Belarus was rocked for days by widespread mass protests, sparked by an election that was widely seen as massively rigged in favor of longtime incumbent leader Alexander Lukashenko.
After a week of fierce clashes with opposition protesters, numerous allegations of police brutality, parades of women in white with roses and walkouts at large state-owned companies, let’s see how it all came about.
What was the pre-election situation?
Europe’s longest-serving ruler, President Lukashenko ruled Belarus for 26 years, coming to power amid the chaos caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years earlier.
Still considered an autocrat, he tried to preserve elements of Soviet communism. Much of the manufacturing has been controlled by state-owned companies, and major media channels have been loyal to the government. The powerful secret police are even still called the KGB.
At the same time, Mr. Lukashenko tried to present himself as a tough nationalist with a straightforward way of defending his country against malignant foreign influences and a guarantor of stability.
These factors have meant that the longtime leader has so far gained public support, although the elections under his rule have never been seen as free or fair.
But the way he’s viewed has changed in recent months. Opposition politicians have noticed a change in mood, with people complaining about pervasive corruption and poverty, a lack of opportunities and low wages.
This has been made worse by the coronavirus crisis.
Opponents consider Mr Lukashenko’s bravado over the virus – he suggested combating it with vodka, saunas and hard work – to be reckless and a sign that he is out of touch.
Then, a crackdown on opponents before the presidential election, with two opposition candidates jailed and another fleeing the country, led to the creation of a powerful coalition of three women closely involved in these campaigns.
What happened during the election?
One of the trios, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, registered as a candidate in place of her arrested husband Sergey Tikhanovsky.
The 37-year-old woman and her two allies toured the country, drawing record crowds of people frustrated by the lack of political change.
Election day came amid widespread fears among the opposition about possible falsifications. In the absence of invited independent observers, these fears appeared to be justified and many apparent irregularities were documented. An Internet blackout began and lasted for several days.
Voting was closed and exit polls were released that closely resembled the results due to be released the next day – suggesting Mr Lukashenko won with 80 percent of the vote. Ms Tikhanovskaya only gained about 10%, they said. These results were then approved by the authorities, while the main opposition candidate insisted that where the votes had been correctly counted, she had polled 60 to 70%.
Disbelief and anger over what appeared to be a fairly brazen alteration of results quickly spread to the streets.
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On the night after the elections, violent clashes led to 3,000 arrests in Minsk and other cities. Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades, never before seen in Belarus, to disperse the crowds.
Further nights of violence saw 3,700 more arrests across the country.
The day after the election, Ms Tikhanovskaya tried to complain to the electoral authorities about the falsification of the result. She was detained for seven hours and forced to leave for Lithuania, where she had previously sent her children.
In a moving video speech to supporters, she said she overestimated her own strength and was leaving for the sake of her children.
How have the demonstrations evolved?
But that was not the end. In the clashes that followed the elections, details revealed alleged police brutality as detainees were severely beaten and forced into overcrowded prisons.
Many sought medical help and posted photos of their injuries on social media after their release.
This produced a new wave of protests. Friends and relatives gathered in detention centers to inquire about the detainees, and women dressed in white wearing roses tied their arms and marched through the streets.
In major state-owned enterprises across the country, workers demanded answers from local leaders and officials about election irregularities and the treatment of protesters. Some have called for strikes and joined the protests.
Staff at the main state-owned media channel announced that they were going on strike after several high-profile resignations, vowing to start reporting “the truth.” Previously, the channel had followed the government’s line on elections and protests.
A number of officials, as well as current and former police officers, have resigned. Belarusian Ambassador to Slovakia Igor Leshchenya declared his solidarity with the protesters. The manager of the main Belarusian football club threw his old police uniform in the trash in disgust and international footballer Ilya Shkurin announced that he would not play for his country until President Lukashenko resigned.
A few days after her touching speech to supporters, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya presented concrete plans for a “coordination council” to handle a transfer of power, which would be made up of “civil society activists, respected Belarusians and professionals”.
She called for a weekend of peaceful rallies, and the last demonstration on August 16 brought a mass of supporters into central Minsk, eclipsing a rally called by Lukashenko’s supporters the same day.