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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

Belarus: Europe’s Last Dictatorship

Written by Kevin Jennings

Belarus became part of the Russian empire in the late 1700s. Though they had a short lived National Republic in the early 1900s, they were forcibly absorbed by the Bolsheviks, occupied by Nazi Germany, and then retaken by Stalin and the USSR in 1944. It would remain under Russian control until the people of Belarus declared their sovereignty in 1990, shortly before the fall of the USSR.

              However, it would be another four years before Belarus would adopt a national constitution and hold their first presidential elections. Having been controlled by foreign powers for the majority of the previous 200 years, one might think that the people would be ready to embrace democracy. Perhaps they even were, so how did this presidential election result in what is now referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship?

Election of 1994

By Okras – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34558726

            Belarus held its first, and arguably only, free and fair election beginning on June 24, 1994. It was a two round election featuring six candidates. After the first round of voting, there would be a runoff between the two highest scoring candidates. Among the two winners of the first round of voting was Alexander Lukashenko, who had received over 45% of the vote, nearly triple that of the next candidate. The second round of voting saw Lukashenko emerge victorious with 80.1% of the vote.

              It was as decisive a victory as could be imagined. The key to Lukashenko’s success was the delay between the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the presidential elections of Belarus. Both Russia and Ukraine had held their first presidential elections back in 1991, and as far as the people of Belarus were concerned, it wasn’t going well. The transition to what was referred to as “wild capitalism” was seen as being chaotic and overrun by criminal enterprise.

              Lukashenko offered an alternative. He was a former collective farm manager and Communist official, and was the only official in Soviet Belarus’s legislature to vote against the nation’s independence from Russia. With capitalism being seen as destroying the region, Lukashenko instead wanted to reintegrate Belarus and Russia, though he wanted to do it on Belarus’s terms.

              This was an attractive alternative to allowing their nation to be destroyed by wild capitalism and controlled by billionaire oligarchs, except the reality of what would happen was much different. Though the early and mid 1990s was a period of growing pains for the former Soviet Union, their quality of life later improved dramatically compared to both life under communism and under their transitional period to capitalism. Most importantly, it improved dramatically compared to the lives of people in Belarus.

By the mid 2000s, it was clear to most people that Lukashenko’s plan had failed. Like the majority of politicians from any country, he made a bunch of insane promises in order to get elected, promises that he was not able to deliver upon. Unfortunately, by the time everybody realized that it was already too late.

Referendum of 1995

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_hunger_strike_of_deputies_to_the_Supreme_Council_building,_Belarus,_1995.jpg

            The Belarusian Referendum of 1995 contained four questions. The first was if the Russian language should be given equal status to Belarusian. The second was about economic integration with Russia. The third was about changing the flag and coat of arms of Belarus. Finally, the fourth question was if the president should have unilateral and unquestioned authority to dissolve parliament and hold new elections in the case of “systematical or gross violations of the Constitution.”

              Parliament set a date for the referendum, but they only approved the second question. Lukashenko said that all four questions would be on the referendum anyway, and that he would no longer be dealing with parliament in its present form. Nineteen members of parliament went on a hunger strike within the parliament building in protest of Lukashenko’s decision to place all four questions on the referendum. Under the guise of a bomb threat, special police forces were sent into parliament to beat and forcibly remove the protesting MPs.

              On May 14, 1995, the vote for the referendum was held. With nearly 5 million votes cast, each question passed with a range of 78-87% of the vote. This vote was heavily criticized as being illegitimate for fairly obvious reasons. In addition to the referendum being legally invalid as it was not approved by parliament, the state controlled media was used to heavily influence voters. There were other concerns of voter tampering and intimidation as well, though these are less substantiated. While other nations condemned the referendum, Russia supported the reported official results.

              Lukashenko may have now had the power to dissolve parliament, but thanks to heavily state controlled media, it wasn’t necessary yet. Parliamentary elections were the same month as the referendum, which provided Lukashenko with an opportunity to fill parliament with as many loyalist as possible.

              Not only was Lukashenko an authoritarian, he was also an isolationist, separating Belarus from its European neighbours. This, combined with his regressive policies, would have terrible negative consequences for the Belarusian populace, but that wasn’t really Lukashenko’s concern.

