President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus can't, by his own admission, afford to behave democratically. "I could lose the whole country," the long-serving leader said after the recent arrests of several opposition presidential candidates.
In the meantime, police are arresting participants in peaceful demonstrations. Journalists have been detained as well — live on air. Lukashenko has an explanation for that as well: It's to thwart an international conspiracy aimed at destabilizing the country before the presidential election.
Why all this if, until recently, authorities let the demonstrations take place without intervention?
It's because the leadership sees that after 26 years of one-man rule, people are running out of patience, especially in light of Lukashenko's approach to the pandemic, which his government completely denied until recently. The president is worried, therefore, about the elections — afraid that they may not go according to plan.
Belarusians compare the government's attitude towards the COVID-19 pandemic to the Chernobyl tragedy. In both cases, there was an information vacuum, a total lack of transparency, and people died unnecessarily as a result.
Empty Minsk — Photo: Darya Tryfanava
To prevent coronavirus infection, Lukashenko advised citizens to follow personal hygiene habits. He said that from time to time, people should "disinfect themselves from the inside with something stronger." They should drink vodka, in other words. He also said they should work — especially in the fields.
Lukashenko described the virus as a psychosis and let the police arrest opposition media that criticized the inaction of the authorities and questioned the government's coronavirus statistics.
In the beginning of April, he still claimed that no one in the country would die of coronavirus. The World Health Organization recommended that Belarus introduce limits on gatherings. But with no state of emergency declared, people kept going to work, schools or stadiums to watch soccer matches. Belarus was also the only post-Soviet country to hold a military parade marking the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. The event attracted mass participation.
As of June 22, the virus infected approximately 60,000 in Belarus and killed 340. The number is based on official statistics, which are probably strongly underestimated.
The assumption was that people will be too busy with the pandemic to pay much attention to politics.
The government's hands-off approach to the pandemic resulted in the country taking practically no action. The disease spread rapidly as a result, and instead of informing the public, official information providers equivocate.
Evidence has emerged that doctors are forced to falsify the causes of death on death certificates. As in Russia, pneumonia is the most reported cause instead of coronavirus. The only verifiable evidence of the current situation in the country are overcrowded hospitals and testimonies from medics and families of victims, who are intimidated by the authorities to remain silent.
The government decided to take advantage of the situation and hastily announced a date for the presidential election: August 9. The assumption was that people will be too busy with the pandemic to pay much attention to politics, and that everything would thus play out as usual, that Lukashenko would win yet another term — his sixth.
Since then, however, people have taken to the streets, and in larger numbers than in the buildup to past presidential elections. Many of the participants are people who had previously supported Lukashenko or were not interested in politics. The protesters claim to represent 97% of the country, since according to independent surveys, Lukashenko's popularity has dropped to just 3%. This number has become a symbol of the current demonstrations.
The three most prominent opposition presidential candidates in this year's election are blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, former director of the Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko, and former diplomat Valery Cepkalo. The first two were arrested before they finished collecting signatures for their candidacy, after authorities "found" compromising material during house searches. They risk several years behind bars.
Opposition candidate Viktor Babaryko — Photo: Official Instagram
Immediately afterwards, two other candidates voluntarily resigned from the election race. Tikhanovsky's signatures, which must reach at least 100,000 for registration, were taken over by his wife Svetlana, who was threatened by the Belarusian authorities that her children would be taken away right after announcing her candidacy.
Babaryko, who has by far the most support and collected almost half a million signatures, was arrested together with his son on their way to the Central Election Commission, where they were taking more signature sheets for candidacy registration. Also, Belarusian criminal authorities launched an investigation into Belgazprombank's leadership for corruption and financial embezzlement. Babaryko ran the bank for 20 years before resigning in May to run in the presidential election.
In response to the intimidation of opposition candidates, Belarusians braved a heavy rain last month to form a human chain of solidarity that stretched several kilometers along the main avenue in Minsk. Every day, the chain extends to other cities and passing cars honk in solidarity. The movement involves everyone from students to retirees.
Security forces arrest people regardless of age, and sometimes non-uniformed men are seen cramming protesters into unmarked cars. A journalist at Radio Freedom, Alexandra Dynka, was detained together with a cameraman while filming a live report from the demonstrations. During the peak of the protests, the regime also turned off mobile data so people could not share the events online.
Frustrations built up over many years are boiling over.
There is a sense of tension and frustration in Belarusian society across all its layers. The coronavirus crisis has opened the eyes of those who typically shunned politics, even if they knew already that the regime is corrupt and dishonest. What changed is the painful realization that the state has been unable and unwilling to provide its citizens with the basic protections and treatments needed in the pandemic. That's what drove a record number of people into the streets.
Officials, as a result, see themselves on the edge of the same abyss that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Armenian leader Sergeant Sargsjan fell into recently. Exacerbating the situation even more are Lukashenko's claims about exposing an international terrorist center plotting a coup, his use of derogatory names to insult opponents, and comments about how Central Asian rulers bring order to their countries with assault rifles in their hands.
The authorities are trying to intimidate the population, but frustrations built up over many years are boiling over. So far the movement shows no signs of abating, because in the prevailing opinion, the situation cannot get any worse, especially with a global economic crisis approaching.
Belarus is completely unprepared, and the public knows it. No one is convinced by Lukashenko's claims that "tomorrow will be better." Instead, those kinds of shabby phrases just make people angrier still.
What's also certain is that the regime will cheat in the August elections, and that it will not allow any major opposition candidate to participate. Everything else will depend on the level of violence the regime will resort to and how angry Belarusians really are.
*This article was translated with permission of the author, an analyst at the Research Center of the Association for International Affairs who focuses on Russia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. She also works at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University.
See more from Coronavirus here