Belarus has many claims to fame, like the Belavezhskaya Pushcha- Europe’s final vast ancient forest; or the Mir Castle Complex- a stunning UNESCO world heritage site. However, it more often than not stands out because of the fact that – almost eleven years after it gained independence from the Soviet Union, Belarus’ 9.5 million people still languish under a dictatorship……the last in Europe.
With this goes a host of other unique yet grossly undesirable titles – like the only European state to retain the death penalty and the lowest ranked European state in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report. The ruling regime has also come under frequent criticism from an array of international organisations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and Forum 18 as well as numerous foreign governments.
The criticism is well-merited. Dictator Alexander Lukashenko has held power since 1994 through a series of rigged elections interspersed with the imprisonment and torture of opponents, suppression of civil society and politicisation of the security services. From their violent treatments of detainees to their Soviet-style control of the media Lukashenko and his thugs have consistently shown the abhorrent measures they will take to ensure the continuation of authoritarianism in this corner of an otherwise democratic continent.
However, brave Belarusians continue to stand up to the regime and tonight are taking to the streets of Minsk to oppose the results of Lukashenko’s latest sham election; which returned him to power with a ‘70% share of the vote’ after widespread voter intimidation, media manipulation (and if the events of his past elections are anything to go by – mass ballot rigging.)
Reports coming out of the country over the last few hours indicate that even after riot police violently broke up a protest denouncing the outcome, ten of thousands of demonstrators re-grouped with some attempting to storm the government headquarters. The latest news is that they have been pushed back and hundreds have been detained……but despite enduring one of its coldest winters, Belarus is witnessing public political upheaval on a scale not seen since the first few years of Lukashenko’s dictatorship.
The next few days will undoubtedly be crucial ones for the future of this nation that has suffered for so long. For the Belarusian people this may turn out to be an historic turning point. For Lukashenko – he may be about to realise that rigging the election was the easy part…