Referendum of 1996

141088 02.04.1997 Торжественная церемония подписания Договора об образовании Союза России и Белоруссии во Владимирском зале Большого Кремлевского дворца. Президент РФ Борис Ельцин и президент Белоруссии Александр Лукашенко во время подписания договора. Владимир Родионов/РИА Новости
By RIA Novosti archive, image #141088 / Vladimir Rodionov / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18970220

              In the summer of 1996, parliament signed a petition to impeach Lukashenko. This meant it was time for Lukashenko to hold another referendum. This time, there were seven questions being voted on, and it was quite a range. Some of the questions were banal, such as abolition of the death penalty or changing the country’s official Independence Day to the date they were liberated from the Nazis rather than when the left the Soviet Union.

              However, two questions had much weightier consequences. One question was about amendments to the constitution written by the Supreme Soviet, Belarus’s unicameral legislature. The other question was amendments to the constitution written by Lukashenko himself. Of the seven questions on the referendum, only two were passed. The first was the change of Belarus’s recognized Independence Day. The other, were Lukashenko’s constitutional amendments.

              The amendments written by Lukashenko greatly expanded the power of the president. According to the constitution, elections were to be held every five years. These amendments would instead extend his first term until 2001, grant him total control over the budget, and give anything that he decreed the force of law. Immediately upon the announcement of the official results, in which Lukashenko’s constitution was approved by a landslide, both the United States and the European Union called bullshit and refused to accept the results as legitimate.

              Their claims were not without merit either, as the entire affair had been an exercise in illegality. Before the vote, Lukashenko illegally removed the chairman of the commission responsible for maintaining election integrity from office, thus rendering the commission unable to check the legitimacy of the vote.

              Local referendum commissions were required to be set up no later than one month before the vote, but most were only set up 5-7 days beforehand. Even though this was a government election, the funding for the referendum came from anonymous “charitable” donations, instead of from the state budget. And of course, there was the typical campaign of state sponsored media to sway the voters.

              But the media propaganda was not simply limited to television, newspapers, and radio. Propaganda was present at polling stations. Polling stations also had no booths for secret voting, and they did not have the text of the proposed constitutional amendments available to voters. This meant that voters had to make a decision without even knowing what they were voting on.

              And they had to make a decision. Voters were called and sometimes forced to vote early by the government, with nearly 25% of votes having already been cast before election day. The ballots on which they were voting had also been printed by the Office of Presidential Affairs, and they were taken directly to polls with no accounting for how many ballots actually existed. There was also evidence of widespread voter fraud and forgery, and damaged seals on ballot boxes.

              In short, everything about this election was at best highly illegal and at worst blatant corruption. Some accounts claimed that as high as 50% of the ballots cast were fraudulent, but the damage was done. According to the official report, Lukashenko’s amendments to the constitution had passed. He would not be up for reelection until 2001, and he dissolved parliament, instead replacing it with loyalists to put a stop to any potential impeachment. The former parliament would continue to meet and were regarded by most of the world as the legitimate government of Belarus, but they were unable to wield any power.

By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5313692

The Next Elections

              In 2001 Lukashenko was up for reelection, and it was another election marred by controversy. Within 90 minutes of polls closing, he had already declared victory in the election. The Central Election Commission would go on to announce that he had received 75% of the vote, with his closest opponent only receiving 15%. Opposition officials would claim this was a complete and utter lie, and that Lukashenko had only received 47% of the vote.

              While 47% was still higher than his closest opponent at a suspected 41%, the law would have required a runoff election between just those two candidates. While the official numbers are almost certainly unreliable, these numbers may not be reliable either as there were no opposition representatives among the election officials. Lukashenko had complete control of the election and of the media that reported on it.

              Of course, the opposition might have tried to report an even closer election or even an outright loss by Lukashenko had the preferred candidates been on the ballot. Unfortunately, leading up to the election as many as 30 high profile opposition figures suddenly vanished. Their disappearances have still not been solved, but there seems to be only one reasonable assumption. Among those that disappeared were the former interior minister, the former chairman of the Central Election Commission, and even Lukashenko’s former personal cameraman.

              Similar to the United States, the Belarusian Constitution imposed a two term limit on the office of the presidency. This is meant to serve as a safety valve to prevent a tyrant from taking the role of president for life. The problem with such a safety valve is that it doesn’t work once someone has already taken unilateral control of all aspects of the government. Lukashenko had granted himself immense power already, and he had already shown that the will of the people was completely irrelevant in the face of rigged elections.

