Updated: Oct 19, 2021
Alexander Lukashenko has been the president of Belarus for over 25 years and is Europe’s longest-ruling head of state. He recently announced that he won his sixth election for president on Aug. 9, amid widespread protests against his presidency.
Demonstrators have protested the fairness of the elections for years now. They argue that Lukashenko has rigged the election in his favor and that he has used corruption to stay in power. However, his regime is under threat now more than ever, which means that he may fall from his position soon. How has he maintained his grasp on power for this long? Why is he under threat?
The History of Belarus
Belarus is a country located in Eastern Europe, between Poland and Russia. It is known for its pristine lakes and forests, and is slightly smaller than Kansas, with a population of almost 9.5 million.
For about 70 years, Belarus, formerly known as Belorussia, was one of the three Slavic Republics — the other two were Russia and Ukraine — in the Soviet Union (USSR). However, after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Belarus gained independence and became its own state. For three years, a Supreme Soviet, or legislating body, ruled over Belarus until the country adopted a national constitution in March 1994.
The first free presidential elections were held in July of 1994, and that’s when Alexander Lukashenko, who was previously in the Soviet Army, was first elected. He was loved by the public and was seen as a populist — or a “man of the people.” He appealed to the public by fighting against corruption and became known as “batka”, or father, taking a paternal role over the country.
Lukashenko’s Controversial Presidency
Once Lukashenko became president, his intentions started to change. One of the major accomplishments he achieved was creating a strong relationship with Russia, by signing many treaties with Russian leaders, and hoped Russia and Belarus could form some type of union.
In 1996, Lukashnenko persuaded the legislature and the Belarusian people to approve a referendum on amendments to the constitution, which increased his power greatly. This referendum allowed him two term limits (five years each), complete power over the legislature (being able to appoint one third of the entire legislature and veto laws), and the ability to rule by decree. This meant that Lukashenko was granted unlimited power in making decisions for the country and no system of checks and balances existed under him, allowing him to edit laws without approval from parliament.
Former Head of Central Commission Viktar Hanchar didn’t approve of the changes that Lukashenko initiated, as it gave Lukashenko a copious amount of power, abusing his position as president, and contradicting his anti-corruption stance during the election. Furthermore, he was soon arrested and has been missing, ever since. Others who opposed Lukashenko’s government at the time, like former Minister of Internal Affairs Yury Zakharenka and journalist Dimitri Zavadski, also mysteriously disappeared after publicly opposing Lukashenko around the time of the referendum.
After the referendum which gave Lukashenko his immense power, he began to be known as a dictator.
Lukashenko also has a longstanding disdain for the media and actively silences opposing media voices in Belarus. He has complete control over the media and arrests or threatens media propaganda against him.
In 2001, when the next election occurred, Lukashenko won again. However, many countries accused Lukashenko of rigging the election and called the election “undemocratic”. The United States State Department had “credible allegations” that claimed that Lukashenko was involved in the disappearances of over 30 different opposing Belarusian officials and his political opponents. These statements were ignored by Lukashenko.
Lukashenko’s dictatorship continued until the 2006 election when he reached his term limit. Instead, he passed another referendum, which allowed him to exceed the term limit and run for two additional terms
Lukashenko won the 2006 election, but received international condemnation for his win. Not only were there widespread domestic protests, but the European Union (EU) banned Lukashenko and his officials from entering any EU countries with the U.S. doing the same.
Lukashenko was victorious in the 2010 election, and most of his opponents were arrested and beaten severely by the police. Additionally, the secretary of his main opponent was found hanged. The secretary, Aleh Byabenin, was also a journalist and the founder of Charter 97, a Lukashenko opposing website that called for democracy and human rights, and was one of the few Belarusian outlets that provided any information on the opposing candidates. Although this was eventually ruled as a suicide, many, including the Commitee to Protect Journalists believe otherwise. Over 600 protestors were also detained which spurred the U.S. and the EU to tighten sanctions on Belarus.
The 2020 Belarusian Election
This year’s Belarusian election was much different than any of the country’s previous elections.
Lukashenko was elected for the sixth time. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, his primary opponent, is a human rights activist and was an English teacher, who wanted to empower her voters.
