This report was compiled by Rory Gannon
A nation’s path to democracy is rarely smooth. Throughout history, newly independent countries have struggled to consolidate new governments. In 2015 Myanmar’s first free and fair elections were not eagerly embraced by the military that had held power in the country for over twenty years. The following election in 2020 has since led to the restoration of military power, where democratic elections have been immediately discarded.
The same can be said for former Soviet republics that straddle the border between Western and Russian spheres of influence. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, nations that had not had free and fair elections in almost seventy years suddenly had democracy thrust upon them. Some countries – such as the Baltic States – embraced the electoral freedom now available to them and have since joined Western institutions promoting the democratic rule of law. Others have struggled to get off the ground, with corruption widespread across all forms of government.
One of these countries is Belarus, which has been grappled in a political crisis following a presidential election in early August which many domestic and international human rights organisations have denounced. In one corner, there is the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since its independence from the USSR in 1991. Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule as President has isolated the country from many of its European counterparts – Belarus is one of only two countries not to be a member state of the Council of Europe: the other being the Vatican City.
His opponent is Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya, an English teacher turned politician following her husband Sergei’s imprisonment after he spoke out against Lukashenko. In the run-up to the election, the opposition candidate garnered massive support both at home and abroad for her pro-democracy manifesto, drawing the largest anti-government protests since Belarus’ independence.
Following the August 9 election, which saw Lukashenko triumph over Tsikhanovskaya with an official result of just over 80%, a schism opened between the President and the people. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians contesting the result of the election came out to protest, proclaiming Sviatlana to be the official winner. The government’s response to the demonstrations was to implement a heavy police crackdown and all anti-government symbols – including the now symbolic white-red-white flag – have been outlawed. The result also drove Tsikhanovskaya and her family into exile in neighbouring Lithuania, where she currently resides.
Spanning The Divide
Since then, the political divide has spread to an international level with an East-West split regarding reactions to both the election results and the subsequent crackdown on protests. In the West, powers such as the United States and the European Union (EU) collectively refused to recognise the result and denounce the suppression of demonstrations. To the East, Russia’s Putin, and China’s Xi Jinping congratulated Lukashenko’s election, with Putin’s administration going as far as criticising the demonstrations.
Belarus’ strategic position on the fringes of Europe has also proven to be a double-edged sword, as both Moscow and Brussels scramble to influence the now-fragile rule of law in the country and push it in their own respective directions. Lukashenko has pushed for closer ties with Russia, with a Union State between Minsk and Moscow already in effect – providing Belarus with military and financial aid. Meanwhile, Tsikhanovskaya has been actively campaigning for aid for protesters at the UN and the EU, while also receiving recognition for her work to bring free and fair elections to the country. Ms Tsikhanovskaya also led an international push to raise awareness of the situation in Belarus in early February.
Many have likened the crisis in Belarus to one akin to Ukraine six years prior, where pro-democracy protestors overthrew the pro-Russian president, only for the country to enter an armed conflict with Moscow. Ukraine has since lost control of two eastern regions and Crimea; the latter being annexed by Russia. Many political commentators later remarked that the Ukrainian conflict was to set up a ‘buffer zone’ between Russia and the West, given its strategic position bordering the EU and NATO.
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With one leading politician shunning and another embracing the West, Belarus risks falling victim to a similar clash of post-Cold War ideals. Belarus is a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – which formed a political and economic bloc following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In addition, Belarus heavily relies on Russia for financial and military aid, with Lukashenko securing a $1.5bn loan from Russia in September. At the same time, Belarus sees itself as the frontline to NATO with neighbouring Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland members of the military alliance.
The incumbent president – be it Lukashenko or Tsikhanovskaya – will face an uphill battle should either of their agendas succeed. Much of the international community refuses to recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus, while political and economic pressure from Moscow could quash Tsikhanovskaya’s democracy-led manifesto. The future of Belarus is in the balance between its two vastly different leaders – one looking inwards, one looking abroad. However, the path that Belarus will take will ultimately be determined by its citizens and the international community’s response to their choice.