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Belarus Is About to Explode

Following a rigged election, the citizens are revolting, and the country’s strongman is cracking down.
August 11, 2020
Belarus Is About to Explode
Members of the Belarus diaspora burn flares during a rally in support of Belarusians protesting vote rigging in the presidential election, outside the Belarusian embassy in Kiev on August 10, 2020. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Kiev—Reports are at least one protester has been killed in a night of demonstrations and clashes with security forces in the Belarus capital city of Minsk following the presidential vote on Sunday, August 9. On Monday night, protesters engaged in a second night of demonstrations, refusing to accept the officially announced vote results from what the opposition camp charges has been rigged balloting rife with widespread falsification. The death was confirmed on Tuesday morning by the Belarus Interior Ministry.

On one side in the election was the long-time strongman president of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has long been labelled “Europe’s last dictator.” Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and was running for a sixth term in office.

On the other side was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mother of two and the wife of Sergei Tikahnovskiy, who had been one of the three most credible challengers to Lukashenko until he was jailed in May.

Belarus opposition figures who have fled Kiev in order to avoid a similar fate had expected Lukashenko’s regime to rig the election and no independent or international election monitors were given entry into Belarus to observe the balloting. (Not a single election since Lukashenko came to power in 1994 has been recognised by international observers as fair or legitimate.)

However, no one expected the degree to which the opposition vote was suppressed this time around.

Election day began with the Belarus security forces raiding Tikhanovskaya’s campaign headquarters, prompting her to go into hiding until she surfaced a few hours later to cast her ballot.

The internet in Belarus was shut down during the day and almost all mobile phone networks were disabled. Lukashenko even went so far as to bring in help from the Chinese, who know something about crushing dissident movements. Over the past several years there has been a slowly expanding presence of Chinese defense and security firms in Belarus. And on election day, Lukashenko’s special operations units that were sent into Minsk arrived mounted on the Dongfeng Mengshi PRC-manufactured copy of the US-made AM General HMMWV and on the NORINCO-Poly Technologies CS/VN3 Dajiang (Dragon) 4×4 armoured personnel carrier.

“This is what we expected,” said one of the Belarus opposition leaders in Kiev. “Pre-election support for Lukashenko was so low that he had to be prepared to resort to the most brutal measures possible—in order to shut down a protest movement before it gains momentum. The Chinese working with the Belarus authorities are giving them the benefit of their own experience at Tiananmen Square. The overall lesson they teach is that you cannot allow a protest camp to be established and grow out of control—you have to crush it as soon as possible and with all possible force.”

Before the official results had been announced, Tikhanovskaya’s campaign declared her the winner based on the results from dozens of polling stations where she was pulling in two to three times as many votes as Lukashenko.

Some of the individual polling stations releasing numbers prior to the “official” results were:

  •  Polling Station 37/1ST of May district in the city of Minsk: Tikhanovskaya 848 votes, Lukashenko 297
  • Polling Station 70/1ST of May district in the city of Minsk: Tikhanovskaya 1,023 votes, Lukashenko 686
  • Polling Station 50/Village of Kolodishchi: Tikhanovskaya 719 votes, Lukashenko 497
  • Polling Station 54/Village of Kolodishchi: Tikhanovskaya 1,230 votes, Lukashenko 277
  • Polling Station 51/October district in the city of Minski: Tikhanovskaya 1,226 votes, Lukashenko 394

Shortly after these results were released Tikhanovskaya’s campaign announced that she had carried 20 other electoral districts in the capitol of Minsk and in surrounding municipalities. Later results had her winning in more than 80 different precincts in this nation of only 9.5 million (with some 6.5 million eligible voters). In voting abroad among the Belarus diaspora the first-time opposition candidate had polled as high as 93 percent.

And yet, shortly after the polls closed, the Belarus electoral commission announced that Lukashenko had won 80 percent while Tikhanovskaya finished with less than 10 percent.

Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin quickly phoned Lukashenko to offer him their congratulations.

“I will believe my eyes—the majority was for us,” Tikhanovskaya said on Sunday after the voting. Her remarks were in reference to visible measures that the opposition had taken during the day of voting. The anti-Lukashenko voters wore special white bracelets on the left hand and folded their ballots in a segmented, “oriental fan” pattern so they would stand out from the standard, centerfold ballot placed in the polling box.

“Final vote results” are supposed to be released on Friday, and the opposition movement is prepared for what they term a “prolonged period of protests.”

The actions of Lukashenko’s government have been denounced by the foreign ministries of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, and Ukraine. “The harsh reaction, the use of force against peaceful protesters, and arbitrary arrests are unacceptable,” read the uncharacteristically blunt statement from the Polish government, which also called for the European Union to convene an impromptu summit on the situation in Belarus.

However, there has been no statement from the other major regional E.U. member, Hungary, nor from Germany. Both Hungarian PM Viktor Orban and Chancellor Angela Merkel have long shown a marked reticence for taking action that they believe could be seen as an affront to Russia’s Putin.

So what comes next?

Upon the announcement that Lukashenko was declared the winner, the city of Minsk exploded with crowds numbering more than 100,000. They were met by water cannons, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. Spent stun grenade cartridges later shown on Belarus opposition channels showed them to be military-grade explosives made in the Czech Republic. These grenades pose real danger to unhelmeted pedestrians without protective gear (this is in comparison to the garden variety “M80-Silver Salute” stun charge normally favored by riot police).

By the end of Sunday evening a riot police van had ploughed into a crowd of protesters and there were no confirmed fatalities from this incident, but one protestor is reported to be in intensive care. There is video footage showing body-armoured and well-armed riot units on the streets of Minsk.

In the meantime, the opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya disappeared after a three-hour meeting she attended at the Central Election Commission on Monday. Her own staff were not sure where she was, and she had stopped answering calls and texts from foreign ministers of other countries. She was last heard saying that she had “made a decision” before she left unescorted through a side door of the building.

That decision became known early Tuesday morning when it was announced by Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius that she had arrived in the capitol, Vilnius and was now “safe.” It is not yet known how she crossed the border, but her decision to leave for the E.U. came after she had been detained for seven hours in Belarus, Linkevicius told Lithuanian radio, although he did not say under what circumstances.

EU diplomats who spoke to The Bulwark on Tuesday state that they expect Tikhanovskaya to establish a government-in-exile in Lithuania.

Speculation runs rampant about whether or not—in addition to the Chinese technical assistance—Russian special services are involved. On Monday night multiple reports surfaced of riot control detachments on Kalvarinskaya Street in Minsk wearing uniforms with no insignia, an echo of the “little green men” who invaded Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014. But, later eyewitness accounts were that these were Belarus units engaged in what appeared to be a “false-flag” manoeuvre to sow confusion and deflect criticism from Lukashenko’s security forces.

Nothing about the current state of play between suggests that this crisis will soon recede. The election was clearly rigged. The opposition in Belarus seems to have reached a tipping point. And the savagery of Lukashenko’s security forces is escalating.

The Ukrainian revolution of 2013-2014 required the intervention of the foreign ministers of Poland, France, and Germany to negotiate a peaceful exit for the corrupt Viktor Yanukovych in order to avert a full-blown civil war.

Without some equivalent effort on the part of foreign (meaning non-Russian) intermediaries, the situation in Belarus could spiral out of control.

Reuben Johnson

Reuben F. Johnson is a defense technology analyst and correspondent for Breaking Defense and was based in Kyiv for two decades prior to the Russian invasion. He is currently based in Warsaw.