Squiz Shortcut – Belarus
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Belarus made headlines recently when a commercial flight was forced to land there and a journalist/government critic was arrested. Sounds like a movie but it’s real-life, so it got us asking questions… In this edition of Squiz Shortcuts, we’ll help you understand the politics of Belarus, what the deal is with ‘Europe’s last dictator’, and why citizens have taken to the streets.
Umm, where is Belarus?
Belarus is a landlocked country in eastern Europe bordered by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia and Ukraine. And stow this away for your next pub trivia night: it’s the largest landlocked country in Europe.
About 9.5 million people.
That would be Minsk.
What does it make?
Things like refined petroleum, cheese, delivery trucks and crude petroleum – mostly being sold to Russia but also Ukraine, the UK and Germany.
You missed tractors…
Good pick up – it is also home to one of the largest tractor factories. The Minsk Tractor Works makes the bold claim that one in every 10 tractors in the world is from Belarus.
And it was part of the Soviet Union, right?
Yup. It was formerly known as Belorussia, and it became independent in 1991 when it was renamed the Republic of Belarus.
Was it a nasty break-up?
Well, not with Russia at least. It’s maintained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet Union members. So much so that the official languages of Belarus are both Belarusian and Russian.
Any other fun facts?
Not sure if fun is the right word for it… Belarus is well known for being the last country in Europe to be run by a dictator.
And his name is?
Alexander Lukashenko. He was elected as the first President of Belarus in 1994 after campaigning as a political outsider with an anti-corruption agenda. Once he was in charge, he steadily consolidated his authority.
Did that tighten or cut ties with Russia?
The relationship deepened. In 1995, they signed a friendship and cooperation pact. Belarus got a new flag (albeit pretty similar to that of the former Soviet republic) and it restored Russian as an official language.
So Russia and Belarus are tight.
And that means Belarus’ relationship with the European Union and the US is challenging. And that has a lot to do with Lukashenko’s oppressive approach to human rights, democracy, civil liberties… You get the gist.
So tell me a bit about him?
He’s 66yo and he held posts in the Soviet Army and the communist youth organisation when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union. He was elected to the parliament of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990 – and was the only deputy to oppose an agreement that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since becoming President, he has tried to preserve elements of Soviet communism.
Got it. So he’s old school?
He has been in power for almost 3 decades so he has gathered some critics over the years – mostly because of the government’s crackdown on opposition leaders and movements, and evidence of civil and human rights abuses. At the same time, Lukashenko has tried to style himself as a tough nationalist with a direct manner, defending his country from harmful foreign influences.
And he’s dug in?
Yup. Constitutional amendments giving him sweeping powers including the right to extend his term in office have seen him hold onto power. When Western democracies criticised these moves in the past, he temporarily expelled US and European ambassadors.
And, you mentioned human rights abuses?
There are many reports of activists being arrested and arbitrarily detained without legal recourse. There are also concerns about the conditions for those who have been charged or detained.
And it doesn’t stop there…
Nope. Lukashenko has also resisted economic and political reforms, and suppressed anti-government opinion in the media.
And there’s a growing sense that many have had enough?
That’s right. And it boiled over in August last year when Lukashenko claimed to win the election by collecting 80% of the vote – a result that many say was rigged, and it isn’t the first time. There have been allegations of election tampering in every vote in Belarus since Lukashenko took power.
So who’s the opposition?
The main figure is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, but in that election, officials say she secured just 10% of the vote. She insists that she polled 60-70%.
So something’s up…
And people took to the streets after the election that saw police respond with force to disperse crowds, and mass arrests of protestors in Minsk and other major cities.
That didn’t stop the movement though…
Nope. Tens of thousands continued to demonstrate – including 73yo great-grandmother Nina Baginskya who has been attending anti-government protests since the 1980s. She became an internet sensation last year after confronting authorities.
So what’s happened to Tikhanovskaya?
She was detained and then forced to leave for Lithuania. She continues her campaign to force Lukashenko to quit.
So why has this come to the forefront now?
Last week, Lukashenko forced a Ryanair flight that was over Belarusian airspace to land. Authorities then arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich.
He has been on the President’s hit list for some time because of his involvement in Belarus’ pro-democracy movement. In 2019, Protesevich was forced to flee for Poland after his work began to attract attention from the authorities. He is also the former editor of the popular social media Telegram channel Nexta – which has built up a pretty big following in Belarus. It’s widely used as a news source and was popular with anti-government activists.
Protasevich faces charges of organising mass unrest and if he is convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison. Worse, there are fears he will be charged with terrorism, which could carry the death penalty.
Right. What’s the reaction been?
World leaders have described the incident as a “hijacking”. The flight’s crew were ordered to land the plane when Belarus claimed there was a bomb threat – though nothing untoward was found upon its landing. That led many to believe it was all a ruse to get to Protasevich.
The EU and the US have tightened sanctions on Belarus, but Lukashenko has brushed it off by saying he was “thinking about the country’s security”.
So what’s next?
There’s a UN “fact-finding” investigation into the forced landing of the plane – they want to know if there was any breach of international aviation law.
And more broadly?
Not only are a growing number of Belarusian citizens calling for democratic and economic reform, troubles there are closely tied to its big sister Russia. And the EU and America are very focused on Russia. So store this background away – we’ll probably be talking about it again soon.
An interactive article by the ABC on two women protesting against Lukashenko’s regime