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The Belarus Protests



Introduction


The Krystsina Tsimanouskaya case, where a Belarusian sprinter is forced to seek asylum from other countries when she talks about her coaches’ negligence, brings to light the ongoing repression of Belarusian people and media and the resulting protests against it. Dubbed by quite a few as the ‘Slipper Revolution’, these anti-government protests call for the current President of Belarus to resign and hold free and fair elections for the first time since 1994.


Background


Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Europe’s last dictator, has run mostly unopposed in every election since 1994 and established an authoritarian regime that represses any dissidents. However, every election since the first election in 1994 has not been considered free and fair according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The elections were not up to Western standards, with very less transparency and many opportunities to forge signatures, thus producing inaccurate results. There has been persistent electoral fraud by Lukashenka, who always seems to win by a landslide. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus, Miklós Haraszti, “The election process was orchestrated, and the result was pre-ordained”, with regards to the 2015 presidential elections.


Lukashenka also arrests any opposing presidential candidates, forcing Western countries to order him to release them in exchange for a lift on the sanctions placed. He arrested Sergei Tikhanovsky after Sergei announced his intentions of running as a presidential candidate in late May 2020. This prevents Sergei from registering his name as a candidate on the Central Election Commission. Sergei’s wife, Svetlana, decided to run for president instead, and was registered. However, after Lukashenka won the recent elections by a landslide that even his supporters found hard to believe, Svetlana registered a complaint about the results in the Central Election Commission where she was detained and forced to tell her supporters to accept the victory and “obey the law”. She later fled to Lithuania, where she was given a one-year visa and stands as the leader of the protests abroad.


The protests started in late May 2020, when Lukashenka decided to run for his sixth term, despite having an extremely bad fifth term. Lukashenka had dismissed the COVID-19 pandemic, ignoring WHO guidelines and saying that “the fields will heal everyone”. Belarusian people seemed to be taking precautions on their own, instead of waiting for the government to start taking the pandemic seriously. Despite the world shutting down in March 2020, the government of Belarus only imposed a mandatory 2 week self-quarantine for people entering Belarus from affected countries, and no nationwide lockdown. In November 2020, several cities made it compulsory to wear face masks on their own, without any suggestion from the government. According to Our World In Data, there have been 455,281 confirmed cases in Belarus as of 10 August 2021, however it is very possible there are many more infections than what has been recorded. The government has been criticized for its mishandling of the pandemic in Belarus, and the falsification of statistics.


Lukashenka’s position was safe mainly due to the country’s economic performance, with the GDP per capita growing at 5.5% per year before 2014. From 2014-2019, Belarus’ GDP per

capita had a net growth of 0%. The growth prior to 2014 was due to subsidies from Russia, however a recession in the Russian economy and a stagnation due to a decline in oil prices and Western sanctions quickly removed Russia’s financial support for the authoritarian regime.


What’s happened in the past few months ?


Lukashenka’s way of dealing with the protesters and activists seems to be detaining and arresting them, with the help of legislations that vaguely define ‘extremism’ and minimal evidence as well as veiled witnesses forced to read from a script. According to Viasna, a human rights organization in Belarus, over 35,000 people have been detained since 9 August 2020, and between July 28, 2020 and July 28, 2021, 3,906 persons were fined for participating in “unauthorized activities” or “disobedience to the police”. Law enforcement officers have fired rubber bullets, thrown flashbang grenades, tear gassed protesters and beaten them with batons, in a very violent response to peaceful demonstrations.


Journalists covering the protests have been threatened, fined, beaten and detained as well, with Reporters Without Borders placing Belarus on the 158th position, the most dangerous for journalists in Europe. Many have been forced to flee and several are missing. In July 2021, the crackdown on journalists and independent news media increased as there were several coordinated police raids on various media outlets and their journalists. Two journalists from Belsat were imprisoned for two years in February 2021 for filming the protests, while three of BBC’s reporters were allegedly beaten. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Minsk bureau was raided by the police on 16 July 2021 as well as some of their journalists’ homes. Two popular independent news websites, tut.by and Nasha Niva, were blocked for a while in May 2021 and July 2021 respectively. Zerkalo.io, a new media outlet created by journalists from tut.by, as well as tut.by were declared ‘extremist’, and their websites as well as social media platforms were banned. Any person sharing information from these two websites could be jailed or fined.


The Belarusian government has started a process of liquidating NGOs, in their latest crackdown on civil society. There is a Belarusian Supreme Court hearing pending regarding the liquidation of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). The BAJ is a voluntary, non-governmental association of citizens engaged in professional journalism or promoting its development, according to its website. According to Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus had “nearly 2,000 NGOs, non-profit organizations, gangsters and foreign agents,” which he said were thoughtlessly registered by the government.


Major opposition leaders and critics have been trialed and arrested as well, such as Siarhei Tsikhanouski, charged with using his blog to “openly call for violence against government officials and law enforcement agencies, and with his statements incite social hostility and discord in society on the basis of social belonging”. He faces a sentence of up to 15 years. Siarhei’s wife has deemed these charges as excuses, the real reason for his arrest being “political revenge”. Maria Kalesnikava, one of the trio leading the anti-government movement in Belarus, also went on trial on 4 August 2021, charged with incitement to undermine national security, according to BBC. She, as well as her opposition lawyer, could be facing a sentence of upto 12 years.


