Revolt, repression and reprisals: looking back on a year of unrest in Belarus
Monday marks a year since the disputed presidential election in Belarus, which sparked a protest movement of unprecedented scale in a country described as “Europe’s last dictatorship”.
Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner – by a landslide – in the vote on August 9.
In fact, he was declared the winner of all presidential elections held in the country since its separation from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Many believe he retained this position by rigging the election. This is the accusation of the Belarusian opposition and tens of thousands of citizens who took to the streets after the result of the 2020 elections.
In the year following the elections, almost all of the political opposition in Belarus was locked up or forced to flee across the border. Sanctions were imposed on Lukashenko and his associates. And the unrest raging in the country has reverberated across Europe.
Here is an overview of the main events that have taken place since the election.
August 9, 2020: election day
Like the previous presidential elections, Lukashenko won a landslide victory. But unlike in previous elections, the opposition and entire sections of the general public did not believe he had won free and fair elections.
Amid an internet shutdown, the city’s streets were also closed by police and security forces, apparently in an attempt to quell any protests.
It did not work, as thousands and thousands of people took to the streets, demanding free and fair elections.
August 9-11: Mass demonstrations and police repression
As protesters continued to gather in cities across the country, they were faced with brutal force by police and security services.
News reported by state agency Belta that Lukashenko won more than 80% of the vote, with main opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya winning less than 10%, did nothing to quell the protests.
Two protesters were reportedly killed in clashes with police and thousands of people were arrested.
August 11, 2020: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya flees
Her husband being imprisoned before the elections, the former schoolteacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya took office and presented herself as the main opposition candidate in the elections.
She is considered by many to have won the election, but the country’s electoral commission declared Lukashenko the winner by a landslide.
The day after the election results were announced, Tsikhanouskaya went to the electoral commission to demand an official recount.
The next day, she released a video from Lithuania, where she had fled, saying: “What is happening now is not worth a life.”
August 14, 2020: First sanctions pronounced against Lukashenko
The European Union has become the first entity to declare sanctions against Belarusian authorities since the elections.
These were quickly followed by other Western countries, such as the UK, Canada and the US, as state crackdown on peaceful protests continued to escalate.
The sanctions were announced the same day Amnesty International said there was growing evidence of the widespread use of torture against peaceful protesters.
December 16, 2020: Tsikhanouskaya awarded with the human rights prize
The European Parliament awarded Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya her Sakharov Prize for Human Rights.
David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament, then declared: “The strength of your spirit has shown the way for the revolution, which took power in the country in 2020 and we pay tribute to you, your resistance and your perseverance. “
Tsikhanouskaya was adamant that the fight would continue. “We have to win, and we will win,” she told parliament.
December 2020: protesters change course
Peaceful protesters took to the streets in their thousands every weekend for months after the August elections, despite the violent crackdown they faced by the security services.
But eventually, exhausted by this and the massive arrests that took place at every protest, they began to change tactics at the end of the year.
First, there were much smaller gatherings, spread across all the towns, which made it more difficult for the police to crack down and make arrests.
Then individual citizens began to commit acts of individual defiance. Euronews spoke to a 47-year-old business owner who was trying to stop paying taxes because “all the money he gets is being used against us the people.”
April 2021: Belarusian government defends its actions
In an interview with Euronews in April, the Belarusian foreign minister defended the government’s handling of elections and protests, conceding that excessive force had been used, but insisting it was necessary.
Vladimir Makei said there had been “an attempted coup … therefore the actions of law enforcement and authorities were absolutely adequate and necessary.”
During the interview, he added that “our relations with the European Union, with the West in general, are in crisis”, while dismissing questions on the validity of the election result.
May 2021: The last independent media is closed
Belarusian police raided Belsat TV’s offices in central Minsk on May 21, 2021, shutting down the last remaining independent media outlet.
Along with the crackdown on citizens demonstrating peacefully in the streets, journalists trying to cover the story and make the outside world aware of what was happening were also arrested and silenced.
More than 500 journalists have been arrested in the country since the elections, and Reporters Without Borders data showed it to be the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists in 2020.
The crackdown continues against individual members of the media.
In July, the homes of at least 21 journalists were searched and arrests were made.
May 23, 2021: a “hijacked” Ryanair flight
A Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk after air traffic control informed the pilot that there was a credible bomb threat on board.
On landing, a journalist critical of the Lukashenko regime was taken off the plane and arrested.
Western countries have called the incident an example of “state piracy”, saying in a statement: “We are united in our deep concern about the Lukashenko regime’s continued attacks on human rights, fundamental freedoms. and international law ”.
Roman Protasevich, the arrested journalist, was broadcast on state television confessing to being involved in a plot to seize power in Belarus – a confession his family and associates said was the result of torture.
July 2021: Lithuania declares state of emergency on illegal migration
In June, more than 410 people illegally crossed the border between Belarus and Lithuania – more than what has been recorded in the previous four years combined.
This has led to accusations that Belarus is not only avoiding working with Lithuania to resolve the issue, but is actually helping migrants cross the border.
Lithuania declared a state of emergency in July due to the number of people crossing, as border towns staged protests over it.
The Lithuanian National Border Guard Service called this a “pathetic revenge policy”, with Lithuania granting asylum to a number of political dissidents who fled Belarus after the elections.
At the same time, the number of Belarusian asylum seekers in Europe has risen sharply since the elections.
Around 995 people sought refuge in EU countries between August and December 2020, up from 545 during the same period in 2019.
August 3, 2021: Belarusian activist found dead in Ukraine
The Belarusian House in Ukraine, an NGO that helps people who fled repression in Belarus, accused Minsk of a “planned operation” after its director Vitali Shishov was found dead in Kiev on Tuesday.
“There is no doubt that this is a planned operation by the security forces to liquidate a person who is really dangerous to the Belarusian regime,” the group said on Telegram.
Shishov, 26, was forced to flee to Ukraine last fall after participating in anti-government protests in Gomel, southern Belarus, and “actively opposing” the authorities, the Belarusian House said.
Ukrainian police have opened a murder investigation after Chichov was found hanged in one of Kiev’s parks on Tuesday, not far from his place of residence.
August 3, 2021: Sprinter escapes Belarus’s return to the Olympics
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a sprinter representing Belarus at the Tokyo Olympics, obtained protection from Japanese authorities at Haneda Airport in Tokyo to avoid returning to Belarus.
She said she feared for her safety if she was sent home.
Tsimanouskaya was due to compete in the women’s 200m sprint in Tokyo, but after criticizing the way her team was handled on social media, officials came to her hotel room and told her to pack her bags.
The 24-year-old was granted a humanitarian visa for Poland, where she arrived safe and sound that week.
“We are running free and Belarus will be free,” she said at a press conference in Warsaw.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is investigating allegations that the Belarusian Olympic team tried to force them to return home.