Has the World Let Belarus Down?
2020 is the year of a pandemic but along with the health disaster, there have been several other unfortunate incidents. The world has witnessed several protests spread across the globe. One such is the ongoing grassroots protests which saw a series of political manifestations against the government that has been in power since 1994. President Alexander Lukashenko since then has acquired so much power that he has a firm grip over the existing laws, having the capacity to manipulate even election procedures. The Presidential elections were held on 9th August 2020, which witnessed many reprisals and condemnations from various nations and organizations. According to official results, Lukashenko won 80% of votes whereas the dominant opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, received 10% votes. Lukashenko has been accused of falsifying election procedure and the results. This has been endorsed not only by the citizens through massive demonstrations of despondency but also by various entities in the international community. The country has witnessed unrest and turmoil, escalating since the results were declared. The use of force by officials has specifically drawn the attention towards violation of human rights.
Belarus has a considerable international presence and engagement. It seeks to develop cooperation with strategic foreign partners, maintaining an independent and peaceful foreign policy. Hence, the country has received a variety of responses from the international community regarding the current political backlash. Independent observers, organizations and nations have criticized the election results, expressed solidarity with the citizens, and condemned the system for violation of rights, pressuring Lukashenko to call for another vote.
The Global Reaction
Varied responses are coming in from the global community. While some are rejecting the election results and questioning its legitimacy, expressing concerns towards the lives of Belarusians, and imposing sanctions, others have congratulated the President for his victory.
The European Union is considering a re-evaluation of its relationship with Belarus. High Representative of the European Union, Josep Borrell and Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, issued a joint statement condemning police violence in Belarus. EU foreign ministers agreed to impose new sanctions against the authorities for ‘violence’ inflicted on citizens and ‘falsification’ of election procedure. The European Commission has announced that it would reroute funds designated for Belarus from the government to civil societies. European Parliament members have also issued a statement rejecting the election results and considered Lukashenko as ‘persona non grata’ in the EU. The Union has offered to mediate between the government and the opposition. Furthermore, the United Nations spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, voiced his concerns about post-election developments and the violent crackdown on peaceful protestors, urging authorities to respect basic human rights. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who also denounced the violent means taken up by the authorities, says, “...the use of force during protests should always be exceptional and a measure of last resort…" (Al Jazeera, 2020). She also expresses deep concerns regarding curtailment of people’s freedom of expression through the shutdown of the internet and social media, especially during the times of the Covid-19 pandemic.
United States has also condemned the violence and claims to coordinate with the EU to assist in the conflict.
“The Belarusian people achieve sovereignty and freedom”, says Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo (Tharoor, 2020). "The US is planning and directing everything, and the Europeans are playing up to it" (CGTN, 2020).
However, Lukashenko has blamed the US for instigating the protests which have intensified after the election results. Even the basic standards were not maintained while conducting the elections by Belarus authorities, making the opposition’s assertion completely credible, claims Steffen Seibert, spokesperson of the German government. He further adds,
"... the political leadership of the country must accept the will of its citizens" (The Moscow Times, 2020).
Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has also approached Putin to mediate and initiate a dialogue to de-escalate the situation. Additionally, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Dominic Raab, declared that the British government denounces the results of the contested elections. Further, claiming the urgency of the situation, Raab says,
"The UK will work with our international partners to sanction those responsible, and hold the Belarusian authorities to account"(Stone, 2020).
The unfair use of force against peaceful protestors, the rampant detentions and mistreatment by security forces have raised concerns among the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Foreign ministers of Nordic-Baltic countries and the Lublin Triangle came up with a joint statement expressing their concerns towards the citizens and the escalation of the situation, urging authorities to refrain from violent means. Most of the European Nations stand united and have called for a hardline approach against Lukashenko’s regime. Countries such as Austria, Norway and Japan claim that they do not recognize the results and have questioned the legitimacy of the system. Estonia has also criticized the election procedure at the United Nations Security Council meeting, France and Poland are deeply concerned about the prevailing violence and the breach of human rights, Greece and Ireland confirmed their stand with the Union against Belarus authorities. Luxembourg, Netherland and Slovenia have called for new elections following proper guidelines.