Tikhanovskaya as well as many officials and voters demanded a recount, which was denied. Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania 3 days after the election, after her campaign staff were detained by the government, for no apparent reason.
Recently, Belarus’s economy has been on a steady decline and poverty rates have risen. Additionally, Lukasehnko handled the COVID-19 pandemic very poorly.
He refused to enforce restrictions on mass events and lockdowns and even called COVID-19 a “psychosis.” Lukashenko also contracted the virus asymptomatically, but played it down, stating drinking vodka and going in the sauna will help fight against it.
Since the election, protests have been more widespread than any previous election and over 7,000 people have been detained. The protests are even larger than the widespread protests that occurred when the Soviet Union was dissolved.
Lukashenko also met with factory workers for an election rally and was overwhelmingly booed by the workers, who chanted “leave!”
The protests are still continuing; on Aug. 23, over 100,000 protestors were crammed into the center of Belarus’s capital city, Minsk, to protest the government. UN Human Rights expressed outrage over the police violence against these protestors, and criticized how Belarus handled the elections.
Lukashenko did say he was willing to hand over power and the presidency to Tikhanovskaya in accordance with the constitution, but not under any pressure from protests. However, he has completely contradicted these statements, actively ignoring recounting the election.
Although there is a chance that Lukashenko will stay in power, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya hopes things will change. “The people of Belarus have woken up and they are ready to change this system for better living,” she said.
Through Teen Lenses: Have you heard about the Belarus Elections? The president has been re-elected for the sixth time, amid widespread protests. Do you have any opinions on dictatorships and officials rigging elections, and what do you think citizens can do about it?
“I’ve been extremely disheartened to see what is happening in Belarus, as the government continues its tradition of sham elections. However, to see the citizens finally take a stand against this corruption is encouraging, despite the government’s unfortunate but unsurprising reaction of attacking and arresting protestors. Ultimately, citizens’ abilities to affect change lie in their freedom to speak and peacefully assemble. When the government silences the people’s voices and exiles opposition candidates, this obviously becomes nearly impossible. But Lushenko’s failed response to the pandemic and Belarus’ failing economy both create a perfect breeding ground for change. While a full-blown revolution may not be ideal, I think that those of us who do enjoy freedom of expression have an obligation to help amplify the voice of the opposition and do whatever we can to defend them. Perhaps the United States can lead the international community in applying pressure to Lushenko to increase transparency and defend free and fair elections. At the moment, I can’t see a peaceful path forward for the people of Belarus without international intervention. We should all live up to our promise of protecting democracy around the world, and lend a hand to the peaceful protestors of Belarus.” Arul Nigam, Rising Senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, 17, Alexandria, Virginia
“Yeah, I’ve heard a lot about the Belarus protests. I think dictatorships are just undemocratic and immoral, especially if the incumbent president has lost backing from the people. I think the best thing citizens can do is protest and raise awareness of their grievances in order to get the attention of other countries to help. When the political movement continues to grow, there comes a breaking point when the dictator has to resign.” Kaleena Roeva, Rising Senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, 17, Alexandria, Virginia
“Yes I have heard about the Belarus Elections. I’m surprised the protests haven’t had any deep effects on the elections. I think it’s horrible how officials have rigged the elections and I think it’s sad how people will go through anything in order to gain power. Dictatorship is something that we should not be having in 2020 and I support the protests that are happening because the people want what’s right – the right to live in a fair democracy. I don’t think citizens can do anything about it other than continue to protest, hoping that something will happen ceasing the elections.” Nitya Yelakanti, Rising Sophomore at Fairfax High School, 15, Fairfax, Virginia
“I have not heard about it but I believe that for the best life experience for all citizens, many voices should be heard — and rigging elections silences these voices. A good democracy should be trustworthy and honest — and should have a distribution of power between the government and the people.” Emma Cox, Rising Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, 15, Alexandria, Virginia
“I have not heard of the Belarus Election. However, dictatorship and rigged elections should not be a part of any nation. Due to the power residing only in high officials, it is difficult for citizens to change their own nation. Regardless of these obstacles, I believe citizens can make change through the power of protest.” Amrith Ranjan, Rising Sophomore at Briar Woods High School/Academy of Science, 15, Ashburn, VA