              With that in mind, another referendum was put to a vote in 2004, one that would drop term limits and allow Lukashenko to run for a third term in 2006. Once again, the referendum passed with 80% of the vote.

              By 2006, any pretense of Lukashenko being anything other than a dictator had been dropped. There would still be an election just for show, but it wasn’t going to be fair. Belarusian presidential elections featured several candidates, but in the lead-up to the 2006 election opposition groups tried to get everybody to rally behind a single candidate. There was no use in multiple candidates cannibalizing the opposition votes and preventing them from reaching the required 50%, not that there was much use in putting up a candidate at all.

              In response to the attempts to unify all of the opposition, Lukashenko said that anyone at an opposition protest would have their neck wrung “as one might a duck”. Mysterious disappearances were not a rare occurrence, so this was clearly not an empty threat.

              On March 19, 2006, the polls opened. Exit polls projected Lukashenko to win with 84% of the vote, however people were quick to point out that the exit poll results were released over 8 hours before the polls had even closed. Regardless, the official results that were announced claimed that he had indeed captured 84% of the vote, thus confirming his third presidential term.

              That’s when the sanctions started. Belarus’s economy had already been on a downturn since 1995, with multiple periods of high levels of inflation.  Following yet another sham election, both the United States and European Union imposed heavy sanctions on Belarus, but Lukashenko didn’t care. Large scale protests broke out following the fraudulent election, resulting in hundreds of arrests.

By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10179862

Continued Corruption

              In 2008, it was once again time for parliamentary elections with 110 seats up for grabs. Though there were many opposition candidates on the ballots, unsurprisingly all 110 seats went to Lukashenko’s loyalists.

              In an attempt to improve relations with the United States and the EU, 2010 would mark the closest thing to a free election Belarus had seen since 1994. However, the election wasn’t supposed to happen until 2011. Instead, it was pushed forward four months under the claim it would maximize voter turnout. In reality, the goal was to prevent the opposition from being able to unify under a single candidate. The 2010 election would feature ten total candidates, making it unlikely that any of the opposition would get the required 50% of the vote even had the election been completely fair.

              But this time it was no longer just the US and EU pushing back against Lukashenko. In the very early years of his presidency, one of the few genuinely popular policy ideas he had was economic integration with Russia. With some Russian nationalists loudly broadcasting their desire for Lukashenko to run for president of Russia, it seemed they were no longer interested in tolerating him. Belarus had also offered refuge to the ousted president of Kyrgyzstan which further displeased those in Moscow.

The Russian media attacked him repeatedly, including releasing a documentary titled “The Godfather” detailing the many high profile disappearances that surrounded Lukashenko. Over a decade later, it would come out that Russia had even tried to plan an assassination attempt.

              The 2010 elections were viewed as flawed overall by world organizations, but not nearly as corrupt. Did Lukashenko actually receive the 79% of the vote that was reported? Probably not, but at least the process had been improved. Or at least, the process leading up to the election had been.

              On election day, two opposition candidates were beaten by police and arrested while at rallies for their campaigns. When the election results were announced, over 10,000 protestors tried to storm the House of Government before being pushed back by riot police. By the end of the night, at least seven of Lukashenko’s nine opponents had been arrested.

By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29634582

Tensions in the Region

              A year before Lukashenko would be up for reelection in 2015, Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine.  This caused Lukashenko to reassess his close association with Russia, and it caused the west to reevaluate their stance with Belarus. Following the election, the EU would permanently suspend their sanctions against Belarus and the US would do so temporarily. That may lead one to believe that the people of Belarus had had their first free and fair election in 20 years, but this was not the case.

              As with previous elections, everything was rigged from the start and the outcome was predetermined. The change in attitude seen in the west was not a result of the election being fair, but just on account of it being less violent. Leading up to the election, Lukashenko pardoned six opposition figures, including candidates that were arrested after running against him in 2010.

              The opposition held an unauthorized rally in the capital city of Minsk the night before the election. In previous years this would have been put down immediately, but the rally was allowed to happen without any police interference. However, Lukashenko made it clear that any protests after the election would not be tolerated, something that should have been evident anyway based on the previous elections.

