Belarus: a prison state in Europe
Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski was recently handed a 10-year jail sentence by Belarus’s authoritarian regime. He’s one of almost 1,500 political prisoners jailed in the crackdown that followed mass protests in response to a stolen presidential election in 2020. Long-time dictator Alexander Lukashenko has few friends left and has been pushed closer to Vladimir Putin to sustain his rule, with closer military cooperation the result. So far, Belarus has held back from involving its soldiers directly in Russia’s war on Ukraine, but if ends up doing so, domestic pressure could finally cause Lukashenko’s reign to crumble.
Last October, Ales Bialiatski was awarded the 2022 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.
No amount of jail time can silence the brave leaders at @viasna96.— Right Livelihood (@rightlivelihood) March 10, 2023
We're proud to stand with them and spread their message!⁰
Check out #RightLivelihood Laureate Colin Gonsalves as he reads an excerpt from fellow Laureate Ales Bialiatski's closing statement at trial. pic.twitter.com/53OWQg9S2d
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, restrict the internet and block election observers. When all of that didn’t deter many from voting against him, he blatantly rigged the results. There was a gulf between the voting figures documented by voluntary efforts and official tallies.
The bare-faced nature of the 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 widespread detentions to wear the protests down.
Lukashenko’s repression is enabled by an alliance with an even bigger pariah: Vladimir Putin.
Everything Lukashenko has done since is to suppress the democracy movement and any kind of activism that could become a threat to his continuing power. Hundreds of civil society organisations have either 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, blocked 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. Among those jailed are people judged to have committed the crime of ‘insulting the president’.
Numerous activists have been forced into exile, but that doesn’t make them safe: in 2021, for example, exiled blogger Roman Protasevich was kidnapped, returned to Belarus and forced to recant his activism, ruining his reputation. A new law gives the state power to revoke the citizenship of exiles. Another change to the law allows the state to punish people beyond its borders for crimes judged to harm national security interests – which can mean anyone who campaigns for the end of Lukashenko’s reign.
Tsikhanouskaya is among those targeted by the new laws. She went into hiding even before the 2020 election campaign ended and has since been based across the border in Lithuania, where she heads the Coordination Campaign for the Transfer of Power, which continues to demand a transition to democracy. She’s recently been sentenced in absentia to 15 years on charges of treason and conspiracy to seize power. At least she’s avoided the fate of her husband, currently serving an 18-year jail sentence.
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 authoritarian 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. This was payback for Putin’s loan.
Just days after the start of Russia’s invasion, Lukashenko pushed through constitutional changes, sanctioned through a rubber-stamp referendum. The changes gave Lukashenko the scope to extend his time in office to 2035 and sidelined parliament in favour of a new body filled with loyalists. Ominously, under the new constitution the ban on Belarus hosting nuclear weapons was also removed. Belarus had removed all nuclear weapons and declared neutrality when it became independent following the break-up of the Soviet Union. That’s all over now.
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.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The international community should condemn in the strongest terms the criminalisation of peaceful activists and demand the release of all Belarussian political prisoners.
Civil society and donors should work to support and ensure the safety of Belarussian activists in exile.
Democratic governments should apply to Belarus’s officials the same sanctions they are applying to Russian elites.
Cover photo by Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images