Belarusian opposition confident in change despite Lukashenko’s “hell” year – POLITICO

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A year after his marred electoral victory, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko continues to resort to violence and intimidation against his opponents at home and abroad to cling to power.

But the opposition does not lose hope that he can be driven out.

“The fight has taken longer than we would like,” Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival in the August 9, 2020 presidential election, said in an interview with POLITICO. “But people don’t say we won’t be successful in the end, they just say it takes too long and you don’t know when it will end.”

A year ago, Tikhanovskaya led an unexpected alliance of three women politicians – with Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo – that many Belarusians hoped to peacefully remove Lukashenko from the post he has held since 1994.

But Lukashenko claimed an 80% victory in a vote widely seen as fraudulent. Tikhanovskaya and Tsepkalo are in exile and Kolesnikova is on trial in Belarus and faces up to 12 years in prison.

Lukashenko overcame a wave of protests that rocked the country after the elections. Resistance in the streets faded over the winter and did not regain strength in the face of arrests and sustained violence from security services loyal to Lukashenko.

“We thought there were so many of us [on the street] that we could prove to Lukashenko that he had lost the elections. It gave us hope that the regime would finally hear us, but it did not happen, ”Tikhanovskaya said. “Plus the hell the regime created – we weren’t ready for it.”

Repression

Lukashenko shows no sign of loosening his grip.

All the main opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country. The demonstrators were the subject of mass arrests. The regime is now in the process of rooting out the few remaining independent media and NGOs – including educational institutions, human rights defenders and the local PEN center unit led by Nobel laureate Svetlana Aleksievich , who lives in exile in Germany.

In July, Lukashenko called these NGOs “bandits” and “foreign agents”.

“A purge is in progress,” he said. noted. “Do you think it’s easy?” Thousands of people who have been brainwashed work there.

According to At Belarusian human rights watchdogs, there are more than 600 political prisoners in the country. Nearly 30 journalists are behind bars.

In addition to cracking down at home, Lukashenko is showing less and less respect for international standards.

In May, authorities forced a Ryanair airliner to arrest opposition blogger Roman Protasevich, who was flying from Athens to Vilnius. As a result, state-owned airline Belavia was banned from EU airspace and new sanctions were imposed on Belarus. In retaliation, Belarus is encouraging asylum seekers to fly to Minsk and then cross the EU border into Lithuania in what EU authorities say is an effort to “militarize” migration.

Ukrainian police are investigating the death of Belarusian opposition activist Vitaly Shishov, who was found hanged near his home in Kiev earlier this month.

The International Olympic Committee expelled several Belarusian officials from the Olympic Village after they were involved in the attempt to force sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya to return to Belarus after criticizing her coaches,

Despite the international reaction, Lukashenko retains a powerful ally in the person of Russian President Vladimir Poutine.

“Lukashenko realized that he was unable to face the provocative Belarusians on his own and struck a deal with … Putin,” said Andrei Kureichik, a prominent Belarusian playwright and director, who joined the Coordinating Council of the opposition, a body set up after the 2020 elections to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.

He said Putin and Lukashenko simultaneously suffocate independent media, human rights activists and political opponents in their countries. “We can see how synchronized these processes are,” Kureichik told POLITICO. “Unfortunately, they share the methods of intimidation, repression and even political assassination or attempted assassination.”

“The lack of legitimacy, the lack of popular support, the fear of losing power and being held responsible for crimes have pushed the authorities towards the worst possible scenario: turning the country into a concentration camp and seeking a complete protectorate with Russia, ”Kureichik added. , who lives in exile in Slovakia.

He said that Chichov’s death in Ukraine meant: “I have to take the issue of my security very seriously, even in Europe.

Signs of hope

Despite the drumbeat of bad news, Tikhanovskaya still has hopes for a change.

She said that many grassroots communities – of medical professionals, journalists and sportsmen – have been created in Belarus over the past year to support those who have suffered from repression.

“Such structures had never existed in Belarus before,” Tikhanovskaya said. “People want to help each other, they want to stay mobilized. The window of opportunity is not very wide, but people are doing what they can.

A sign that the government’s intimidation may turn against her, the sprinter Tsimanouskaya, now in exile in Poland, has put an end to her press conference in Warsaw saying: “We run free and Belarus will be free.”

The Lukashenko regime understands that people cannot be silenced by repression, as has happened in the past, when “20 or even 100 people were jailed and the rest were scared… No, this time. the struggle continues, ”Tikhanovskaya said.

It also places its hopes in a new generation.

“The new generation has grown up. This is not a generation of our parents, many of whom have never been abroad. Those [young] people never lived under the yoke of the Soviet Union. We can see the difference, ”she said. “The new generation is not a generation of submissive people.”

But Lukashenko has his own plan. He wants an overhaul of the country’s constitution to be approved in a national referendum in February. It is unclear what changes he wants to make, but many political experts interpret his puzzling statements as a desire to create a new post that will allow him to continue to lead the country, while also making a leading figure as new president.

Tikhanovskaya says that would be unacceptable.

“A new president should not act for the good of those around him, but for the good of Belarusians. A new president should act according to the law, so that people can feel respect for the state, ”she said. “The whole system should be changed.

After a pause, Tikhanovskaya added: “I don’t even think of such a scenario. If you think he won’t go, that another loyal person will replace him, then there is no incentive to go ahead. Such thoughts simply kill the motivation [to act] in each person ”.


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