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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 37, New Delhi, August 28, 2021

Political Crisis in Belarus Getting Aggravated | R G Gidadhubli

Friday 27 August 2021

by R G Gidadhubli

Belarus has been witnessing unprecedented political crisis, even as on the 9th August 2021 the country has been passing through one year of highly disputed presidential election when Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed victory for the sixth time. An effort has been made to highlight as to how and why the country has been witnessing crisis which has been persisting and getting aggravated. Belarus is landlocked Slavic State in Europe, with Russia on the East, Ukraine on the South, Poland on the West and Baltic States Lithuania, Latvia on the North.

At the outset it needs to be mentioned that Lukashenka has been an authoritarian leader of Belarus and holding power since 1994. As widely reported by the media, the elections which have been considered as fraudulent and they were not fair and free. Many Western countries have not recognized the results of the August 2020 election and do not consider Lukashenka to be the country’s legitimate leader.

Secondly, during his regime Lukashenka has ramped up pressure on NGO’s and independent media as part of his policy of brutal crackdown against protestors and opposition parties during the last about two decades, causing crisis that has been aggravating. As reported on 18th August 2021 the Belarusian police have detained several employees of BelaPAN, a private news agency, as a crackdown on media and civil society in Belarus following last year’s disputed presidential election. The Belarus police searched BelaPAN’s headquarters and took away equipment, documents, computer hard discs, and servers, while BelaPAN’s former deputy director, Andrey Alyaksandrou, has been arrested.

It was reported on the 13th August 2021 that Syarhey Hardzievich, senior journalist and Belarusian correspondent with the independent regional news website has been sentenced to 18 months in prison blaming him for insulting authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka. This once again demonstrates that Belarus authorities’ abuse of the law to silence independent journalists. In response International Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on Belarus to immediately release journalist Syarhey Hardzievich. In a similar case the Belarusian authorities labeled the Polish-funded Belsat television channel and a popular sports portal as "extremist" for the critical coverage of the government amid an intensifying crackdown on the media and civil society.

As reported on 16th August 2021 it was most unfortunate that 40 year old Belarusian activist Stsyapan Latypau slit his own throat during a court hearing in June 2021 as he has been sentenced to eight and half years in prison for his alleged political activities and protesting election results of August 2020. He was detained in September 2020 and is one of tens of thousands of Belarusians detained for protesting the election results.

Thirdly, Lukashenka has unleashed a harsh crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. This is evident from the fact that several opposition figures were arrested in 2020 ahead of the election on various trumped up charges that the opposition and human rights groups call fabricated and politically motivated. The magnitude of action is clear from the fact that during the last over a year more than 32,000 people have been detained, thousands beaten by police on the streets and are in detention and tortured in many cases. Many opposition leaders have been locked up or forced to flee. Mention may be made of the outspoken critic

Mikalay Statkevich, a former presidential challenger whose candidacy for the last presidential election was rejected in May 2020, and who has to spend eight years behind bars on false allegations for his political activities. He has been forced to celebrate his 65th birthday on 12th August 2021 behind the bar. This was not an isolated case. As per reports, the police on 12th August detained Andrey Dzmitryyeu who was also a candidate in last year’s disputed presidential election. It is unfortunate that as informed by journalist Tatsyana Karatkevich, Dzmitryyeu’s whereabouts and the reasons for his detention remain unknown. Apart from that the police and security forces searched homes and detained more than 20 members of the Skhod (Assembly) party for their opposition initiative.

Fourthly, Lukashenka has adopted policy of illegally sending migrants into neighboring European Countries namely Lithuania, Latvia and Poland to create social disturbance and chaos. As per reports more than 4,000 migrants have entered these countries in July-August 2021. Hence the European Union has not only condemned this action but has also taken a series of sanctions against Belarus. Moreover, the EU interior ministers has stated that Belarus is seeking to "instrumentalize human beings for political purposes" after an emergency meeting on 18th August 2021 to discuss alarm over illegal border crossings into Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. As per reports Poland has deployed nearly 1,000 troops to its border with Belarus to help border guards cope with a surge of migrants.

Fifth, Lukashenka has badly treated even several former diplomats who are not in agreement with his policies. For instance, Ihar Lyashchenya resigned as Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia on 18th August 2020 after he publicly supported the rallies sweeping across Belarus following the August vote that the opposition asserted that it was rigged. In response Lukashenka in September 2020 stripped the diplomatic status of Lyashchenya and relieved him of his diplomatic rank alleging his "misconduct." Worse still as per reports it was most unexpected that Lyashchenya was listed one among dozens of individuals held in Minsk’s notorious Akrestsina detention Center, which shows the extent to which Lukashenka can be brutal in his policies. In fact it was appreciable that even as Slovakia offered him asylum, Lyashchenya said “My children and my parents are in Belarus and I must be in Belarus. That is why I returned”. But he might not have visualized that after his return to Belarus he might end up in detention center.

Sixth, many countries have imposed several rounds of sanctions against his regime in response to his suppression of dissent in the country. Moreover, the Western countries have expressed their disappointment about Lukashanka’s persisting ruthlessness of power in Belarus. For instance, the United States of America, Britain, and Canada announced new trade and financial sanctions on Belarus on 9th August 2021. As reported by the U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, prominent businesspeople of Belarus who are supporting the Lukashenka regime as well as 15 companies with which they are affiliated — including Absolutbank, a private Belarusian bank — were also blacklisted by the Biden administration. Many of these companies operate in the tobacco-products, construction, energy, and transportation sectors of the Belarusian economy. Thus it needs to be mentioned that bilateral ties between the USA and Belarus have worsened. In this context on 11th August 2021 the U.S. Embassy in Belarus said blame for the deterioration in bilateral ties lay squarely with the Lukashenka regime, "and its inability to allow independent voices to emerge in Belarus as well as its unwillingness to meet its international commitments."

At the same time as per the statement of the US embassy "U.S. diplomats will continue to engage with Belarusians, including leaders of the pro-democracy movement, media professionals, students, teachers, athletes, and other members of civil society, wherever they are. The United States will continue to partner with elements of civil society and independent media in support of the fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus". This was reaffirmed by the US President Joe Biden at the White House in July 2021 after he met Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is a prominent Belarusian opposition leader and who contested in the election and rightly claimed presidential victory in August 2020 against Lukashenka. But Lukashenka denies voter fraud and has refused to negotiate with the opposition led by Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whose supporters claim that she won the August 2020 vote. She has been in exile in neighboring Baltic State Lithuania and meeting global leaders to support freedom and democracy in Belarus. Mention may also be made that it was reported that Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya who participated in Tokyo Olympics in August 2021 refused to board a flight back to Belarus. She has since sought refugee status in Poland.

Thus to conclude, from what is stated above it is evident that crisis in Belarus is aggravating and all sections of the society have become victims of authoritarian and ruthless regime of Lukashenka.

(Author: Dr R.G.Gidadhubli, Professor And Former Director, Center For Central Eurasian Studies, University Of Mumbai)

19th August 2021

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