The year that changed Belarus Meduza looks back on how Lukashenko’s regime crushed the opposition movement
August 9th marks the one year anniversary of the presidential election that sparked a mass opposition movement in Belarus. Since last summer, Alexander Lukashenko’s regime has been carrying out a campaign of repression that has wiped out street protests, forced opposition leaders to flee the country, and all but destroyed the country’s independent media. In total, at least seven opposition demonstrators were killed over the past year and the authorities launched 4,691 criminal cases in connection with the protests. According to the human rights group Viasna, there are currently more than 600 political prisoners in Belarus. Nevertheless, there is no indication that the persecutions are coming to an end: some opposition leaders are only now going to trial and there’s an ongoing campaign to liquidate independent civil society organizations. Meduza looks back on the events of this pivotal year for Belarus.
Belarus, August 9, 2020. Election officials announce that Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) has won his sixth consecutive presidential election with 80 percent of the vote. Opposition protests erupt and are violently dispersed by riot police. Thousands are detained and dozens are injured on the first night of the demonstrations. Under pressure from the authorities, Lukashenko’s main rival in the elections, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya), flees Belarus for Lithuania and announces the creation of a Opposition Coordination Council. Detainees expose widespread torture and dehumanization in Belarusian jails. Women across Belarus form human chains to protest the violence — the police don’t interfere. Journalists from state television quit their jobs, former servicemen and police officers throw away their uniforms, and factory and IT workers come out in protest. Five thousand people attend a memorial gathering in honor of Alexander Taraikovsky, the first protester killed by the security forces. Lukashenko has a phone call with Vladimir Putin six days after the election. Lukashenko addresses his supporters in Minsk, saying “[If] you destroy the first president it will be the beginning of your end.” That same day, 200,000 opposition protesters gather in the city center (a record number in the independent history of Belarus). Factory workers boo Lukashenko. European leaders refuse to recognize the election results. Another opposition protest in downtown Minsk draws 150,000 people. Lukashenko arrives at his official residence by helicopter with an assault rifle in hand. Weekend protest marches in Minsk become a weekly event. Students start holding opposition rallies (a year later, 12 people will be sentenced to up to two years in prison for these demonstrations).
Fall 2020. The Belarusian authorities open dozens of criminal cases against protesters; not a single case is opened against law enforcement officers, even though the authorities will receive more than 4,000 complaints in total. Opposition leaders are arrested or forced out of the country (Maria Kolesnikova rips up her own passport to avoid being forced abroad). Reporters from Russian state media (mainly from Russia Today) come to assist Belarusian state television, which subsequently adopts more aggressive rhetoric. Lukashenko promises to amend the constitution and hold new elections in 2022. He also meets with Putin for the first time since the election. Lukashenko is inaugurated in a “secret” ceremony. Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, who called on Lukashenko to step down, leaves the country. Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya organizes a nationwide strike. Lukashenko instructs the authorities to shut down businesses that participated in it. The authorities open a criminal case against more than 200 people for taking part in a memorial march. Oppositionist Raman Bandarenka dies in hospital after getting beaten up in Minsk. The authorities maintain that he was drunk and proceed to arrest a journalist and a doctor for contradicting this claim (they will later be sentenced to time in prison). Law enforcement disperses a memorial rally in honor of Bandarenka; two journalists are imprisoned for two years for live streaming the gathering. Despite a second coronavirus wave, the authorities begin persecuting healthcare workers (including very well-known doctors). Statistics show that 40 percent of IT workers don’t want to work in Belarus and plan to emigrate. Law enforcement officers break up neighborhood protest marches. In the new year, Belarus loses the right to host the Ice Hockey World Championship and is barred from the Eurovision Song Contest. The Belarusian Attorney General’s Office seeks to declare the main symbol of the opposition protests, the white-red-white flag, extremist. Tikhanovskaya admits that the opposition movement has “lost the streets.”
The opposition calls on Belarusians to take to the streets on Freedom Day (March 25), but there are no large-scale protests. The Belarusian authorities open several criminal cases against Tikhanovskaya, but Lithuania refuses to extradite her, saying “hell will freeze over” before they hand the opposition leader over to Minsk. The Belarusian KGB and Russian FSB reveal an alleged plot to assassinate Lukashenko (Putin accuses the West of pretending not to notice). Lukashenko declares that in the event of his death, power should be handed over to the Belarusian Security Council. He also signs laws exempting the security forces from liability for harm caused by the use of force and banning fundraising to help detainees pay fines. The authorities block Tut.by, the most popular independent news outlet in the country; 13 Tut.by employees are detained on tax fraud charges (the remaining journalists later launch a new media outlet).
A commercial flight travelling from Athens to Vilnius is forced to land in Minsk; the Belarusian authorities arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Russian national Sofia Sapega. The European Union closes its airspace to Belarusian airlines and imposes sectoral sanctions on Belarus. Protasevich praises Lukashenko and condemns the opposition in a forced interview on Belarusian state TV. He and Sofia Sapega are transferred from jail to house arrest. Lukashenko proclaims that Belarus will not stop migrants from attempting to cross its borders with the EU — Lithuania becomes embroiled in a migration crisis. In another attack on civil society and independent media, journalists and human rights activists are detained en masse, the authorities block the news site Nasha Niva (prompting it to shut down its operations in Belarus while its journalists relocate abroad), and the website of the Warsaw-based news channel Belsat is declared extremist. The authorities shut down more than 50 non-profit organizations. Former presidential hopeful Viktor Babariko (once considered Lukashenko’s main rival) is sentenced to 14 years in a maximum security prison. Sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refuses to return to Belarus after sports officials pressure her into quitting the Tokyo Olympics. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya meets with U.S. President Joe Biden. Lukashenko travels to Russia to meet with Putin nearly every month. At the end of July, he sends proposed amendments to the constitution back for revision.