A year of protests in Belarus
From August to August: it was a long year of confrontation between civil society and the authoritarian regime in Belarus. We look back on major milestones and turning points in the ongoing struggle.
On 9 August, the lives of millions of Belarusians were forever divided into “before” and “after”. The presidential elections in Belarus, in which Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya united the opposition and challenged Alexander Lukashenko, were marked by large-scale falsifications and fraud. Indignation and frustration fueled massive protests all over the country, with thousands of people detained and injured in the ensuing crackdown. 5 people died. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was forced to leave the country and continued political action from Lithuania. Despite the indiscriminate repression, tens and hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters continued to participate in daily protests and Sunday marches. A wave of strikes swept through state-owned enterprises where workers demanded for an end to the beatings and torture, for criminal prosecution of the perpetrators, and for new elections.
Students from major universities joined the ongoing peaceful protests. In addition to the large-scale Sunday marches, Belarusian women continued to go for spectacular walks on Saturdays. An attempt was made to forcibly expel the opposition leader Maria Kalesnikava from Belarus, but she tore her passport and refused to cross the border. The authorities started a fierce struggle against white-red-white symbols and urban yard parties. At the end of September, Lukashenko held a secret inauguration ceremony that was not recognized by democracies.
The EU countries added dozens of Belarusian officials to sanctions lists and recalled their ambassadors in Minsk for consultations. Lukashenko met with political prisoners in the KGB pre-trial detention center but did not release his main opponents. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya announced the People’s Ultimatum. Since the authorities failed to fulfill its requirements, on 26 October, another wave of strikes swept across the country. The weekly Sunday marches continued despite the brutal actions of the security forces. Senior citizens’ marches and protests of people with disabilities became a tradition as well. Former Minister of Culture of Belarus Pavel Latushka initiated the founding of the National Anti-Crisis Management in Warsaw.
In November, protests and repression in Belarus continued: since the rigged presidential elections on 9 August, approximately 26,000 people had been detained. As many as 393 journalists had been arrested, beaten or persecuted. Activist Raman Bandarenka, who had stepped in to prevent the destruction of the white-red-white symbols on the Square of Changes, was severely beaten and died from his injuries. International pressure on the Lukashenko regime increased significantly: the European Union imposed a second package of sanctions, the UN called for an independent investigation of the violence against protesters, and the OSCE published a strongly worded report condemning the fraud and calling for new elections in accordance with international standards.
Centralized marches began to give way to local protests which were harder to disperse. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya announced the launch of the Unified Crime Registration Book platform to collect evidence of torture and beatings. TUT.BY, the most popular news portal in Belarus, lost its accreditation. At a session of the Human Rights Council, 42 states condemned the Belarusian authorities’ repression against the independent press and called for the implementation of the OSCE report’s recommendations. The EU member states expanded sanctions, adding 29 individuals and 7 legal entities to the blacklist.
The BYPOL initiative published an audio recording of the head of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption, Mikalai Karpiankou, speaking to his subordinates in autumn of 2020, stating that Alexander Lukashenko had empowered him to harshly suppress protests and had approved the use of firearms. Thanks to the active pressure of the Belarusian diaspora against the background of massive human rights violations, Belarus was stripped of its World Ice Hockey Championship hosting rights – despite a cordial meeting between Lukashenko and the IIHF president, René Fasel.
Exactly 6 months after the protests started, the united democratic forces abroad announced an open strategy of victory and outlined the path to negotiations. Within Belarus, however, the crackdown on independent media and opposition activists continued with renewed vigor. In particular, Belsat journalists Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova were sentenced to 2 years in prison solely for a live broadcast from a protest in November 2020. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet presented her report on the disastrous human rights situation in Belarus.
More than 770,000 people took part in the nationwide online vote on negotiations between the authorities and the opposition for a peaceful way out of the crisis announced by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Lukashenko’s opponents also called for the resumption of protests on 25 March, known as Freedom Day in Belarus. Due to the enormous risks for protesters, large-scale actions could not be held within the country. However, activists, politicians and journalists all around the world took part in actions of solidarity with the people of Belarus.
For the first time in Belarus, a criminal case on an attempted coup was opened: according to it, a number of opposition figures were allegedly plotting Lukashenko’s assassination. Experts called the purported conspiracy a provocation organized by the intelligence agencies. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on European states to use the principle of universal jurisdiction to bring Belarusian functionaries and security officials to justice. The US announced that it would unfreeze sanctions against 9 state-owned enterprises closely associated with the regime.
The Belarusian authorities unleashed a major international scandal, intercepting a commercial Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius and forcing it to land in Minsk. Onboard the plane were journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who were arrested upon landing. A number of Western politicians called the incident an act of state terrorism. The EU summit participants decided to ban Belarusian airlines from their countries and also recommended European carriers not to fly over the airspace of Belarus. 51-year-old political prisoner Vitold Ashurak, who had no prior health problems, suddenly died in prison.
UN experts issued a statement describing Belarus as a “black hole” for media freedom. Political prisoner Raman Pratasevich gave an interview on state television clearly under duress, professing his guilt in organizing mass riots and criticizing the opposition. For the first time, the EU approved sectoral sanctions against Belarus in response to the ongoing repressions against civil society, democratic opposition and journalists, as well as the forced landing of the Ryanair flight. Following Alexander Lukashenko’s threats to weaken control over illegal migration in response to the EU sanctions, the number of migrants from the Middle East and Africa virtually exploded on the western borders of Belarus, especially on the border with Lithuania.
Dozens of non-governmental organizations were closed down as the result of a civil society sweep operation that followed a massive crackdown on independent media. More than 200 searches were carried out in activists’ and journalists’ offices and homes. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya paid a two-week visit to the United States and met with President Joe Biden. The Lithuanian Parliament recognized the actions of the Belarusian authorities in support of the increasing surge of migrants as “hybrid aggression”. For the first time in Belarus, the number of political prisoners exceeded 600 people.
In preparing the publication, materials from ifex.org, hrw.org, un.org, spring96.org, belarusdaily.org were used.