When people ask me where I am from, I am used to the confused expression on their face when I say “Belarus.” Until a few years ago, Belarus was not even a blip on the international radar. It was simply one of the many small countries that was cast from the former Soviet bloc. However, a number of recent events have made news headlines across the globe, and raised some level of international awareness on the startling realization that Belarus is the last dictatorship in Europe.
Belarus is located along the borders of Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia. A population of approximately 9.5m divided among 6 regions, is still very dependent on agriculture and other rural endeavors for its economic security. Most people in the region speak Russian, however Belarussian is still taught in schools and spoken in the smaller rural villages by the older population. The country has a strong cultural identity and even in political turmoil, the population shows respect for their country through widespread participation in numerous national holidays, especially ‘Victory Day’, celebrated on May 9 of each year in commemoration of victory in the Second World War. All such celebrations are marked by the involvement of veterans, as well as traditional style dance and song, including Belarussian language, poetry, and other public engagements.
The President of the Republic of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, came to power in 1996. A farmer in his youth, his rise to leadership was a result of his combination of fear tactics, ambition, and outspokenness. He single-handedly abolished any semblance of parliamentary democracy, establishing one which he hand-picked. Simultaneous to this, he stregthened connections with the notorious Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
His power continued unchecked for years until the 2010 election, at which point Lukashenko had been at the helm for an unbelievable 14 years. The elections which took place in December 2010 were brought to global attention due to the imprisonment and brutal treatment of the opposition leaders, all of whom—like Alexander Sannikov and the poet Vladimir Niklyaev—were well respected members of society. Their long-term incarceration, in conjunction with the mass arrests and beatings of the civilian population protesting Lukashenko’s so-called December 2010 win, finally brought to light the level of ongoing repression in Belarus.
In addition to the elections, there were numerous other situations which revealed his astonishing level of brutality. In April 2011, the bombing of Oktiaborskaia Metro Station in Minsk made international news, including coverage by the CBC and BBC. First seen as an act of terrorism against the President’s residence across the street, the attack occurred during the evening rush hour, injuring over 200 people and leaving 15 dead. Soon after the event, doubts began to surface as to who was responsible for the attack. It was later revealed that the two men who were tried and convicted for the bombing were tortured for their confessions. The actions of Lukashenko’s regime have disillusioned the people of Belarus and the international audience. Moreover, they demonstrate his willingness to use extreme tactics to preserve his authoritarian power.
More recently demonstrations dubbed the Silent Protests occurred in the main cities throughout Belarus in June 2011. Advertised through social media, the protests were carried out without any visible manifestation of dissent. The objective of the protests was to unite the youth of Belarus against the leadership of Lukashenko and figuratively represent their plight through silence. Though they may have believed that the nature of the protests would protect them from persecution, by the fourth protest in late June, the President responded by ordering mass arrests. The arrests entrapped not only participants in the protests but also innocent bystanders. The police did not stop to differentiate bystanders, using excessive force to detain the so-called culprits. For what reason, the government was not obligated to say.
It saddens me that in the 21st century, a European country can experience such drastic repression with so little international action. Fortunately, the events of the past few years have inspired the Western world to respond; Lukashenko is now barred from traveling both to North America and the UK. The increased attention on Belarus within international publications is another sign of progress. Growing international awareness about the repression present within Belarus may embolden Belarussians to voice their dissent.
There is still a long way to go in order to triumph over Lukashenko’s grip on power. While one may be inclined to blame the Belarussian people for not being more persistent in their protests against the regime, the reader must consider that the older population of Belarus, survivors of the atrocities of WWII, just want to live the rest of their lives in peace. Meanwhile, the lack of a cohesive opposition and the fear tactics of the regime including the blacklisting of artistic and cultural groups make it difficult for the youth to challenge the legitimacy of their country’s leadership.
Although there is no doubt that some level of repression will continue in Belarus for the near future, I am hoping that this article and others like it will inspire people to action. No one deserves to live in a country without the right of free speech, the right of assembly, and the numerous other freedoms that Canadians take for granted. Since the 2010 elections, the youth of Belarus are afraid that the “light of hope” has gone out in Belarus. With the upcoming election, I can only hope that with the increased international attention and the rising friction between the youth and the government, Lukashenko will no longer be able to emerge as President. I urge members Belarusian diaspora not to vote, as our ballots can be altered in order to fit with the needs of the current regime. I urge anyone interested in further information on Belarus, its politics and its history, to look at the BBC archives online, as they have the most comprehensive information available to the English speaking population.