About

The demonstrations in Belarus started back in August after a presidential election reinstated Alexander Lukashenko for his sixth consecutive term.  

Belarusians say the election result was clearly fraudulent and they want to see their autocratic president kicked out of office.  

The protests have been the biggest political movement in Belarus’ modern history, and Lukashenko’s government is doing its best to suppress the marches. The police are cracking down violently and even torturing demonstrators, but the protests still rage on.  

Anna Bysyedina: “What we see are people coming out on the streets because their votes are not being counted, their voices are not being heard, democracy is not really happening.”

Anna Bysyedina, is a PhD candidate University of Sydney and an expert in the political movements in this region.

Anna told me that to really understand the context of this uprising, we have to take a look at the history of Belarus.  

It’s an ex-Soviet state and it only gained independence in 1991. While other ex-soviet countries like Ukraine and Georgia have reclaimed new national identities, Belarus has isolated itself from the rest of Europe and stuck close to Russia.  

Lukashenko is the country’s first and only president and his reign has really been about nostalgia for the Soviet Union.  

He basically granted himself unlimited power with a fraudulent referendum in 1996 and Belarus has been labelled ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’.  

All of the presidential elections since the first have had these massively disputed results where the president has claimed winning over 80% of the votes.  

What was so different about this last election?

Protests For Change

AB: “They want an actual change. They want to live and feel that they can put food on their table and support their families, especially during a time of Covid-19, so I think it’s a build-up of many factors.”

Lukashenko has been incredibly blasé about the pandemic and has refused to act on it – he even suggested combating Covid-19 with vodka and saunas at one point.  

In the months leading up to the last election, there was this groundswell of support for the opposing candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and she was drawing huge crowds at her rallies in the capital.  

Sviatlana has ended up having to flee to Lithuania for safety but her party claims that she actually received 60% of the vote in the election.  

The situation in Belarus is now incredibly dicey and there’s a fear that Russia will intervene. After all, it doesn’t look so great for them if pro-democracy protests next door end up ousting their leader.  

Anna said she’s really worried for the safety of people on the streets. 

AB: “I was part of the movement and protests against corrupt votes [and] corrupt decisions by Yunakovych in the Ukraine, so a very similar scenario … seeing security forces punch teenagers, women and pensioners is brutal … I’m very afraid for the lives of the middle class, for the lives of many layers of society that we currently see coming out on the streets.”

It’s unclear at this point whether the protests will be able to get rid of Lukashenko but Anna told me she’s optimistic for Belarus’ future.  

The President has been resorting to using mercenaries to stir up aggression in the crowds and turn people against each other, which Anna ultimately sees as a sign he’s really scared. 

AB: “I do believe that there’s some hope for the Belarus people to claim back their country and to claim back their right to a legitimate leader.”

The Takeaway

This is a huge moment in Belarus’ history, which could see the end of Europe’s last dictatorship but it’s clear that Lukashenko isn’t going down without a fight.  

So while it might be a positive political movement, there are a lot of legitimate reasons to worry for Belarusians’ safety in the coming months.