23rd August 2020

In_pictures What’s happening in Belarus?

In_pictures What’s happening in Belarus?


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Media captionSergiy says riot police in Belarus threatened to burn him alive

Belarus is gripped by mass protests, triggered by an election widely believed to have been rigged in favour of the longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko.

The scale of the opposition rallies is unprecedented for Belarus: more than 100,000 packed into central Minsk on 16 August, while a rally for Mr Lukashenko was much smaller.

After violent clashes with opposition demonstrators, numerous allegations of police brutality, processions of women in white with roses and walkouts at major state enterprises, let’s take a look at how all this came about.

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Thousands complained of skewed state media coverage of the protests

In_pictures What is the background?

Europe’s longest-serving ruler, President Lukashenko has been in charge of Belarus for 26 years, coming to power in 1994 amid the chaos caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Often described as Europe’s “last dictator”, he has tried to preserve elements of Soviet communism. Much of manufacturing has remained under state control, and main media channels have been loyal to the government. The powerful secret police is even still called the KGB.

At the same time Mr Lukashenko has tried to style himself as a tough nationalist with a direct manner, defending his country from harmful foreign influences, and a guarantor of stability.

These factors have given him – until now – a solid base of support, though elections under his rule have never been considered free or fair.

But the way he is perceived has changed in recent months. Opposition politicians have noticed a shift in mood, with people complaining of widespread corruption and poverty, a lack of opportunities and low pay.

This was compounded by the coronavirus crisis.

In_pictures Belarus: The basics

Where is Belarus? It has Russia – its former imperial master – to the east and Ukraine to the south. To the north and west lie EU and Nato members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Why does it matter? Like Ukraine, this nation of 9.5 million is caught in rivalry between the West and Russia. President Lukashenko, an ally of Russia, has been nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator”. He has been in power for 26 years, keeping much of the economy in state hands, and using censorship and police crackdowns against opponents.

What’s going on there? Now there is a huge opposition movement, demanding new, democratic leadership and economic reform. They say Mr Lukashenko rigged the 9 August election – officially he won by a landslide. His supporters say his toughness has kept the country stable.

Opponents consider Mr Lukashenko’s bravado about the virus – he suggested combating it with vodka, saunas and hard work – to be reckless and a sign that he is out of touch.

Then a crackdown on opponents ahead of the presidential election, with two opposition candidates jailed and another fleeing the country, led to the creation of a powerful coalition of three women closely involved in those campaigns.

In_pictures What happened in the election?

One of the trio, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, registered as a candidate in place of her arrested husband Sergey Tikhanovsky.

The 37-year-old English teacher and her two allies toured the country, drawing record crowds of people frustrated by the lack of political change.

Voting day arrived amid widespread fears among the opposition about possible fraud. With no independent observers invited, these fears seemed well-founded and numerous apparent irregularities were documented. An internet blackout began which lasted several days.

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Alexander Lukashenko has described the opposition as rats

Polling closed and exit polls were released that closely resembled the results that were to be published the next day – suggesting that Mr Lukashenko had won with 80% of the vote. Ms Tikhanovskaya gained only about 10%, they said.

Those results were later rubber-stamped by authorities, but the main opposition candidate insisted that where votes had been properly counted she had polled 60-70%.

Disbelief and anger at what appeared to be quite brazen tampering with the results quickly spilled out onto the streets.

On the night after the election, violent clashes led to 3,000 arrests in Minsk and other cities. Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades, not seen before in Belarus, to disperse crowds.

Further nights of violence saw another 3,700 arrests throughout the country.

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Media captionAn ex-elite soldier in Belarus bins his uniform in protest

On the day after the election, Ms Tikhanovskaya tried to complain to election authorities about falsifications of the result. She was detained for seven hours and was forced to leave for Lithuania, where she had earlier sent her children.

In an emotional video address to supporters, she said she had overestimated her own strength and was leaving for the sake of her children.

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Media caption‘Human life is the most precious thing’: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya speaks out from exile

Later she proposed a “co-ordinating council” to handle a transfer of power, which would be made up of “civil society activists, respected Belarusians and professionals”.

And in a video address from Lithuania on 17 August she said she was ready to lead Belarus, pending new elections, and urged security officers to switch sides.

In_pictures How have the protests evolved?

During the post-election clashes, details emerged of alleged police brutality, with detainees badly beaten and forced to endure overcrowded jails.

Many sought medical help and posted pictures of their injuries on social media after they were released.

This produced a new wave of demonstrations. Friends and relatives gathered at detention centres demanding news about detainees, and women dressed in white, carrying roses, linked arms and marched through the streets.

At major state-owned enterprises around the country, workers sought answers from managers and local officials about election irregularities and treatment of protesters. Some called strikes and joined the protests.

On 17 August state TV staff walked out, joining the protests against Mr Lukashenko’s re-election. Earlier there were several high-profile resignations there. Previously the channel had followed the government line on the elections and protests.

Mr Lukashenko was booed by striking workers when he visited a tractor plant.

A number of officials, as well as current and former police officers, have resigned. The Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia, Igor Leshchenya, declared his solidarity with the protesters. The director of Belarus’s leading football club dumped his old police uniform in the bin in disgust and international footballer Ilya Shkurin announced he would not play for his country until President Lukashenko stepped down.


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