Belarus in limbo following rigged presidential election

Belarus is in limbo and set for a wave of nationwide protests following a presidential election which the country’s opposition claims was heavily rigged.

The official result of the election, held on August 9, was never in doubt. As was widely expected, preliminary results issued early on August 10 showed the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko as a clear winner, with more than 80 per cent of the vote. His closest rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was a long way behind on 9.9 per cent.

The actual result may never be known, although a number of leaked returns from polling stations, published by independent website, which was taken offline for much of election day, and to which access remains patchy, suggest that Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed YouTuber, won the election comfortably. She certainly believes so, and has refused to accept the official result, calling on Mr Lukashenko to hold talks to discuss a handover of power.

“I believe my eyes, and I see that the majority is with us,” Tikhanovskaya told reporters. “Unfortunately the authorities do not hear us, they are so distanced from normal people. The violence yesterday was unprecedented. We need a peaceful transfer of power.”

Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in the capital Minsk and other towns and cities across the country as soon as voting ended, calling on Mr Lukashenko to accept defeat. Human rights NGOs have said that during clashes with security forces, at least one protester was killed and several others are in a serious condition, although the Belarusian authorities have denied the claim, saying the only people to have been injured were police. The Belarus Ministry of the Interior says that more than 3,000 people were arrested, while Mr Lukashenko has called the protesters “sheep” and said that they were controlled from Poland, the UK and Czechia.

Other demonstrators assembled outside polling stations in an attempt to ensure that only genuine voting returns were reported to the country’s Central Election Committee. Many had been refused the opportunity to vote: polling stations closed at 8pm despite long queues of people still waiting outside. Opposition activists pointed to record numbers of early votes as a likely sign of ballot stuffing, with nearly 40 per cent of eligible Belarusians reportedly casting their ballots before polls opened. Many polling stations ran out of ballot papers as they surpassed 100 per cent of eligible voters.

However, a small group of observers from eight Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, allies of Mr Lukashenko, declared that the election had been held in accordance with the constitution and the electoral code.

“They were open, competitive and ensured the expression of the will of the citizens of Belarus,” said one of the mission’s representatives. Few outside of state-controlled media were reassured by his words. Western organisations, such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), had not been allowed to send observers to the country, while many representatives from independent local NGOs had been arrested in the days preceding the election.

With the internet currently being throttled across the country, communication difficult, and with the few images getting out lacking context, it is difficult to draw an accurate picture of the situation on the ground. In some cities, it was reported that the security forces refused to disperse protesters. The worst of the violence certainly appears to have been in the capital, where tear gas, water cannon and Czech-made stun grenades were used.

What happens over the next few days will be crucial for the country’s future. It is clear that after 26 years of economic stagnation and in the midst of a health pandemic he has handled poorly, a majority of Belarusians no longer want Mr Lukashenko in office and are this time not prepared to look the other way as he declares himself the election’s winner.

“It’s hard to tell at this point what comes next,” Tadeusz Giczan, a researcher at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies tells Emerging Europe, who says that at over 250 polling stations where the results weren’t rigged, Tikhanovskaya officially got around 70 per cent of the vote. “Results range from some 50 per cent in villages to over 90 per cent in many parts of Minsk. There’s definitely going to be another wave of protests tonight. I think it might only intensify.”

Tikhanovskaya has yet to publicly back the protests, a sound move according to Katsiaryna Shmatsina, a RethinkCEE fellow at the German Marshall Fund, who is currently in the Belarusian capital and who has had to cancel numerous interviews due to the unstable internet connection in the city.

“Tikhanovskaya understands that if she publicly supports the protests, this would give a green light for the authorities to arrest her – as this happened to the presidential candidates in previous years, let’s say in 2010. People go on the streets even without Tikhanovskaya. So probably a wiser move on her behalf is to stay safe and to remain a symbolic leader of the united opposition,” Shmatsina tells Emerging Europe. “She’d make more impact if she stays safe and tried to act within the law rather than head the crowds.”

Strikes could also be used by as a tactic by the opposition: workers have already reportedly downed tools at the country’s largest steelworks in the eastern city of Zhlobin, and an influential blogger, NEXTA, has reiterated his appeal for “plan B”, which is a national strike and rallies across the country beginning this evening.

There has so far been only muted international reaction to the rigged vote and the violent way that protests in Minsk were put down, drawing criticism from those familiar with the region.

“EU silence and passivity on the stifling of democracy in Belarus is unconscionable,” said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former president of Estonia. “Statements of ‘deep concern’ will do nothing. Time to suspend all EU activities in Belarus that do not directly help its citizens and to sanction all decision-makers in the Lukashenko regime.”

The European Union’s External Action Service (EEAS) has issued a joint statement by European Commission High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell and Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi on the presidential election, but it falls well short of advocating sanctions.

“Following their unprecedented mobilisation for free elections and democracy, the Belarusian people now expect their votes to be counted accurately. It is essential that the Central Electoral Commission publishes the results reflecting the choice of the Belarusian people. Only upholding human rights, democracy, and free and fair elections will guarantee stability and sovereignty in Belarus. We will continue to closely follow the developments in order to assess how to further shape the EU’s response and relations with Belarus in view of the developing situation,” read the statement.

Although Poland has called for an emergency EU Council debate on the situation in Belarus, any new sanctions would require unanimity across the 27 member states, and in June Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, made it clear that he opposed any restrictive measures against Mr Lukashenko.

“The authorities used force against their citizens who are demanding changes in the country. We must support the Belarusians in their quest for freedom,” said the office of Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki in a statement.

Nigel Gould-Davies, a former UK ambassador to Belarus, called the election a “dangerous farce” and said the west should impose further sanctions on Lukashenko. Referring to Tikhanovskaya’s campaign, he said: “What is happening in Belarus is the last phase of a great reordering of European politics that began in 1989.”

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