FAST FACTS: The Belarus electoral protests

Michelle Abad

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FAST FACTS: The Belarus electoral protests

VIOLENT CLASHES. A Belarusian law enforcement officer gestures next to an injured protester Yevgeny Zaichkin, who lies on the ground during clashes after presidential election polls closed in Minsk, Belarus, on August 9, 2020.

Photo by Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

People are protesting against strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and now claims to have won another term

Belarus has been seeing more than a week of violent protests following a controversial exit poll.

Strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for almost 3 decades, is claiming to have won a 6th term. 

Who is he, and why are people so angry? Here are some things you should know.

Who is Alexander Lukashenko?

Lukashenko has ruled over ex-Soviet Belarus since 1994. He is Europe’s longest-serving non-royal leader.

Decades after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Belarus still adheres to a command economy, and looks to former master Moscow as its main ally, creditor, and energy provider.

The country has faced recurring financial crises, but Lukashenko has stood firmly by Soviet-era economic policies.

Global politics expert Nigel Gould-Davies said in an analysis that Lukashenko’s regime quickly grew “authoritarian, statist, and even murderous while the rest of Central Europe underwent democratic and market transition.” State-owned enterprises shed labor to stem economic losses.

The Belarusian dictator has also “disastrously” mishandled the coronavirus crisis, according to Gould-Davies. Lukashenko advocated cures such as vodka and tractor-driving. He also blamed victims for their own death, and civil society had to support the medical community through its own initiatives.

How did the protests start?

Opposition protests started in June, as Lukashenko ramped up a crackdown on critics ahead of polls that would take place months later. People lined the streets in Minsk to support opposition candidates seeking to challenge Lukashenko. 

At least 140 people were detained in Minsk, Bobruisk, Vitebsk, Brest, Mogilev, and other cities. Journalists were among those captured. The Vyansa rights group said 5 people were beaten, including a minor.

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What happened in the election?

On August 10, Belarus declared a landslide election victory for Lukashenko against opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Police used stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of protesters denouncing the vote as a fraud.

The Central Election Commission said Lukashenko won 80.23% according to preliminary results.

Russia and China quickly congratulated the Belarusian leader.

Who is the opposition candidate?

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is a 37-year-old mother of two and Lukashenko’s strongest challenger. She made the decision to run for president only in May. Her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky – a popular YouTube blogger – had been detained and could not submit his own presidential bid at the time.

Despite a lack of political experience, Tikhanovskaya became the country’s top opposition bet, acquiring thousands of supporters. The English teacher by training calls herself an “ordinary woman, a mother, and wife” and advocates for the people’s “longing for change.”

Lukashenko has insisted that Belarus is not ready for a woman leader, and that a female president “would collapse, poor thing.”

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What’s happened since?

In a span of a week, protesters have died, workers have walked out on their jobs, and Russia has offered to help.

The United Nations has condemned the crackdown, while Amnesty International has accused the Belarusian government of carrying out a “campaign of widespread torture” to crush the opposition. 

While Lukashenko rejected foreign intervention, Tikhanovskaya asked foreign governments to “help us in organizing a dialogue with Belarusian authorities.”

Thousands are still gathering to dispute the vote, and are calling for a new one. At least 6,700 people have been arrested, hundreds have been injured, and two have died. 

Tikhanovskaya demanded that authorities release all detainees, remove security forces from the streets, and file criminal cases against those who ordered the crackdown.

The protests have spread to neighboring countries Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania, as hundreds take to the streets to show their support. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a multimedia reporter at Rappler. She covers the rights of women and children, migrant Filipinos, and labor.