From the residential area of Minsk where I’m writing, I can hear the incessant honking of car horns. The sound marks the expression of popular protest in the Belarusian capital against Alexander Lukashenko, and his desire to stay in power and add one more presidential term to his already 26-year rule.
On Sunday, when the preliminary results announced by the central electoral commission indicated an “elegant victory” for Lukashenko, with nearly 80% of support, people took to the streets to defend the votes they cast for the opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who officially got only around 10%.
While the official figures indicate a clear victory for Lukashenko, independent exit polls showed strikingly different results: with almost 80% for Tikhanovskaya and less than 10% for the incumbent. The discrepancy in the vote count – coupled with the way independent observers were prevented from staying at polling stations – boiled over in an unprecedented way.
Tens of thousands gathered on the streets of Minsk, united by a simple slogan: “Leave!” In response, the siloviki – the special state security forces – violently dispersed the crowds, resulting in around 3,000 people being detained and hundreds injured. What is particularly remarkable is that protests took place all over the country. This is not the uprising of some narrow or unrepresentative liberal group.
The internet has also been blocked for the second day in a row; even with workarounds, like VPNs, it barely works. (This happened before in 2010 on election night and sporadically during the 2020 electoral campaign.) As of Monday afternoon, the protesters, many of whom rely on information from the encrypted Telegram app, were still intending to take to the streets again. Moments of connectivity brought Telegram reports that additional military trucks and equipment are being brought to the city.
Lukashenko’s plan to stay in power is crumbling. In a recent address to the nation, he proclaimed that he “won’t give the country away”. With multiple violations of democratic standards and human rights committed during his reign – such as the unconstitutional referendum that allowed Lukashenko to run for president for an unlimited number of terms, the disappearance of opponents in the 1990s, the imprisonment of those who dared to question his authority – he and his government understand that if he leaves now, the prosecution of past deeds might follow. People would be free to pore over the past 26 years. The regime is in survival mode: they are determined to suppress discontent, even at the cost of spilling blood on the streets.
Although Lukashenko has a strong hold on the repressive apparatus of the state – as the spectacle of siloviki bundling unarmed protesters into the backs of vans in broad daylight signals – and maintains leverage over the employees in the state sector who work on the electoral commissions, there are signs of cracks inside the system.
A number of polling stations both in Belarus and abroad were reported to have noted a victory for Tikhanovskaya over Lukashenko. Tsikhanouskaya herself told the Associated Press that her campaign had evidence that there were many polling stations “where the number of votes in [her] favour [were] many more times than for another candidate”.
There were reports indicating that police showed up last night at some of the polling stations, forcing the commissions to report the “correct” results. In addition, although many of the siloviki present on the streets yesterday did attack protesters, some refused to take part. Such developments are unprecedented.
Another source of inspiration for the protesters and those people who oppose the regime from inside the system (electoral commissions and the police), is the growing consolidation of the civil society. Belarusians – those inside the country and the Belarusian diaspora all over the world – have already reached into their pockets to crowdfund money to assist those who have been repressed and detained.
We are at a turning point. Lukashenko has little option other than to cling to power, which makes the possibility of more state violence against his own people likely. At the same time, this level of popular protest against the intolerability of life under Lukashenko has never happened before. Even if he manages to suppress the protests in the coming days, Belarusian society has awoken to a freedom struggle that will not go away any time soon.
• Katsiaryna Shmatsina is a research fellow at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies