Belarus: Can people power topple Europe’s last dictator?


For 26 years, President Aleksandr Lukashenko has built a regime in his own eccentric, authoritarian image. Now he faces the greatest challenge yet to his hold on power in Belarus, The Times reports.

“He has always been cruel,” said Valery Karbalevich, the author of a lengthy Russian-language political biography of Mr. Lukashenko. “He is a fanatic for power. He has no real family life or friends and cannot even imagine having a life when he is not the leader.”

Many of his opponents call the president deranged, with an ample ruthless streak, The Times adds.

“He has always been crazy and very brutal,” said Andrei Sannikov, a former diplomat who was imprisoned and tortured after running against Mr. Lukashenko in 2010. “He will do anything to keep power. Anything.”

Momentum seems to be on the protesters’ side as pressure mounts on Lukashenko. His dubious claim of an “election victory with 80.1 percent of the vote has knocked holes in his legitimacy,” The Post’s Robyn Dixon reports. “His regime’s future hangs on interlaced questions: how much violence it is willing to use to cling to power, how much staying power the protests have and whether Lukashenko can depend on help from Moscow.”

Since the public launch last June of “A Call to Defend Democracy,” nothing has done more to reverse the authoritarian upsurge during the global pandemic, which was the entire purpose of the Call, than the extraordinary developments in Belarus, according to National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman.

I am sure that all of us are awestruck at the sheer display of people’s power, of the courage of the Belarusian people to defend their right to freely elect their leaders, no matter how high the cost. The solidarity that poured out in the streets of towns, big and small, all over Belarus, has been a force to be reckoned with.  People braved detentions, bullets, stun grenades, severe beatings and torture in police custody, and continued to come out in the streets, day after day, to peacefully declare that their voice will not be silenced.  Not this time. This has been an extraordinary, all-Belarusian, pro-democracy movement, he told the Kalinowski Forum in Vilnius, Lithuania:

This historic moment belongs to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Belarusians who became in the wake of a stolen election a united, civically awakened nation. It belongs to the hundreds of women, dressed in white and holding flowers, who formed a human chain in the streets of Minsk, Grodno, Gomel, Lida, and other places to silently protest police brutality. This moment also belongs to the thousands of workers, who have risked their livelihood by walking off their jobs – people from all walks of life and all professions: plant workers, metro employees, teachers, and doctors – they all have made it that much more difficult for Lukashenko to continue clinging to power.

It belongs as well to the state employees, including the state media workers and the law enforcement officers, who resigned from their posts because they couldn’t any longer carry out orders to lie to and stand against their compatriots. It belongs to the soldiers who set down their shields at the demonstration at Independence Square, and to the riot police officer who also dropped his shield and joined the protesters, who in turn then embraced him.

This moment especially belongs to the women of Belarus. In a country, where politics have historically been dominated by men, where women are sometimes dismissively referred to as “devushki” (girls), the entire nation has become energized by three women. Albeit thrust into politics quite abruptly and perhaps reluctantly, after their husbands or partners were jailed or disqualified from competing in the presidential election, these women took on an authoritarian regime that hadn’t budged for 26 years. Lukashenko has mocked them since they first joined forces under the now-iconic motto, “We love, we can, we shall win!,” referring to them as “those poor girls” and “weak women.” But it was these women who inspired a nation to come together, and who went on to become a symbol of the people’s hope that change is possible.

NED’s Carl Gershman

Events are still unfolding. There are still dozens of political prisoners who must be immediately released.  There are cases of torture, beatings, and other mistreatment of people in custody that need to be investigated, and the culprits need to be punished.  We must also reject the politically motivated criminal prosecution of pro-democracy activists.  Just this morning, two members of the Coordination Council were arrested, and we call for their immediate release.   Not least, we must reaffirm the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and the freedom to be informed.  The ongoing information blackouts in Belarus, including the denial of printing services to independent newspapers and the blocking of dozens of websites, must cease without delay.  All of this is necessary for the healing of the nation.

But one thing is for sure, even at this stage – Belarus already is a nation reborn. Lukashenko and his cronies simply cannot go back to business as usual after this Belarusian summer of solidarity.  They thought that by unleashing terror they would stop the protests, that fear would paralyze the people. But they were mistaken.  They must now concede defeat and exit the stage.  They must leave.  There must be new elections, free and democratic.

Kalinowski would be proud of the men, women, and youth of this movement. For Belarusians, the January 1863 uprising against Russia that he led is a symbol of their own struggle for national self-consciousness and self-determination. Belarusians have been engaged in this struggle for centuries, and under Lukashenko, they’ve had to fight this battle on two fronts – against Russia’s ubiquitous propaganda and against their own state’s choice to suppress Belarusian language, culture, and history.

It has only been in most recent years that Lukanshenko, pressed by Russia’s increasingly imperialistic ambitions and his own political instinct for survival, allowed a process of soft Belarusianization to gradually unfold.  This was to be his bane. Unwittingly, by allowing his people openly to speak their language, to wear their national colors, to commemorate their history, and to study their culture, Lukashenko unintentionally unleashed a process of national awakening that has now led to the rise of a new sovereign nation that has the right to determine its own future independent of geopolitical pressures and imperialistic ambitions.

At the reburial last November in Vilnius of Kalinowski and 18 other rebels from the 1863 uprising, activists chanted the famous slogan “For Our Freedom and Yours, For Our Common Future,” the call to solidarity with neighbors across borders that was first used by Poles in 1831 in support of the Decembrist uprising in Russia.  Today the demonstrations in Minsk and other Belarusian cities are linked in solidarity to protests 9,000km away in Khabarovsk and other cities in the Russian far east, where protesters have proclaimed “We have the same ideals.”

These unifying ideals are freedom, democracy, and respect for human dignity and the rule of law.  It is not without significance – as we commemorate Black Ribbon Day, the anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and remember the unparalleled slaughter that it unleashed – that Belarus, the heart of the bloodlands during World War II, is today the epicenter of the global struggle for democracy.

May the new birth of freedom in Belarus restore the hope of people everywhere that the struggle for democracy can overcome even the greatest obstacles, and that government of, by, and for the people is not about to perish from this earth.

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