Today, 9 August 2021, marks a year since the presidential election in Belarus. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a previously unknown English teacher from the country’s south-east, mounted the strongest challenge to President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule since he came to power 27 years ago. Yet despite the force of her campaign, official results were more or less what they always are: 80 per cent for Lukashenko.
The official outcome – widely assumed to be rigged – sparked probably the largest wave of street protests in recent Belarusian history. Hundreds of thousands turned out on the streets of Minsk, Gomel and other smaller cities. At first, the protests were met with a relatively restrained response from regime siloviki (security forces), but as they continued, regime repression escalated. Protestors were arrested in their thousands, and there were widespread reports of torture in overcrowded prisons. Displaying the pre-Soviet red-and-white flag, associated with the opposition, became grounds for arrest.
Tikhanovskaya fled into exile days after the vote. She claims she was the rightful winner of last year’s election and is thus the legitimate leader of democratic Belarus. While she spent much of the election insisting she did not aim to alter Belarus’s close alignment with Russia, the Kremlin’s support for Lukashenko has since pushed her to seek diplomatic support from the West in the year since the vote: in recent weeks she has met US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko’s regime has sunk further into erratic despotism. Beyond the repression within Belarus itself, which include arbitrary arrests as well as rants on state-controlled TV denouncing “regime traitors”, the government has flexed its muscles outside of the country too.
First came the hijacking of a Ryanair flight between Athens, Greece, and Vilnius, Lithuania, as it flew over Belarusian airspace in May. The act of state-sponsored air piracy led to the arrest of Roman Protasevich, a journalist who founded the opposition Nexta media outlet, and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Protasevich has since appeared on state TV “confessing” to have plotted to undermine Lukashenko, although his family and human rights campaigners claim he was coerced into the statement.
Weeks later, a regime campaign to allegedly sponsor illegal immigration from countries such as Iraq into Lithuania ramped up, resulting in upwards of 4,000 people crossing from Belarus into the EU this year. Diplomatic pressure from Lithuania has since prompted the Iraqi government to suspend all flights to Belarus.
Then, this month, Krystina Timanovskaya, a Belarusian sprinter competing in the Tokyo Olympics, alleged that team officials attempted to forcibly repatriate her after she publicly criticised a decision, she claimed, to register her in an athletics event she had not trained for. The officials failed – Timanovskaya is now in Poland, where the government has granted her a humanitarian visa after she sought refuge in its embassy in Tokyo.
A day later, Vitaly Shishov, an activist and founder of Belarusian House, an NGO in Ukraine helping Belarusians flee persecution, was found hanged in a park in Kiev. Associates of Shishov immediately accused the KGB, Lukashenko’s secret service, of murder. Ukrainian police have opened a murder investigation.
The Lukashenko regime’s erratic behaviour betrays an increasing paranoia. Policies such as sponsoring migration into the EU come at a significant political and economic cost, with few direct benefits to Belarus. Their only objective is to antagonise Western countries, Tadeusz Giczan, a former editor-in-chief of Nexta, said in last week’s episode of the World Review podcast.
Last summer’s crackdown and its subsequent norm-defying policies have pushed Belarus firmly into the category of rogue state, prompting comparisons with countries such as North Korea. Western sanctions, notably on imports of potash, a fertiliser which is one of Belarus’ main exports, may not be lifted as quickly as they have in the past, when restrictions imposed following suspected rigged elections were eased in exchange for limited concessions. The EU has said that it could ease its measures against Belarus if it sees progress on human rights and dialogue with the opposition. However, the Baltic states are already calling for Brussels to take a tougher line on Belarus and are likely to resist any softening of measures.