Make or break for the ‘pro-Belarusian revolution’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya meeting the Belarus opposition in Brussels, Place du Luxembourg. [Darya Mustafayeva]

In these difficult times for liberal democracy, the EU has to ensure its credibility more decisively than ever, writes Darya Mustafayeva.

Darya Mustafayeva is an independent analyst, strategic communications expert and contributor with a background in international law and EU foreign affairs

It has been six weeks since the election fraud gave rise to pro-democracy demonstrations in Belarus.

Reminding the onlookers of the collapse of the Soviet Union, this protest, truly historic both in terms of the numbers and duration, has attracted attention from all over the world. Its peaceful approach, the leading role of women and the overall creativity of the protest are remarkable.

The (gravely) concerned European Union

While the EU has been laying the groundwork for targeted sanctions against those responsible for vote rigging and police violence, on Monday (21 September) the exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya arrived in Brussels.

Addressing the European Parliament, she described the sacrifices made by the people of Belarus in their fight for freedom and democracy. She also stressed that the grassroots uprising is focusing on internal matters and is neither “pro-Russian nor anti-Russian”, that it is not “pro-European or anti-European” but rather a pro-Belarusian one.

Tikhanovskaya’s appeal for support was met with understanding, however a significant blow to the opposition’s expectations awaited in the Foreign Affairs Council. While Josep Borrell re-iterated that the EU does not recognise the results of the 9 August elections and Lukashenko’s legitimacy, the Council failed to reach unanimity on the sanctions.

Now that Cyprus has not backed down on its demand for tough EU action on Turkey in return, the special EU Council next week will have to provide their political guidance on breaking this stalemate.

In these hard times for liberal democracy, the EU has to ensure its credibility more decisively than ever. The last time the EU adopted an extensive list of visa bans and assets freezes against Belarusian officials was back in 2011 following the 2010 elections.

If the EU wants to demonstrate consistency in its foreign policy, the Union has to respond to this year’s unprecedentedly grave violations and brutal crackdown on the protests with adequate measures.

The stolen election

One might say there is nothing new in this pattern of elections, arrests and sanctions. All the previous campaigns under Lukashenko were followed by a clampdown. This time the regime had prepared well in advance, ahead of the election imprisoning two of the main opponents and threatening another one so that he had to flee.

The international election watchdog OSCE/ODIHR was not able to observe due to the lack of invitation. The authorities took advantage of the COVID-19 situation and let hardly any domestic independent observers inside the polling stations.

Finally, the announced result of 80% of the votes given to the incumbent was so preposterous that there was no way of stopping the people’s indignation from spilling out into the streets.

The violence of the first post-election days will enter the history books as one of the darkest periods for Belarus. Thousands arrested, hundreds injured and tortured, at least 7 people dead to date – all were unarmed and peacefully expressing their opinion.

Currently, the number of political prisoners is the highest in history of the country – more than 70 already – with the overall number of detentions reaching 12 thousand people, according to the human rights centre Viasna.

The (re)united opposition

What might a Nobel Prize winner, a diplomat, two lawyers, two campaign managers and an engineer have in common? They were all presiding over the opposition Coordination Council created to initiate the negotiations with the government clinging to the power.

So far only two out of seven members of the Council’s Presidium are still on the territory of Belarus and are relatively free. The rest have been forced to leave the country or are in detention.

Before being arrested, Maria Kolesnikova, the campaign manager of the imprisoned presidential hopeful Viktor Babaryka, announced a plan to create a new party “Together” that would advocate for a constitutional reform.

After she tore her passport into pieces to preclude the authorities from sending her into exile, Maria faced trumped-up criminal charges for alleged calls to seize state power punishable by up to 5 years of imprisonment.

Her case together with that of her lawyer Ilya Salei and another Presidium member and solicitor Maxim Znak, who announced a hunger strike, have caused an uproar across the country. The creative and legal communities have expressed their strongest support for their jailed colleagues.

State employees, including bureaucrats working within the Foreign Affairs Ministry, are renouncing the human rights violations and resigning with an unambiguous signal to the regime.

The disobedient women

Women were on the frontline from the start with the female trio leading the opposition electoral campaign. And they are still very much in the lead. Every Saturday, women organise a march in spite of the large numbers of special forces amassed to instil fear.

They literally shield men with their bodies from being detained or beaten by the riot police. Called Belarusian Valkyries by the grateful male protesters, they choose for everyone to live, unlike their Norse counterparts.

At first, out of deeply rooted sexism rather than generosity or tolerance, male police officers detained mostly men and hardly any women.

However, in the past two weekends, the tactics have changed and last Saturday almost 400 women were arrested, among them elderly and pregnant ones, women with disabilities, though most were released the same day.

While the police forces are increasingly worn out by daily and weekly protests, the demonstrators are growing impatient for the change. The solidarity within the society is constantly strengthened since almost everyone has been directly or indirectly affected by the police brutality.

The world is eagerly watching whether the last remnants of the repressive Soviet legacy will crumble under the force of the peaceful protest.

With all eyes on Belarus, it seems like it’s a make-it-or-break-it time.

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