The Lukashenka-led government also redirected a flight, Ryanair 4978, from Greece to Lithuania on 23 May 2021 that carried a dissident named Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, and arrested them. The flight was forced to land by fighter planes and was detained for seven hours in Belarus before sending it on its way without the two passengers. Roman Protasevich is a major opposition journalist and activist who has participated in protests last year, putting his name on the list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity”. The flight was rerouted in Belarusian airspace under the guise of a bomb threat, which was informed to them in an email which came 24 minutes after the pilots were notified of the threat. Both Belarusian law enforcement officials and Ryanair, the airline, did not find any bomb on board.


Vitaly Shishov was an opposition journalist who helped people fleeing from Belarus settle in Kyiv, Ukraine or go ahead to other places. He was found hanged in a park in Kyiv on 3rd August 2021. The Ukraine police is investigating whether this was a suicide or whether it was a murder disguised as a suicide by the KGB, the informal name for Belarusian police. This isn’t the first time a Belarusian activist has been murdered outside Belarus. His girlfriend claimed that he was paranoid about being followed all the time, and the government had several reasons to murder him.


The Krystsina case


“All I said was that someone should be held responsible for making that mistake, and somehow that sports related situation was suddenly turned out to be a highly political issue” Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was an Olympic sprinter, who was representing Belarus in the Women’s 200m and 100m races in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She was entered for the 4x400m relay race as well, by her coaches, due to insufficient doping tests of the athletes who were supposed to participate. Krystsina complained about this and her coaches’ negligence, since she was not trained for participating in such a race. Later, she was withdrawn from all events owing to her “emotional and psychological state” according to a statement issued by the National Olympic Committee of Belarus. She was taken to the Tokyo airport to return to Belarus by her coaches, however she called the police and asked for help. She seeked asylum from all European countries, and accepted Poland’s invitation. Poland gave her a humanitarian visa, and Krystsina departed for Warsaw after going on a different plane a few minutes before her original flight.


Krystsina’s grandmother told her that there were terrible things being said about her on television, providing her instagram link and asking people to leave hateful comments on it, and state owned media insisting she had mental issues. Her grandmother warned her that if she returned to Belarus they might put her in jail or a hospital. Krystsina decided on Poland because her parents told her that they had no problem obtaining a visa to visit her there. In her first press conference since arriving in Warsaw, she stated that she felt safe there. She will be staying and training there with her husband.


As Krystsina says herself, this was a purely sports related matter, however the Lukashenka government overreacted to it. However, this reaction was natural, considering that last year during the protests around 2000 athletes had petitioned for the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. These athletes were put in jail, or at the very least, thrown out of their state owned sports facilities. Belarus takes pride in its athletes, and they are funded by the state. Hence these athletes are very influential, and when they supported the protests, it angered the government. Lukashenka also hopes to intimidate the other Belarusian athletes, or any Belarusian living abroad, with this incident, warning them that if they publicly oppose the dictatorship in the Olympics, there will be consequences back home.


International Reaction


The US, EU, UK and Canada had placed sanctions on certain Belarusian entities, effective from 9th August 2021, on occasion of the anniversary of the fraudulent elections. All of them have been expanded to partially curb Belarus’ potash, tobacco and petroleum exports, the trade of which forms a major part of its GDP. They also target technology used in the monitoring and interception of the internet and of telephone communications by or on behalf of the Belarusian authorities in protest of the internet censorship and repression of the media. The sanctions also prohibit the direct or indirect sale, supply, transfer, or export to anyone in Belarus of dual-use goods and technologies for military end-use, according to Hogan Lovells, a legal insight and analysis website.


According to Hogan Lovells, the EU sanctions prohibit purchasing, selling, providing investment services for the Belarussian government and Belarusian public bodies and entities, or Belarusbank, Belinvestbank, and Belagroprombank, or any non-EU legal entity directly or indirectly owned by more than 50 percent by these three credit institutions or any legal entity acting on behalf of or at the direction of the above entities or bodies. They also prohibit providing loans or being part of arrangements to provide loans to any of the entities mentioned above. The loans do not apply to those made before 9th August 2021. The other sanctions also have similar prohibitions. However, an authorisation may be granted to support the Belarusian population. The number of entities and officials asset freezing measures have been placed on according to the sanctions are:

  • EU - 166 individuals and 15 entities

  • UK - 100 individuals and 9 entities

  • USA - 23 individuals and 21 entities

  • Canada - 72 individuals and 5 entities

According to the UK government website, these sanctions regime is aimed at encouraging the Government of Belarus to respect democratic principles and institutions and the rule of law in Belarus and refrain from actions or policies which repress civil society in Belarus. These sanctions are also meant to


pressurise the government to comply with international human rights law and respect human rights. These sanctions will have quite an impact on Belarus’ economy, however it would not prompt Lukashenka to resign or stop the repression of the protesters. Lukashenka would, at most perhaps, release some of the 600 political prisoners to appease the West. The trade may simply be diverted for re-export from Russia. There are ways of circumventing these sanctions, as North Korea had done during the denuclearisation sanctions placed on it. The sanctions may affect the Belarusian people more than the government. They also push Belarus towards Russia even more, while Putin hopes to expand Russia’s borders.


Conclusion


The Lukashenka government has carried on its rule for a long time, offending most of Europe and America with its blatant disregard for human rights, and it has to end. The international community needs to do far more than impose stricter sanctions when certain incidents come to light and the people need to stop ignoring whatever happens in countries in Eastern Europe. The Belarusian people need our support to continue fighting against the government and its repressive policies, maybe now more than ever.

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