Students turn their backs on «Europe’s last dictator»
Belarus is facing an uncertain time after this month’s presidential election. Many students are supporting the people’s wish for a revolution.
- More than 9 million residents.
- The country borders to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, and the Ukraine.
- Was a part of the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1991.
- Has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.
- Source: UN
—The streets are full of blood after the protests, Elizaveta Malchuk (18) tells Universitas. She is one of thousands of Belarusians who have been in full revolt since the presidential election on the 9th of August.
Just few hours after the votes had been counted, protestors filled the streets. They were met by the police’s iron rods and pepper spray, and thousands have since been jailed. Now the whole nation’s future is at stake.
The last dictator
For 26 years, Belarus has been ruled with an iron fist by Alexander Lukashenko, also known as “Europe’s last dictator”. No elections under his regime have been recognised as free and fair by foreign players, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Following previous elections, the population has also taken to the streets to protest the result. So what is different this time?
In May, 37-year-old Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya entered as a presidential candidate. She announced her presidential campaign after her husband, a politician in the opposition party, was imprisoned. It took time before Lukashenko considered Tsikhanouskaya and her female colleagues a real threat. In Belarusian media he has spoken of them as “poor things”.
Nothing implied that he could foresee the vast support Tsikhanouskaya would rally. According to The Guardian, 63,000 people came to hear her speak last month.
After the election, however, Lukashenko had the votes of more than 80%. The result has been dismissed by the opposition, who claim that Tsikhanouskaya was the real winner.
Fled the country
The day after the election, Tsikhanouskaya filed an official complaint demanding votes to be counted again. She was taken to an “unknown location” by the election committee and disappeared for several hours.
Later it was known that she had fled to Lithuania, where her kids were sent before the election, after the governing powers threatened to contact child protection services.
Following her escape, the state-owned Belarusian press has published a video where Tsikhanouskaya reads the following message:
— Belarusians, I ask you to be reasonable and to respect the law. I don’t want blood or violence. I ask you not to resist the police, demonstrate, or put your lives in danger.
I see that many students are taking part in the protests. We are full of hope
Nikita Rakitsky, student
Want the truth
Since the election, her supporters have done the opposite. Daily, thousands take to the street. They demand that Lukashenko steps down.
— The students support these peaceful protests, continues Malchuk.
She studies journalism in the country’s capital city, Minsk.
— We know that we can get arrested and be killed by the police. But we want the truth. We want fair elections and honesty from the governing powers.
Universitas spoke with her on Sunday 16th of August, a week after the presidential election. On the same day, Lukashenko spoke to his supporters. Immediately after, protestors filled the streets once again. The numbers on how many people showed up, vary greatly. According to the news agency AFP, 100,000 Belarusians participated, while according to Associated Press there were as many as 200,000. Among them was Malchuk.
— It’s fantastic to participate in the peaceful demonstrations. You see that we can achieve changes in the nation, she says.
Also Nikita Rakitsky (20) has participated in the demonstrations, in his hometown Kalinkavichy in the south of the country, where he studies linguistics.
— I see that many students are taking part in the protests. We are full of hope. I smile all the time when we are protesting. But it is impossible to say if the situation will get better. Several people in the city have been kidnapped after having protested, he tells.
The country’s military has responded brutally to the protests. According to human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, many are tortured in custody. Many of Malchuk’s friends have been arrested.
— Their bodies are full of bruises and fractures when they are released, she says.
Support from the East
A whole world is now holding their breath waiting for the next step. On Wednesday, the EU leaders held an emergency meeting about the situation. There it became apparent that the EU countries do not recognize the result of the election. Now they are planning sanctions to contribute to «a peaceful, democratic transfer of power in the country».
Factory workers in the country are also going on strike, something that can put further economic pressure on the President in the long term. Tsikhanouskaya has made a statement from exile in Lithuania that she is ready to return and step into the role of president.
At the same time, many look nervously to the East. Belarus has, similar to many of the earlier Soviet states, a complicated history with the former motherland Russia. Yet, the two countries have maintained close political and economic relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to Vladimir Putin’s official website, the two presidents have had multiple phone calls in the time before and after the election. Russia is ready to intervene militarily.
— We have arranged for Russia to contribute to ensuring the security of Belarus, at first need, states President Lukashenko last week, according to the state-owned news agency Belta.
Will return to the universities
Similarly to the rest of the population, the country’ students are facing an uncertain time. The election and the violent demonstrations began before the universities opened their doors again after the summer break. Several news agencies have reported on students’ participation in the protests. The Rector at Minsk University has stated that the students will not be punished for participating. The extent to which higher education is put on hold while the future of the nation is decided, is to early to say anything about.
— I think the students will return to the universities and protest throughout the autumn, says Malchuk and concludes:
— I don’t think the President will be able to hold onto his power for much longer as the situation is now.