Home The Washington Diplomat D.C. diplomats praise protesters in Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship

D.C. diplomats praise protesters in Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship

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D.C. diplomats praise protesters in Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship
Belarusian-born musicians perform at a Nov. 16 street protest against the Lukashenko regime in Tel Aviv, Israel. The sign behind the guitarist says "Who will you call if the police kill you?" (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Americans went to the polls Nov. 3 and voted President Donald Trump out—yet the incumbent refuses to concede the election to Joe Biden, the winner. Instead, Trump falsely accuses the opposition Democrats of vote-rigging, ballot tampering and outright fraud.

In Belarus, citizens went to the polls Aug. 9 and re-elected longtime President Alexander Lukashenko to a sixth term, with an official 80.1% of the vote. But opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya claims the election was a sham, and that in fact she won 60% to 70% of all ballots cast. The 38-year-old human rights activist has since fled to Lithuania, while her supporters hold huge anti-government rallies every day until the dictator is gone.

The difference is that while democracy may temporarily be under threat in the United States, it never took root in Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 9.5 million. Horrific scenes of brutality have spread across the internet, including a recent video clip of police beating demonstrators inside a supermarket.

More than 30,000 people have been arrested since the daily protests began, with widespread reports of detainees crammed into holding cells, sexually abused and forced to stand for 10 to 12 hours on end with nothing to eat or drink.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out in Minsk on Aug. 16 to protest the election victory of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years. (Photo: By Максим Шикунец – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Belarusian struggle has also attracted international sympathy. Thousands of people have rallied across Europe to show support for the anti-Lukashenko movement, with demonstrations in the Czech Republic, Germany, Romania, Poland, Ukraine and even Russia itself – where police dispersed angry protesters outside the Belarusian Embassy in Moscow. A small protest was also staged Nov. 16 in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Circle by several hundred Belarusian Jews opposed to the Lukashenko regime.

Piotr Wilczek, Poland’s ambassador to the United States, said his country “cannot stand idly by and simply watch” as neighboring Belarus — with which it shares hundreds of years of history — is torn to pieces.

“Poland has always been the most active supporter of Belarusian democratic aspirations, and our citizens are strongly invested in the fate of their eastern neighbors,” said Wilczek, who began his post in late 2016. “The solution to this crisis must be achieved in Belarus itself.”

“The stronger your repression, the stronger our resistance,” reads this sign at a Nov. 16 street protest against the Lukashenko regime by Belarusian Jews in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

More to the point, Wilczek said Belarusian society expects the West to pressure the dictatorship into freeing all political prisoners.

“Their immediate release would buy goodwill on the part of Belarusian authorities,” the ambassador said. “The Minsk government’s repeated attempts to intimidate society has been ineffective. We cannot abandon the democratic movement in Belarus in its time of need.”

Wilczek spoke during a Nov. 18 panel, “Solidarity With Belarus,” co-sponsored by the Embassy of Poland and Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES).

The discussion, moderated by CERES Director Angela Stent, also featured retired U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Yalowitz; Pavel Latushka, former Belarusian ambassador to France, and a member of the presidium of the Coordination Council; and Marek Menkiszak, head of the Russian Department at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw.

Belarusian-born singer Elizaveta Khurgin leads a Nov. 16 street protest against the Lukashenko regime in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“We support sanctions against those involved in violence against peaceful protesters, and we will not accept third-country attempts to intervene in Belarus internal affairs,” said Wilczek, in a not-so-subtle reference to Russia, which has long harbored territorial designs on Belarus.

Menkiszak, one of Poland’s top Russia experts, said Belarus is a top priority for the Kremlin—second in importance only to Ukraine among all former Soviet republics, and way more important than countries like Kyrgyzstan or Armenia.

“Moscow has pursued a policy of intentional ambiguity concerning the Belarus elections. It counted on a scenario in which elections would be falsified, Lukashenko would crush the protests after the election and sever relations with the West, making Belarus totally dependent on Russian support,” said Menkiszak, adding that the Kremlin was caught off guard by the scope and persistence of the anti-Lukashenko protesters.

“Russia does not want the protest movement to succeed and force regime change, which it cannot control. That’s a kind of nightmare scenario,” he said. “On the other hand, Russians are worried about the rise of anti-Russian sentiment in Belarus. So they try to measure their direct involvement.”

Candles at an anti-government protest spell out “100 DAYS,” and below, “Long Live Belarus!” (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Yalowitz, who served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus from 1994 to 1997, recalled how Lukashenko—popularly elected president in 1994— “uses the KGB handbook to turn a fledgling democratic state into a living model of the Soviet Union.”

The retired diplomat, who completed two tours in Moscow and was also Washington’s top envoy to Georgia from 1998 to 2001, said the dictator did that by dissolving parliament and installing his own “totally subservient” parliament, answerable only to Lukashenko.

“I saw how demonstrators were brutally dealt with, and I watched the process of how he took control of the military’s security apparatus,” Yalowitz said. “As long as these forces remain loyal and willing to commit atrocities, it’s going to be very difficult to dislodge him.”

There’s also the possibility that even if Lukashenko is removed, his successor may not be much better, a la Egypt, where the Arab Spring eventually crumbled, only to be replaced by the dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

More than 30,000 people have been detained during street protests in Belarus, as this sign at a Nov. 16 demonstration in Israel attests. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

In two other countries, Iran and Venezuela, mass protests have failed to bring down corrupt, authoritarian regimes—leading Yalowitz to suspect that it may not happen in Belarus either.

“I fully support what they’re doing in Belarus,” he said. “When I was there, I never would have imagined that this type of grassroots development would take place. I pay great homage to all those in Belarus who are risking their lives to do this.”

So far, reaction from Washington and Brussels has been disappointing, he said. On the other hand, Joe Biden’s pending inauguration, has given Belarusians “a ray of hope” for the future.

“Our president-elect is already speaking out on Belarus, in favor of the demonstrators. He’s said Lukashenko is an illegitimate president,” he said. “I would not be surprised, when Mr. Biden becomes president, to see new sanctions—particularly against those surrounding Lukashenko and those who are enabling him. Biden is much more inclined to deal with all of this than the present administration.”