By Austin Pellizzer
With the Coronavirus pandemic continuing to make headlines in the European news for the last year, the fight against Europe’s last dictatorship continues to rage on despite being pushed out of the media limelight. For many Belarusians, the ongoing aspirations for democracy, human rights, and freedom continue to burn deep and unite citizens.
Since the August 9, 2020, Presidential election in which Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko won by a landslide with 80% of the vote and cementing his 6th term in office, citizens immediately took to voicing their opposition. Within the first week of the civilian protests, tens of thousands marched in what some experts called the largest demonstrations to occur since independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. With Lukashenko holding the office of the presidency since 1994, the tides of technology, access to information, and opposition leaders continue to test the limits of what a leader can do to keep his regime in place.
One of the biggest threats to Lukashenko’s rule is the growing wave of technology and how the Belarusian youth have used it as a tool to push back against the violent crackdowns by the state. Platforms such as Telegram are used inside and outside its borders to share news regarding ongoing police violence. Not only has social media made it easier for Belarusians to connect even within nationwide internet blackouts, but also, it has been a tool to help promote opposition leaders to the Lukashenko Government.
A notable public figure who has helped lead the charge for democracy and human rights in Belarus is none other than 38-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Tikhanovskaya, a teacher and stay-at-home mother took the stage as one of Lukashenko’s opponents in the 2020 Presidential election after the arrest of her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky who was a leading presidential candidate. After sending her small children out of the nation to safety, she saw the opportunity to step into her husband’s shoes and take charge of the opposition movement. When the national election took place, it is reported that Tikhanovskaya only receiving 9.9% of the vote. However, Tikhanovskaya disputes it being closer to 75% of the vote based on the amount of public support she had gained in polls and social media popularity. With this disputed election result and international outcry over fraudulent and corrupt elections, she continues to push hard and stand not just for her family but also for the people of Belarus. Although the protests in August of 2020 have had overwhelming public support and international recognition, the movement in more recent months seems is at threat of losing momentum and traction among its supporters.
With reliable and accurate polls scarcely available, it is difficult to pinpoint how these protests have won over citizens throughout the nation. However, one of the closest and reliable sources from the Berlin Centre for East European and International Studies (a nonprofit funded by the German Foreign Ministry) states that support from solely urban Belarusians that look favourably on these social uprisings is at 45%. This underwhelming support from a critical sector of the population is also being paired with the dwindling attendances at street demonstrations as Tikhanovskaya conceded in mid-February that they ‘lost the streets’ concerning her movements efforts. With Lukashenko carrying out harsher crackdowns and holding support from Moscow and his Government Officials, the efforts for social and political change are coming closer to deteriorating.
If internal actors continue to fall short of uniting all citizens, Belarus is in danger of failing to become a more welcomed and integrated member of the European family. While on the other hand, the likelihood of Lukashenko ever relinquishing power after this attempt at democracy becomes a more far-fetched aspiration in the hearts and minds of all Belarusians alike.