Last Thursday, an estimated 63,000 Belarusians took to the streets in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a reluctant candidate thrust into the presidential elections following her candidate husband’s arrest and backed by other opposition candidates also prevented from taking part in this Sunday’s elections.
This was not the first time, either. In recent weeks, people have taken to the streets in the tens of thousands time and time again ahead of this week’s presidential election, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Some 26 years ago, my family left Minsk just before the country’s incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko, was elected. As we packed our things, my parents, like others across the city, watched the country’s first political campaigns with curiosity and apprehension. Elections were not something anyone was used to taking seriously after years of Soviet rule. These were the country’s first free and fair elections - and turns out, also the last.
Lukashenko, who was elected in 1994, is often described as “Europe’s last dictator.” For the past three decades, he has curated campaigns that have delivered 80 per cent majorities. He is a populist who has brutally maintained power by keeping a tight lid on civil society, disqualifying electoral rivals from standing, and by playing the West and Russia against each other.
This time around, his popularity has been assailed by years of economic stagnation - which has badly affected his core blue-collar constituency - as well as his eccentric mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He kept sports stadiums open, describing restrictive measures taken to curb the spread in other countries as an act of “frenzy and psychosis.” At the same time, he played ice-hockey in front of crowds and espoused the virtues of drinking vodka, driving tractors, and taking saunas to keep the virus at bay.
Yet, as he makes his pitch for a sixth term, there is a different feeling among Belarusians. On this occasion, he faces a popular - if unlikely opponent - in Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former teacher and translator who never thought she would be involved in politics, let alone run for president. Tikhanovskaya registered her candidacy after her husband, an opposition candidate for the presidency and a popular YouTube blogger, was first disqualified then arrested.
Her main policies are simple: release all political prisoners and hold free and fair elections within six months. Two other women - the wife of another opposition candidate and a campaign representative of a third candidate - have also joined Tikhanovskaya’s campaign and created a unified opposition.
There is hope, again, on the streets of Belarus. However, even with the opposition’s swelling ranks, President Lukashenko shows no signs of giving up power, and hardly anyone expects Tikhanovskaya to be allowed to win the official tally, regardless of how many votes she receives. The government’s falsification of the election results is already in full swing, including removing curtains from voting booths to remind voters that their ballots are closely watched.
What the protests in recent weeks have shown, though, is that if the opposition is perceived to win and that is not reflected in the official results, Belarusians will continue to come out in unprecedented numbers to protest. In response, Lukashenko can also be expected to resort to violence and more repressions to hold on to power as he did in 2010.
In such a situation, there will be few potential mediators. Russia is discredited as it is busy with suppressing dissent at home, and the US seems more friend than foe to authoritarian regimes under President Donald Trump. This leaves the European Union as the most important actor in the event of a disputed result. What comes out of this moment will depend as much on the EU as on Belarusians. Citizens can take to the streets and vote, but only outside pressure will make Lukashenko respect the demands for democracy.
Despite crises at home, Europeans want more international cooperation and an EU that will stand up for their interests and rights. As Lukashenko has distanced himself from Russia due to Russia’s overtures for unification of the two states, he had become more dependent on European aid. It is important for the EU to remind him that aid is conditional on elections being more than an exercise in using a well-worn rubber stamp.
And, on this, it has been encouraging to see one of the Vice Presidents of the European Parliament, Nicola Beer, speak to pro-democracy Belarusian protesters in Frankfurt, and assure them that the EU is following the events closely. Ultimately, though, the EU’s actions will speak louder than its words.
Watching these events, I am filled with excitement and tempered by trepidation, as these women bring fresh hope to the streets I walked as a child. At a time when democracy seems to be in peril in the West, it is invigorating to see so much of the energy we were searching for finally blossoming at home. Imagine what it could become if it were finally allowed to grow?
- Tatyana Margolin is director of the Eurasia Program at the Open Society Foundations
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