By Andrew Firmin
LONDON, Mar 15 2023 – Last October, Ales Bialiatski was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was one of three winners, alongside two human rights organisations: Memorial, in Russia, and the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine. The Nobel Committee recognised the three’s ‘outstanding effort to document war crimes, human rights abuses and the abuse of power’.
But Bialiatski couldn’t travel to Oslo to collect his award. He’d been detained in July 2021 and held in jail since. This month he was found guilty on trumped-up charges of financing political protests and smuggling, and handed a 10-year sentence. His three co-defendants were also given long jail terms. There are many others besides them who’ve been thrown in prison, among them other staff and associates of Viasna, the human rights centre Bialiatski heads.
Crackdown follows stolen election
The origins of the current crackdown lie in the 2020 presidential election. Dictator Alexander Lukashenko has held power since 1994, but in 2020 for once a credible challenger slipped through the net to stand against him. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya ran against Lukashenko after her husband, democracy activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested and prevented from doing so. Her independent, female-fronted campaign caught the public’s imagination, offering the promise of change and uniting many voters.
Lukashenko’s response to this rare threat was to arrest several members of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign staff, along with multiple opposition candidates and journalists, introduce additional protest restrictions and restrict the internet. When all of that didn’t deter many from voting against him, he blatantly rigged the results.
This bare-faced act of fraud triggered a wave of protests on a scale never seen under Lukashenko. At the peak in August 2020, hundreds of thousands took to the streets. It took a long time for systematic state violence and detentions to wear the protests down.
Everything Lukashenko has done since is to suppress the democracy movement. Hundreds of civil society organisations have been forcibly liquidated or shut themselves down in the face of harassment and threats. Independent media outlets have been labelled as extremist, subjected to raids and effectively banned.
Jails are crammed with inmates: currently it’s estimated Belarus has 1,445 political prisoners, many serving long sentences after trials at biased courts.
Lukashenko’s only ally
Lukashenko’s repression is enabled by an alliance with an even bigger pariah: Vladimir Putin. When the European Union and democratic states applied sanctions in response to Lukashenko’s crackdown, Putin provided a loan that was crucial in helping him ride out the storm.
This marked a break in a long strategy of Lukashenko carefully balancing between Russia and the west. The effect was to bind the two rogue leaders together. That’s continued during Russia’s war on Ukraine. When the invasion started, some of the Russian troops that entered Ukraine did so from Belarus, where they’d been staging so-called military drills in the days before. Belarus-based Russian missile launchers have also been deployed.
Just days after the start of Russia’s invasion, Lukashenko pushed through constitutional changes, sanctioned through a rubber-stamp referendum. Among the changes, the ban on Belarus hosting nuclear weapons was removed.
Last December Putin travelled to Belarus for talks on military cooperation. The two armies took part in expanded military training exercises in January. Following the constitutional changes, Putin promised to supply Belarus with nuclear-capable missiles; Belarus announced these were fully operational last December.
Belarussian soldiers haven’t however been directly involved in combat so far. Putin would like them to be, if only because his forces have sustained much higher-than-expected losses and measures to fill gaps, such as the partial mobilisation of reservists last September, are domestically unpopular. Lukashenko has struck a balance between belligerent talk and moderate action, insisting Belarus will only join the war if Ukraine attacks it.
That may be because Belarus’s enabling of Russia’s aggression has made people only more dissatisfied with Lukashenko. Many Belarussians want no involvement in someone else’s war. Several protests took place in Belarus at the start of the invasion, leading to predictable repression similar to that seen in Russia, with numerous arrests.
Crucially, Belarus’s security forces stuck by Lukashenko at the peak of protests; if they’d defected, the story could have been different. Full involvement in the war would likely see even Lukashenko loyalists turn against him, including in the military. Soldiers might refuse to fight. It would be a dangerous step to take. As Russia’s war drags on, Lukashenko could find himself walking an increasingly difficult tightrope.
Two countries, one struggle
It’s perhaps with this in mind that Lukashenko’s latest repressive move has been to extend the death penalty. State officials and military personnel can now be executed for high treason. This gives Lukashenko a gruesome new tool to punish and deter defections.
As well as worrying about their safety, Belarus’s activists – in exile or in jail – face the challenge of ensuring the cause of Belarussian democracy isn’t lost in the fog of war. They need continuing solidarity and support to make the world understand that their struggle against oppression is part of the same campaign for liberty being waged by Ukrainians, and that any path to peace in the region must also mean democracy in Belarus.
Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.