              Though it was a more civil and orderly affair than previous elections, Lukashenko was once again declared the victor with 84% of the vote. Because 50% of the vote is required for a candidate to win, voters have the option to abstain if they disapprove of all of the candidates.  According to the official results, the “none of the above” option on the ballot received more votes than any of Lukashenko’s opponents with 6% of the vote.

              Despite the obviously fraudulent nature of the election, other nations viewed this as a step in the right direction. The election may not have been free, but it was free of the typical violence and mass arrests which was seen as progress. This optimistic view towards democracy in Belarus was not going to last.

              Lukashenko’s goal had been to turn Belarus into a miniature USSR. By keeping production owned by the state, it prevented the rise of billionaire oligarchs who would wield a disproportionate amount of power as had been seen in Ukraine and Russia. While this could have been seen as a somewhat noble goal, it consolidated wealth and power solely in his hands, rather than being split amongst a group of people.

              More importantly, it slowed the formation of a Belarusian middle class. Slowed, but did not stop completely. By the time Lukashenko had to run for his sixth term as president in 2020, it had been 26 years since he came into power and 20 years since the world declared him Europe’s last dictator. It was also when the emerging middle class and advances in technology would force Lukashenko’s hand. The previous elections had been seen as steps in the right direction, but in 2020 Lukashenko would show the true extent of his authoritarianism.

By President.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82826978

The 2020 Election

              Siarhei Tsikhanouski was a popular Belarusian blogger and entrepreneur. On May 6, just three months before the presidential election, he was arrested and detained by police. The official reason given was for his participation in protests the previous December speaking out against the integration of Belarus and Russia. After being released from police custody the following day, Siarhei announced on his YouTube channel that he would be running for president. Actor Volodymyr Zelensky had just been elected president of Ukraine the year before, so why not another entertainer?

              The reasons why are unclear, but Siarhei’s initiative group, the collection of 100,000 or more signatures required to be placed on the ballot, was rejected. Because he was denied the ability to run, his wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, decided to run for president instead. While collecting signatures for her initiative group, Siarhei was again arrested and detained. Sviatlana’s initiative would be accepted making her an official candidate for the presidency, however Siarhei would never be released from prison. After his detention was repeatedly extended, he was finally sentenced to serve 18 years.

              Sviatlana was popular, but Lukashenko publically insisted that Belarus was not ready for a female president. At the time there were three main opposition candidates. Sviatlana was joined by the wife of one of those candidates and the female campaign manager of the other as they merged all three campaigns to back Sviatlana in an attempt to combat Lukashenko with “female solidarity”.

Neither of the other candidates now backing Sviatlana actually had to back out of the race as one wasn’t allowed to register and the other was arrested and remains in prison to this day. Still, this vocal support was important in making Sviatlana the main opposition candidate.

Ten days before the election, a televised debate was to take place. It was intended to be between the three candidates and the confidant of Lukashenko, rather than the president himself. Sviatlana refused to debate on the state controlled TV, but also challenged Lukashenko to a one-on-one debate. This challenge was unexpectedly ignored, but the same night as the televised debate Sviatlana held a rally in Minsk of 63,000-70,000 supporters. Or 18,000 if you choose to believe to Belarusian Interior Minister.

The week leading up to the election was supposed to be filled with authorized rallies and protests led by Sviatlana and her opposition. Instead, it was filled with cancelations due to overbooking or “emergency repairs” of venues. One of the few rallies that did take place saw the two DJs in attendance both arrested for playing music that was deemed illegal in Belarus.

Election day finally came, and support seemed to be firmly in favour of Sviatlana over Lukashenko. Given that every election since 2001 had been incredibly corrupt and the actual votes didn’t matter, it would seem that her overwhelming support was a bit of a moot point. However, this time there was a plan.

An initiative called The Voice invited voters to photograph the front and back of their completed ballots as well as their voting locations. This information could be used to check the information released by the Central Election Commission and prove that it was incorrect. According to the official statement from the Central Election Commission, Lukashenko again won with 81% of the vote.

