The regime of the last dictator in Europe, Alexander Lukashenko, is on shaky legs, as protests against his controversial 80% victory in the August presidential elections continue. Accusations of electoral fraud have been levelled against the incumbent president, supported by voting data from various embassies around Europe showing that it was actually opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who won by a landslide. While the embassy results do not prove that the opposition won the domestic vote in Belarus, they, alongside other election irregularities, have lead to the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, and various other countries and international organizations refusing to accept Lukashenko’s reelection. Following the start of protests after the vote, Belarusian security forces under the control of the president have been quite brutal with protesters, ranging from beating them with batons to kidnapping opposition leaders in vans.
Many Hungarians will remember that not too long ago, Hungary experienced a similar transition of power, called the “rendszerváltás”. Hungary also had widespread protests, in fact, this is where current prime minister Viktor Orbán first made a name for himself after his famous speech at the burial of martyred revolutionary PM Imre Nagy, when he called for free elections and the removal of Soviet troops. There are many photos of the widespread protests that happened more than 30 years ago, with the only immediately recognizable difference from the Belarusian protests of today being that the flags of the two countries are different, and of course different fashion has changed since then. Police brutality is also a common theme, as recordings from both the protests in late 1980s Hungary and the current ones in Belarus show police forces attempting to disperse protesters with intimidation and violence. An interesting difference is the important role that women are playing in the current Belarusian protests. While in the Hungarian case, all of the major opposition parties were dominated by men, women such as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Maria Kolesnikova are at the forefront of the opposition against Lukashenko.
However, the question remains: why did these two events not happen at the same time? Why is it that Belarus is overthrowing dictatorship in 2020, not 1989? The answer to this question can be found in the unique culture and politics of Belarus. Contrary to Hungary, which, along with countries like Poland, has always been staunchly anti-Russian and anti-Soviet, Belarus has a much more complicated history with Russia. The Belarusian story is much similar to that of Ukraine, in the sense that the Belarusian people are a Slavic people related to the Russians, their languages are related (and most Belarusians speak Russian), and the evolution of their national identity was tied to Russia.
If we take a look at what was happening in Belarus in the late 80s and early 90s, it becomes clear that the process of democratization was nothing like what happened in Hungary. While the country did hold elections to the Supreme Soviet in 1990, the opposition only received 10% of the seats. In a 1991 referendum, 83% voted in favour of keeping staying in the Soviet Union. Voter apathy was rampant in the country, with over 60% not supporting any political party in 1993. In what is considered the only truly free election in the country, Alexander Lukashenko won on a platform of fighting corruption and uniting with Russia. “What is more useful, sausage or freedom?” was a rhetorical question commonly used at his time. Clearly, Belarusians preferred stronger economic ties to Russia over establishing a truly independent democracy. To this day, Belarus is in a “union state” with Russia, putting it in a sort of limbo state between being truly independent, or a part of the Russian Federation.
It seems that the last few decades have had a positive effect on Belarusian politics and activism, as over the past few years, protests have become much more commonplace.
Lukashenko’s “Russian sausage” policy is losing ground in the face of appeals for democracy.
It remains to be seen whether the country will reach the tipping point when the dictator is truly toppled, but with the support of the European Union and much of the international community, as well as the longest and most committed pro-democracy protests to date, freedom is definitely within reach for Belarusians.
Featured photo by MTI/AP