Your browser is out of date. Some of the content on this site will not work properly as a result.
Upgrade your browser for a faster, better, and safer web experience.

Moment that mattered: A disputed election in Belarus sparks protests

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya casts her ballot in Minsk, Belarus, on 9th August

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya casts her ballot in Minsk, Belarus, on 9th August. Photo: Sergei Gapon / AFP

The official results of Belarus’s presidential election on 9th August were as anticipated – a landslide victory for the incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for 26 years and who always wins at the ballot box by suspiciously large margins. Previous allegations of vote-rigging had triggered protests – in 2010 around 600 pro-democracy activists were jailed in a vicious post-election crackdown – but the scale of this year’s uprising in the landlocked eastern European country has been unprecedented. Opponents of the regime believe that time is fast running out for the man often referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictator’.

Mass demonstrations began straight after the release of official results, which saw Lukashenko apparently win 80 percent of the vote. Two days later the main opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who claimed that she was the actual winner, fled to Lithuania, later revealing that the authorities had threatened her family. The 38-year-old political novice, a former English teacher and stay-at-home mother who only entered the race after her activist husband was arrested and detained shortly after announcing his own candidacy, was later joined in exile by political analyst and journalist Franak Viačorka.

“I’m helping her because she’s only been in politics for six months,” says Viačorka when asked about his advisory role in the opposition group. “I help her express herself because she doesn’t always know how to make her messages powerful and impactful. I accompanied her in meetings with [world leaders such as] Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.”

From her base in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, Tsikhanouskaya has appealed to the international community to recognise her as the real winner of the election and the legitimate president of Belarus; Viačorka believes that at least 70 percent of votes cast were for her. She has also created a Coordination Council, which aims to arrange a peaceful transfer of power from Lukashenko to the winner of a new free and fair election that she is calling for. Lukashenko describes her work as akin to a coup and has launched a series of crackdowns to quell the movement she leads from afar. The day after the election police fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at protesters and made over 3,000 arrests – and the intensity of the regime response hasn’t abated in the months since. Nevertheless, every Sunday since the election tens of thousands of protesters have poured into the Belarusian capital Minsk and other cities to back Tsikhanouskaya’s calls for new elections, and her demands for an end to police brutality and the release of political prisoners. The more intense the crackdown gets, the more Belarusians seem to lose their fear.

No one feels safe in Belarus. I have 34 good friends in prison at the moment”

“It’s extremely tough right now for protesters,” says Viačorka, who tells me he fled Belarus because he can achieve more through his work if he isn’t behind bars. At the time of our conversation, 16 weeks after the disputed election, 26 reporters are in prison, according to the Association of Belarusian Journalists, and more than 30,000 protesters have been detained.

“No one feels safe in Belarus,” says Viačorka. “I have 34 good friends in prison at the moment. They’re accused of starting mass riots, promoting coup d’états… We’re seeing the Stalinist repressions from the 1930s come back in the 21st century. Everyone knows someone who has suffered at the hands of the police or the KGB [the secret police, still officially known by their Soviet-era name]. But people aren’t giving up and they’re fighting.”

The main motivator for all of us is to get our friends and relatives released from jail”

Freed detainees have described horrifying abuse. “I’ve been to prison four times myself but the conditions are much worse now,” Viačorka says. “What’s happening in Minsk, while I’m sitting here in comfort in Vilnius, is horrific. Fifty people in cells intended for five people. Humiliation, intimidation, physical torture, rape. Many people have lost limbs, legs, hands, eyes; some will be handicapped for their whole lives.”

“The problem is that we get used to this, and the world gets used to this,” he continues. “I read the stories and I think ‘OK, just another day in Belarus’, but when your friends or relatives get taken, then you pay attention. This is the main motivator for all of us, to get our friends and relatives released soon. Sviatlana still has her husband in jail.”

