Grace Gardiner | Europe & Eurasia Fellow
In a recent episode of his ABC radio show, Australian journalist Phillip Adams described Belarus as ‘a place where time has stopped’; an expression often given to the world’s peripheries. But, if it ever was stuck in the past, protests against the recent re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko have jolted Belarus violently into the present.
Reports from Belarus tell a stark story of widespread police brutality against protesters and abductions of opposition leaders by the secret police. The sheer scale of the protests, and the ferocity of the government’s response to them, suggest that, for better or worse, this is a defining moment in Belarusian history.
But the protests in Belarus are both inspired by, and have implications for, events far beyond its own borders. There is a current wave of protests across the world, and Belarusians have taken cues from the movements that came before them. International responses to the unrest force us to confront how dedicated the global community really is to supporting democracy in the face of repression. Global support for the Belarusian people at this time, or a lack thereof, sends a broader message about what other protesters around the world can expect from the international community.
The Belarusian protests
Lukashenko came to power in 1994’s free and fair elections, held after the tumultuous breakup of the USSR. Lukashenko soon led Belarus away from democracy, combining elements of the old Soviet system under his figurehead as ‘Europe’s last dictator’. Repression of dissent was a characteristic of the regime from the beginning, and protests against his leadership have erupted before, notably after the 2010 elections.
Today’s protests, however, are far more organised and widespread than any before. Closer community cooperation developed in Belarus this year out of necessity, filling the state’s deliberate absence of any COVID-19 response. This connection, solidarity, and frustration among Belarusian people came to the fore on election night. Protests began after the questionable results revealed an 80 per cent victory to Lukashenko.
This followed a long electoral campaign by an unusual yet wildly popular opposition movement, led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. But, despite the popularity of Tsikhanouskaya’s movement, these protests go beyond the opposition movement and represent a genuine expression of Belarusian desire for change.
The world of protest
State-run television in Belarus devotes little coverage to the protests. Soon after the protests started, reports emerged of internet disruptions that prevented Belarusians from accessing local and international news outlets. In response, local journalists and protestors looked to other social movements across the world for ways around government monitoring and censorship.
Encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram have come to provide a secure means of communicating and information-sharing for protesters around the world. Before the Belarus unrest, protestors used Telegram in both the Hong Kong pro-democracy and American Black Lives Matter movements.
Using encrypted apps to organise and share information without being monitored by governments or other hostile parties is a hallmark of the new global wave of protest. The main Telegram channel spreading news from the Belarus protests is Nexta, which has 1.5 million subscribers.
The Belarusian protests also mirror other movements in terms of their structure, as they have no single leader and involve citizens from all walks of society.
Defence of democracy
The international response to the situation in Belarus has been deliberately cautious. The obvious interested party is Russia: Putin has been the uncontested leader of Russia for almost the same time as Lukashenko in Belarus. The threat posed by an anti-government movement by Russian-speaking people so close to the motherland has not gone unnoticed. Lukashenko has been brazen in calling on greater Russian support for his regime, warning that ‘if Belarus collapses… Russia will be next’. Russia has attributed the protests to ‘foreign agents’, but otherwise appears to be behaving cautiously: comparisons to 2014’s annexation of Crimea are, as yet, only speculative.
Despite being the self-professed defender of democracy in the region, the EU has a tricky line to maintain on the issue, navigating sensitive relations with Russia and typical in-fighting over the best response to the crisis. The EU refused to recognise the election results released by Lukashenko’s government in August, and has expressed intentions to impose sanctions on the country.
Some EU member states have gone further in their support of the Belarusian people. The Polish government has offered asylum to members of the opposition party and an 11 million euro aid package to help Belarusians move to Poland. Lithuania, too, has taken in fleeing opposition leaders and criticised the EU’s reluctance to act.
Like so many protest zones around the world, Belarus finds itself caught between competing interests and values of the contemporary era. The Belarusian protests are thus not removed from the rest of the world. They force real questions that the international community needs to face: how much do we really value democracy and the freedom of people? Do we defend it above all else, or do we subjugate it to economic or diplomatic concerns, or in deference to maintaining the status quo?
For the time being, faced with an uncertain international response, the best inspiration the Belarusian people have found is from those engaged in similar fights against entrenched power.
Grace Gardiner is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.