It has been almost three months since Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko used a mysterious bomb attack as a pretext to crack down against mounting opposition to his autocratic rule. Calling on his infamous secret police to "bring in everyone and interrogate them, pay no attention to democracy or the groans and howls of the foreign martyrs" –he pushed back against the country’s increasingly active democracy movement, hoping to dampen the protests that surrounded his rigged re-election before being strengthened by the inspirational uprisings of the Arab Spring.
The protests have continued to grow, new tactics are being utilised by the opposition and criticism from the international community is getting louder. Last month activists used social media sites to arrange a silent protest in Minsk – showing their opposition to Lukashenko without the kind of chants, slogans or banners that would normally result in arrest. The trend rapidly caught on but subsequent gatherings have been violently broken up in front of international media. The embarrassed and embattled dictator –clearly shaken by the demonstrations – which have drawn as many as a thousand mainly young activists-swore to prevent a similar initiative designed to disrupt his Independence Day speech.
Demonstrators had planned orchestrated applause to drown out Lukashenko as he began to address the crowds at todays proceedings, yet his authorities aimed to hamper this by blocking social media sites and detaining numerous democracy leaders including Stanislav Shushkevich – a prominent former government official. Those who did applaud “too enthusiastically” were dragged away by police – quite possibly to face the kind of brutal torture for which Lukashenko’s regime is infamous.
Such actions show just how afraid he has become and draw further international attention to the democracy movement. Whilst he sought to use the April bombing to gain sympathy or even support for his rule, he has today undermined any semblance of a publicity coup by showing true colours once more: an unhinged despot leaning towards Chinese-style censorship of the internet and actively endorsing the detention of those who applaud him or stay silent.
Tonight the strain is already starting to show. Though Russian troops took part in the Independence Day parade, illustrating the officially solidarity of Belarus’ powerful neighbour, Russian state TV which is available in Belarus and normally sympathetic to Lukashenko, showed democracy activists being roughed up by Belarusian police, spreading publicity and sympathy for the protests. Shushkevich has also been unexpectedly released, potentially due to a combination internal and external pressure.
With the country facing its worst economic crisis in decades and popular demonstrations continuing against other violent regimes throughout the world, Belarus’ protest movement has even more impetus to enhance its growing momentum. Now, support from elsewhere –particularly through pressure on Russia, an economic squeeze on the government’s assets and practical aid for the demonstrators in their use of new media is essential, and could genuinely help the brave men and women seeking to bring down Europe’s last dictatorship from within.
There is still a long way to go, but in these turbulent and exciting times, Lukashenko is looking shaken and afraid. The six months since his sham re-election have been incredibly trying for the aging tyrant…the coming months will surely be even more so.