Fear and Loathing in Lukashenko’s Belarus

AP Photo/Vasily Fedosenko, Pool
By Roland Bensted

With public and media attention focused on popular protests in the Middle East, another brutal crackdown continues in Europe. 

An authoritarian regime, headed by a long standing tyrannical leader, has responded to popular anti-government protests by jailing dissidents and strengthening its iron grip over its people. This brutal crackdown is happening in Belarus. In the process, the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, President of the former Soviet Republic since 1994, has done much to justify former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s description of Belarus in 2005 as an “outpost of tyranny”.

President Lukashenko has long been criticized for the lack of transparency of the elections that he has won by huge margins as well as for Belarus’ poor human rights record, lack of media freedom and intimidation of opposition politicians and activists. Following a referendum in October 2004, presidential term limits were removed. This has allowed Lukashenko to continue to rule.

Given this background, the Belarusian Presidential Elections of 19 December 2010, did not represent a new development. Lukashenko, running for a fourth term, received 79,7 per cent of the vote. The election was widely held to have been neither free nor fair. Indeed, international monitors have not approved any of Lukashenko’s four election victories. One day after the 2010 Election Tony Lloyd, Head of the British Delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said that the Belarusian people “deserved better” and that "this election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed."

Thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest what they felt was a pre-determined result. In the capital city, Minsk, a number of protestors targeted the government’s headquarters. Lukashenko’s response was predictable. Hundreds of activists were quickly arrested and detained, including seven opposition candidates. On 30 December, four opposition activists were charged with organizing riots. One further candidate was later charged with the same offence. The government also ordered the OSCE’s local office to shut down.

The OSCE had made specific criticisms of apparent irregularities in the way the votes were counted, and the violent response to opposition candidates by police and security forces.

Unswayed by international condemnation, President Lukashenko was sworn in for a fourth term on 21 January 2011. Subsequently, the US and the EU increased sanctions, which include travel bans on members of the Lukashenko Administration and financial controls, to further isolate Belarus’ autocratic regime.

Unlike some of its neighbours, Belarus has staunchly retained the infrastructure of its Soviet era economy. Whereas Estonia, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania have willingly embraced the EU, NATO and liberal economics, Belarus has refused to look beyond its key ally, Russia. Resultantly, it has little private industry or inward investment. Most of its 9,6 million population live in poverty. The World Bank calculated that gross national income per person was US$5540 in 2009. However, Belarus has almost full employment and it is this remnant of the Soviet era that Lukashenko’s supporters often cite in his defence.

There is little freedom in any of Belarus’ media. Reporters Without Borders ranked Belarus 151 out of 175 countries in its 2009 press freedom index. Three of the national television networks are state-run, although it is believed around 10 per cent of the population have access to Belsat, a private satellite network broadcast from Poland’s capital, Warsaw.

It is not clear whether popular protests can emerge in Belarus, or whether the population will remain cowed by the country’s security forces. Poland’s Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, has recently warned Lukashenko that he may face the same fate as former Presidents Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt, ousted by popular uprisings by their own people.

Yet, Lukashenko has never been deterred by Western condemnation. In fact, it provides him with a key reason to maintain his strong grip over all aspects of Belarusian society. Lukashenko will have paid keen attention to recent popular uprisings in the Middle East and will hope that his regime will not be threatened by similar activism in Belarus. Yet, he is not leaving this to chance. With opposition activist Vasily Parfenkov having been jailed on 17 February for four years for his role in the December protests and with five former election candidates facing charges of inciting mass disorder, President Lukashenko will be hoping that his grip on power can continue unperturbed. Many, both within Belarusian civil society and beyond, will be hoping otherwise.

 

24 February 2011

 

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Vasily Fedosenko, Pool

 

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