The Way Forward in Belarus
By the time the Belarusian people went to the polls for the Aug. 9 presidential election, widely condemned as fraudulent by international organizations and dozens of countries, including the United States, the EU, and Canada, the wheels of change were already in motion. Five months later, Belarusian citizens continue to call for free and fair elections and a democratic Belarus that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Disconnected, Unresponsive Authoritarianism
Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled Belarus since 1994, using the past quarter century to create an authoritarian police state in which freedoms of speech, assembly, association, independent media, and political competition are severely restricted. While maintaining a core of support among some Belarusians, his authoritarian approach has blinded him from perceiving the needs and demands of the Belarusian people. The scope of his blind spots became increasingly evident in 2020. Belarusians, after years of growing frustration with a stagnant economy, saw Lukashenka dramatically mismanage the COVID-19 pandemic, refusing to institute any form of lockdown of health measures, and repeatedly promulgating misinformation about the disease’s severity.
This disconnect with the national mood extended to the growing call for fundamental freedoms and opportunities of democracy, strong political opposition, and a wave of civic engagement unprecedented in Belarus. As Lukashenka scoffed at women’s participation in politics and condescendingly described women as too weak to lead and too ignorant to govern, a cadre of women built a national movement. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, around whom the opposition united as its candidate, Maria Kalesnikava, and Veronika Tsapkala stepped up to lead when Lukashenka’s government jailed or exiled all the major male opposition candidates. As he belittled Tsikhanouskaya as a meek housewife, she held enormous rallies throughout the country — drawing crowds in the tens of thousands and sparking hope for change.
A Dictator’s Attempt to Hold on to Power
Despite a summer defined by an extraordinary surge of popular support for Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenka falsely claimed an 80 percent landslide victory. Reports of widespread electoral fraud dominated social media and independent observation platforms in the days and weeks that followed. Since then, every week up to hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have peacefully marched through the streets of Minsk and throughout the country calling for new elections and an end to the brutal state response of unjust detentions and severe abuses. The Lukashenka regime has met this peaceful democratic movement with brute violence, intimidation, censorship, and human rights abuses. His government has revoked the credentials of international media and targeted independent journalists for harassment and arrest.
Belarusian authorities have detained at least 30,000 peaceful protesters and journalists since May, committed severe abuses and torture against hundreds, holds over 100 political prisoners, forcibly expelled opposition leaders from the country, and fired on peaceful crowds with water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and, most recently, have used live ammunition. At least four people have been killed due to the authorities’ abuse. Still, the people of Belarus continue to stand their ground and stand up for their innate freedoms.
What’s at Stake
The outcome of this movement will shape more than the presidency in Belarus. On Nov. 5, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) published the Moscow Mechanism report on Belarus, which describes a massive scale of human rights violations and abuses committed with impunity by the Belarusian authorities during the fraudulent Aug. 9 election and its aftermath.
Democracy is a promise of a fair society based on rule of law, not on arbitrary application of the law. And it is a promise of elected officials to serve on behalf of the people. Lukashenka may not intend to hold up his side of this promise, but the people of Belarus are insisting on a government that listens and responds to them. They deserve the support of the global community as they seek that kind of government.
Since 1999, the U.S. government through USAID and other departments and agencies, has partnered with Belarusian citizens, working to advance a more democratic and market-based society, with a respect for fundamental human rights. USAID has expanded citizen participation in political and economic decision-making, helping to create sustainable solutions to local challenges. In recent years, USAID’s technical assistance has sparked new interest in entrepreneurship. From rural communities to Minsk, entrepreneurs are leveraging USAID programs as a launching pad for starting new businesses, expanding into new markets, and tapping into new investment opportunities. Clearly, the citizens of Belarus want more opportunity and freedom.
Despite an increasingly restrictive environment for U.S. government programming in Lukashenka’s Belarus, our friendship with the Belarusian people continues and is now more important than ever.
The ongoing protests in Belarus are not a question of East versus West — these protests are a democratic movement calling for basic fairness, freedom, and human dignity. As we bear witness to the extraordinary bravery, resilience, and commitment among Belarusian political activists, civil society, and entrepreneurs, we see a new chapter beginning in Belarusian society — a chapter defined by hope and not fear, by empowerment and not repression, and by democracy and not repressive, unaccountable authoritarianism. We see what the Belarusian themselves call “their awakening.”
The global community can do its part by continuing to put pressure on the Lukashenka regime to cease its mass violations of basic human rights and to initiate a constructive dialogue with citizens calling for change. Neighboring Russia should join the global community in this effort, but sadly, its own authoritarian leadership is far more likely to continue to prop up Lukashenka. Democratic governments must also continue to call for a new election held under international observation. The people of Belarus are now bravely bearing the high cost of peacefully protesting for a chance at democracy. The world must remain united behind them.
About the Author
Brock Bierman is Assistant Administrator in USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia. Follow him @BBiermanUSAID.