However, The Voice told a different story. They authenticated images of over 1 million unique ballots, a sizeable percentage of the nearly 7 million ballots cast in the election. Of those authenticated the The Voice, over 95% of votes cast were for Sviatlana. By itself, this percentage isn’t terribly unexpected. Those who sent photos of their ballots would be most likely to be those that questioned the legitimacy of the vote, and so the votes would skew heavily in her favour. But even if the ballots sent to The Voice represented every single vote cast for Sviatlana, which is unlikely, it proved that she had at least double the number of votes that the official results claimed. There was also enough data from certain individual polling locations to prove that the votes from those locations had been falsified.

The night of the election, Sviatlana went to file a formal complaint with the Central Election Commission on the basis that the exit polls could not possibly correct, and she was promptly arrested. She was held for seven hours before authorities escorted her to Lithuania, a condition that she allegedly agreed to in exchange for the release of her campaign manager who had been arrested the night before.

The following night, the official results were announced. There had been protests and riots following elections in Belarus before, but nothing like this. The amount of protestors far exceeded what had been seen in the past, and they were met with a level of violence that had not been seen either. Protests would go on for the next six months, with over 30,000 protestors being arrested and detained, hundreds injured, and at least ten killed. These were the official numbers reported by the government, so the true numbers are likely much higher.

Two days after the election, a video of Sviatlana appeared on the state run media networks. In the video she conceded the election and urged an end to the protests, but the people weren’t buying it. Her statement appeared to be being made under duress, and it was likened to a hostage video.

They were right not to believe it, and it would only be three more days before the now exiled Sviatlana released a video claiming that she won the election with 60-70% of the vote. Already in exile in Lithuania, she was offered asylum in Poland, an offer that was extended to all members of the opposition party. For the past two years, she and others have been trying to create an interim government to facilitate the transfer of power in Belarus. Sviatlana has even been twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for attempting to peacefully take control of the nation away from Lukashenko.

But Lukashenko isn’t interested in giving up power, and the nation’s single ally in Russia would like to see him remain there as well. In 2021, Russia claimed to have uncovered and prevented a military coup and assassination attempt on Lukashenko. As for Russia’s motivation, the Belarusian economy has been doing horribly since the 2020 election. In order to keep the nation afloat, Lukashenko borrowed billions of dollars from Russia. It is believed that by creating debt and keeping Lukashenko in charge, Russia may be able to seize control of Belarus.

Since the last election, Lukashenko also seems to have become paranoid about the future. Not necessarily from the threat of being ousted by Sviatlana as the legitimately elected president, but by coup or assassination. He’s also now 68 years old, so he may be planning around publically undisclosed health concerns as well. He has proposed multiple unconstitutional changes to the succession of power in the event of his death.

The current plan that’s in place, despite being wildly illegal, is that in the event of Lukashenko’s death the country will immediately be placed under martial law, and the power of the presidency will be transferred to the Security Council. The Security Council is made up entirely of loyalists, and is lead by Lukashenko’s eldest son. In this way, he hopes that he can pass control of Belarus directly to his son in the event of his death, removing any last vestiges of the façade of a democracy.

Wrap Up

            Since first being elected president in 1994, Lukashenko has made no attempt to conceal his nature as Europe’s last dictator. Many people are prone to think of Vladimir Putin as a dictator as well, but the situations are very different. Though Putin first became president in 2000, he has not actually been president that entire time. Also, Russia is regarded by the world as having mostly free elections. Though some of the perception is the result of blatant propaganda, Putin is extraordinarily popular among the Russian populace and is capable of winning elections on his own.

              Lukashenko, on the other hand, has controlled every aspect of the elections to ensure he remains in power. He utilizes the police and military to arrest protestors and political opponents, and sometimes even makes them disappear entirely. In 2021 he even went so far as redirected a plane that was flying from Greece to Lithuania, using military planes to force the passenger jet to instead land in Minsk. Once there, authorities boarded the plane to arrest a Belarusian journalist that was critical of Lukashenko.

              It seems there are no lengths that he won’t go to in order to ensure he remains in power for the rest of his life, but his time may be running out. Unrest in Belarus has reached an all time high during his tenure as president, and Sviatlana and the opposition party are tireless at work to try to remove him by diplomatic means. If the reports from Russia about assassination attempts are to be believed as well, he may wind up being removed by any means necessary. Should that happen, we’ll just have to see whether Victor Lukashenko will take over as the heir to his father’s throne, or if democracy will finally be restored.

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