Viačorka points to a couple of key reasons why the opposition movement has grown so much this year: one is the Covid-19 pandemic, which was largely ignored by Lukashenko. “Belarusians had to help themselves,” he explains. “They created support groups, gathered money for doctors and bought protective gear.” Belarusians saw how civic society did a better job at protecting people than the state, and the strongman leader’s paternalistic appeal was badly dented.

Franak Viačorka and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in their Vilnius HQ

Franak Viačorka and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at their Vilnius HQ. Photo: Arturas Morozovas / Getty Images

Another major factor, Viačorka says, is that women have taken the lead in opposition politics for the first time. “Belarus is very patriarchal and conservative,” he says. “It’s the last Soviet country – it still lives in USSR times, when women didn’t make decisions, when they didn’t really matter [in politics]. For the first time women are realising they do really matter.” Lukashenko has often mocked the notion of women being active in politics, and it may well be the case that Tsikhanouskaya was only permitted to stand in the election because she was underestimated due to her sex.

Two other female opposition leaders have “inspired millions of Belarusians”, according to Viačorka: Veronika Tsepkalo, a prominent activist who fled to Poland; and Maria Kalesnikava, a musician and Coordination Council member who ripped up her passport so she couldn’t be forcibly deported. She was snatched from a Minsk street by masked men in September and remains in prison.

Lukashenko, who for the time being retains the loyalty of the security forces, insists that he would rather die than relinquish power, locking the country in a stalemate. The leader has retained the critical support of Vladimir Putin, but Viačorka thinks the Russian president will run out of patience. “It won’t last forever… They will be preparing for the next phase, which is new elections, new leadership. For Moscow it’s important to ensure they will have the same control as before.” He says he envisages a future Belarus that is “neutral between Russia and the West”.

There’s another unknown factor on the horizon. “There are a lot of big hopes in Belarus for President-elect Biden,” says Viačorka. “Belarus could be his big success story.”

Viačorka is hoping that the international community will impose sanctions on Lukashenko and his inner circle. “Our choice is economic pressure,” he says. “We do not want any violence or interference. We want the world to help us in isolating the regime, to leave it without dollars.” Tsikhanouskaya initially pushed for a dialogue with Lukashenko, who has refused to deal with the opposition. Viačorka says that the opportunity for dialogue with Lukashenko has diminished in recent weeks due to “the killings, the torture, the terror.”

However, some kind of deal allowing him to find a safe haven abroad may be in the offing should his grip on power loosen. “He is looking for a way out and we need to secure a way out for him,” says Viačorka. “Even if we hate him we need to provide him with a solution because the main goal is to avoid more victims.”

Does this mean Lukashenko might not face justice in Belarus for the human rights abuses the opposition claim his regime has committed? “There are many options. He could flee for Russia like [ousted former Ukrainian president] Viktor Yanukovych, or he could get security guarantees and stay in Belarus, which is risky but possible. However, if he continues doing what he’s doing [with violence against protesters] right now he could end up in court.”

Viačorka thinks that Lukashenko will soon lose control over the police, army and security services, and that free elections will take place in the spring. Tsikhanouskaya initially said she only wanted to lead Belarus through the transition period leading to such elections and does not want to be president herself, but Viačorka won’t rule out the possibility that she will run. “She became the symbol of the uprising,” he says. “She will definitely be the leader and the representative of the people during the transition period. But it’s hard to say what’s in the [longer-term] future.”

Regardless of whether Tsikhanouskaya enters power, he believes that a Belarus freed from Lukashenko’s grip can be “one of the most prosperous countries in Europe” – and he plans to return as soon as it’s safe enough to do so. “Every second I’m waiting,” he says. “I dream about the moment I can go back.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #39 of Delayed Gratification

Buy issue Subscribe

More stories...

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
Creative Review

Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
Creative Review

A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
The Telegraph

Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
El Mundo

Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
The Telegraph

A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
Qi podcast

The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme