Covid-19. Israel Palestine. Biden-Harris. Vaccine supply choked. Lockdowns. Cyclones. This is the news we see on a daily basis. But silently, quietly and insidiously the world has another nudnik to deal with – the country of Belarus. A landlocked country nestled among Poland, Ukraine and Russia; the tumultuous history is one worth dwelling into.
1. Alexander Lukashenko
Who is he?
He is a Belarusian politician who has served as the first and only president of Belarus since the establishment of the office on 20 July 1994.
Lukashenko, 66, held posts in the Soviet Army and the communist youth organization and party when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union. Before the fall of the Soviet Union he rose to prominence.
His official website describes him as “a people’s politician” and “president of the ordinary people.” However electoral irregularities, gross human rights violations and corruption have been the alleged standout features of his regime.
Most every election he has won has been marred with seething allegations of fraud, ballot theft and voter suppression.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opponent of Lukashenko claimed to have carried the 2020 election with 60-70% votes, but she was forced to flee the country after he declared victory with 80% of the votes. Other opposition leaders have either been silenced or arrested.
Despite repeated petitions to re-certify the elections or release confidential documents, he has blatantly refused and clutched onto the sanctity of the elections.
(Opposition in 2020 elections, Tsikhanouskaya)
On May 24th, 2021 he signed into law legal amendments severely restricting civil rights and the free flow of information amid a crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement.
The amendments make it tougher for protest organizers to hold rallies by making it compulsory for all mass events to be authorized by municipal authorities. They also make political parties and public associations responsible if their leaders make public calls for organizing a mass event before the permission to organize the event is granted.
One part of the legislation also states that reporters cannot act as organizers or participants of mass events in the course of their work, and cut off the ability to raise funds to hold events.
Lukashenko’s government has also continued its crackdown on journalists, jailing a freelancer for German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle and taking offline the leading independent news website Tut.by.
There have been growing calls for the current President to step aside and for his oppressive and unjust policies to be reversed.
The largest anti-government protests in the history of Belarus, the demonstrations began in the lead-up to and during the 2020 presidential election, in which Lukashenko sought his sixth term in office.
The elections precipitated into unforeseen violence against the protestors, with several thousand detained and hundreds tortured.
On election night after breaking up big crowds, police officers chased smaller groups of protesters through downtown Minsk for several hours. A fight against security forces and police continued in all major cities in Belarus. Law enforcement officers used police batons, rubber bullets (fired from shotguns), grenades with lead balls, water cannons, tear gas, and stun grenades.
On 23 September, 2020 Belarusian state media announced that Lukashenko had been inaugurated for another five-year term in a brief ceremony which was held privately. The following day, the EU published a statement which rejected the legitimacy of the election, called for new elections, and condemned the repression and violence against the protesters.
Several have either been reported missing under mysterious circumstances or been forced into the secrecy of exile.
Additionally he signed into law a measure that offers police and security forces amnesty from responsibility for shooting at protesters.
3. Ryan Air Diversion
Most recently, on 23rd May, 2021, a Ryanair flight overflying Belarus was forced to land in the country, in Minsk. The flight from Athens, Greece, was headed towards Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. The route involved flying over Belarus which shares a border with Lithuania.
The ATC (Air Traffic Control) in Belarus notified the aircraft of a possible security threat on board. This would normally refer to either a possible bomb threat, imminent hostile situation or terrorist attack. However after the aircraft landed in Minsk the threat turned out to be a hoax. The aircraft was intercepted and escorted by Mig 29 fighter jets.
The jet was allowed to leave the country a few hours later but with a notable reduction. Five passengers were illegally detained in Belarus one of whom was Roman Protasevich, a journalist from Belarus and a critic of the country’s regime who has been living in exile for a couple of years.
Protasevich is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
(An Aircraft similar to the one diverted)
How the world has reacted?
The act has had mostly unidirectional reactions from the world. Since this is a clear violation of the Chicago convention, it has been deemed illegal by most major countries.
Most airlines have stopped overflying the Belarus control are and prominent countries are mulling a ban over the use of their airspace by Belarus registered aircrafts.
The United States along with the EU, Britain and Canada have already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 Belarusian officials.
The European Union has imposed immediate sanctions on Belarus and condemned the deed as an act of terrorism.
About 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August 2020 human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms.
Notably, Russia seems to side with the Belarusian authorities. Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended Minsk’s explanation of the dramatic operation re-routing a flight between two European capitals as “reasonable.” In a public show of support, Putin is reportedly to meet Lukashenko later this week, for the third time this year.
The west has lambasted Russia’s support and excoriated the government for the same.
(Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, President of Russia)
The situation in Belarus is evolving as we speak. Between the authoritarian ‘democratic’ regime and the oppression of the common-person the outcome is but anyone’s guess. For now all we can do is hope that the sanctions cause the government’s lassitude to grow and negotiations to commence; and come 2025, hope for a regime change that liberate the people from their current ordeal.