The Slovak Republic claims it ‘unacceptable’, urging authorities to follow basic principles of democracy. Latvia supports the need for individual sanctions along with Lithuania which is ready to mediate the crisis and has agreed to impose economic sanctions against Belarus authorities. The President of Lithuania has also extended support to Tsikhanouskaya for the ‘Coordination Council’ which aims to end political persecution, release political prisoners in Belarus and conduct new elections with international supervision.
On the other hand, some have congratulated Lukashenko for his victory. Chinese President, Xi Jinping, sent a congratulatory message to Lukashenko. China has been especially interested in the region due to its investments which are part of its Belt and Road Initiative. After the Ukraine crisis, Lukashenko seeks to strengthen Belarusian foreign policy to limit dependence on Russia by improving relations with the EU and the US along with attracting investments from China. The Chinese grabbed this situation as an opportunity to connect the BRI with Europe. However, China is uncertain about this after the protests, as the fate of Belarus is ruptured considering the responses it has received from the West.
Thus, the crisis has forced Lukashenko to seek support from Russia. Moscow has long expressed its interest in Belarus. President Vladimir Putin, along with congratulating Lukashenko, has assured military support if and when needed. Moreover, due to the weakening of relations with the West, China and Russia have boosted their bilateral ties. They have been on the same page concerning the call for EU and other ‘outside actors’ to stop intervening in the crisis of Belarus. General Secretary and President of Vietnam, Sultan of Oman and President of Turkey have all acknowledged the President’s success and congratulated him.
Concerning the brutal torture and ill-treatment that detainees and protestors have undergone, several Civil Society Organizations such as Amnesty International, International Federation for Human Rights and the like, have condemned the ‘arbitrary detainment and torture’ of peaceful protestors as ‘crimes against humanity’. Furthermore, concerning internet disruption and censorship, voices have been raised to ensure citizens ‘right to freedom of information and expression’ and investigate the issue instead of suppressing the demonstrations. Various testimonies gathered by such organizations have brought forward the plight of protesters as horrifying and tormenting.
The Way Forward
The unprecedented brutality in the region has gained attention from across the globe. The vicious suppressing of protests has led to the escalation of demonstrations. The State’s intention for using force and violence was to instigate fear in the minds of the people. However, the Belarusian community comes out determined and united to stand up for its rights. The spontaneity and self-organization of the protests happening in the absence of political leadership are exceptional.
"We can see clear attempts of outside meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state to create a rift in society and destabilize the situation", claims Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson (Scott Neuman, 2020).
Such accusations can be extremely contentious considering the fact that the State is violating a body of laws. There is an urgent need for voices and actions from the international community. Moreover, protesters should continue demonstrating their aspirations in a peaceful manner. Support and solidarity of all forms are needed now more than ever. Detention and torture of law-abiding citizens should be rebuked in any possible way. Dialogues are a grassroots-level mechanism for conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Hence, it is important for Belarusian authorities to initiate one to stabilize the situation. Authorities must perform their duties and fulfil their responsibilities towards the nation and its citizens, refraining from acting in the interest of a particular party or leader.
Lastly, Mother Teresa’s words, “Human rights are not a privilege conferred by the government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity”, fits perfectly in support of the people of Belarus. Although the citizens have been receiving a lot of international support, the fate of the people and the country remains volatile and unclear.
(2020, August 13). Retrieved from Al Jazeera: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/08/belarus-protests-human-rights-chief-condemns-crackdown-200812193921140.html
CGTN. (2020, August 22). Retrieved from https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-08-22/Belarus-leaders-blames-U-S-s-involvement-vows-to-end-protests-T9IFrhv5AY/index.html
Scott Neuman, L. K. (2020, August 13). NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/08/13/902148185/women-in-belarus-take-to-the-streets-to-protest-post-election-crackdown
Stone, J. (2020, August 17). Independent . Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/belarus-election-result-2020-protest-uk-lukashenko-dominic-raab-latest-a9673596.html
Tharoor, I. (2020, August 18). The Washington Post . Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/08/18/belarus-protests-lukashenko-trump/
The Moscow Times. (2020, August 10). Retrieved from https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/08/10/how-the-world-has-reacted-to-belarus-presidential-vote-a71102
This article is part of our Special Report on the crisis in Belarus. You can view the complete catalog of articles on this subject here.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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The author is a graduate of Hindu College, University of Delhi, India, and the Symbiosis School of International Studies, India.