By Heeya Firdaus
Image credit: Forbes
Often called “Europe’s last dictatorship”, Belarus has recently erupted in protests, perhaps in hopes of disproving that alarming title. On August 9th, the nation’s electoral polls indicated a win for incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko with an overwhelming (and deeply unrealistic) majority of 80%, despite his clearly unpopular policies and the presence of popular support for his opposition.
Out of patience, citizens of Belarus took to the streets to protest the victory of Lukashenko. They subsequently met with a brutal police crackdown which resulted in political opposition having to go into exile, peaceful demonstrators being shot at, innocent civilians being jailed, and other all too familiar responses that we see authoritarian governments resort to in the face of public dissent. It is widely concluded that the elections were heavily rigged to guarantee Lukashenko’s landslide victory. However, this does not come as a surprise to the people of Belarus who have witnessed numerous similar incidents making a mockery of their democracy, their franchise, and right to popular sovereignty in the last 26 years. Lukashenko has been miraculously winning elections by unrealistic majorities and most often inflated margin of victories despite his rule becoming increasingly centralised, undemocratic, and oppressive.
Formerly part of the USSR, Belarus has had Lukashenko as its President since 1994, making him Europe’s longest-serving leader or perhaps its last dictator. Lukashenko’s love for Soviet-style governance is clear from his policies which are reminiscent of Soviet-era authoritarianism comprising heavy censorship and control of media, suppression of dissent, intentions to “bring back serfdom” in the name of “efficiency,” the indiscriminate imprisonment of opposers and, of course, the tainted Soviet relic, the KGB, still in use in the nation to covertly “monitor” dissidents.
In Lukashenko’s Belarus, justice is what his government deems it to be. Human rights activists and any critics whatsoever are promptly imprisoned on fabricated charges or are sent to “labour camps” where they are treated with utmost harshness, being denied basic necessities such as proper food. In complete violation of the citizens’ right to peacefully protest, in the August clashes, the police fired at unarmed protestors grievously injuring and killing many. The role of a free press, the 4th pillar of democracy, has been quashed as journalists covering the protests have been jailed. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s main political rival, was also forced into exile having suspiciously lost the elections despite having vast majority support. Her husband, one of the opposition leaders, was previously jailed as well.
The August elections elicited the largest protests against the government that Belarus had ever witnessed. However, they were rendered inconsequential before the blatant abuse and weaponization of the electoral machinery, polity, and law enforcement of Belarus by its dictator. While most of the world, including the United Nations, was raising alarm regarding the exploitation of democratic principles in Belarus, the Russian Federation and China seemed content with Lukashenko’s forceful return to power. It is, however, no surprise that Putin chose to openly support the wrongful appointment of Lukashenko. Putin and Lukashenko have eerily similar track-records. Like Lukashenko, Putin too has virtually remained all-powerful in Russia immediately after Yeltsin and right up until 2020. Lukashenko’s policies bear a close resemblance to Putin’s. They both aim to consolidate unitary power, taking away autonomy from states and provinces, both have chosen a path that completely disregards human rights, both have manipulated state machinery to their own advantage time and again and both have a history of fraudulent elections being tactfully carried out through discarding of opposition candidacy on fabricated grounds and harassing interest groups which do not conform to the state’s opinion.
Putin manipulated the Russian Constitution’s prescribed term for Presidents so that he may virtually control the government even when he is not the President. He did this by alternating terms with his right-hand man, Dmitri Medvedev, who would serve when Putin couldn’t and would in turn appoint Putin as his successor. China too is no stranger to authoritarian governance. With its one-party system, China may claim to be a democratic nation by virtue of the election of officials within the party to local government positions, it still has an inherent and dominant culture of Nomenklatura. This system of low-level officials being recruited on the basis of recommendations of senior officials completely nullifies the purpose of elections of local officials, since these officials are bound to follow party loyalties if they are to move up the hierarchy. Like Belarus, China is notorious for having no place for political opposition and being quick to suppress any dissent immediately and violently.
From the streak of authoritarian forces dominating political theatres in Europe, Asia, and the Americas (Trump just won’t admit it), what is clear to us is a definite rise of right-wing fascist leadership dominating modern politics and setting us back hundreds of years, rendering years of activism and revolutionary, progressive thought useless and presenting to us a dangerous juxtaposition of a rapidly modernising population being represented by an oppressive band of leaders weaponizing sacred political principles to silence the very people they are meant to protect.