By Peter Ivanov
In recent days, the eyes of the international media have focused their gaze on Europe, watching as Covid-19 continues to spread across the continent in what some are calling the beginning of a second wave of the disease. But this virus isn’t the only plague engulfing Europe and the rest of the world. Public outrage against corruption and exploitive government regulations have been at the center of protest movements in Europe and beyond, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. While maintaining several commonalities, these diverse protests reflect each country’s situation and response to the pandemic.
Belarus is the latest country to make headlines for an explosion of public unrest. Belarus was part of the former Soviet Union, playing a crucial role in Soviet war efforts against Nazi Germany during WWII. The war devastated Belarus financially and socially, but the country and its people managed to rebuild after the war ended. In 1945, the Byelorussian SSR was a founding member of the United Nations along with the rest of the Soviet Union and Ukraine. Belarus declared its independence on 25 August 1991 before the complete dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. To this day, Belarus maintains a close political and economic relationship with Russia.
Communism may have officially ended, yet Belarus is still considered “the last dictatorship” due to its authoritarian government and record of human rights abuses.
Recently, Belarusians took to the polls in national elections with hopes for regime change in a bit to end the long reign of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has served as president since 1994. Lukashenko heads Belarus’s authoritarian government in a country where elections are notoriously viewed as unfair by international standards, a viable opposition is non-existent, and a total absence of free press stifles dissent. He is the de facto “Tsar” of Belarus, who publicly condemned the West even before coordinated sanctions were imposed on the country for its human rights violations.
Lukashenko also believes the state should control and own key industries, maintaining a staunch Soviet ideology. This has resulted in a state that is rich and a populous who are poor, generating a huge socio-economic gap between the people and the oligarchs running the country. Unfortunately, this is a conviction shared by many Eastern European leaders.
Belarus isn’t alone in its predicament. Moldova also gained independence in 1990 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The country developed into a kleptocracy where oligarchs controlled the country and amassed wealth, leaving the country poor. Money laundering, corrupt officials and organized crime become the accepted norm. In 1994, a notorious scheme defrauded Moldavian banks of approximately 1 billion dollars, amounting to 12% of Moldova’s GDP. Despite the fact that there have been waves of privatization since 1994, certain key industries remain public including transportation and communication.
The Czech Republic has also experienced similar attitudes from its leadership, especially when it comes to privatization. President Andrej Babis’s government owns the majority of the country’s media outlets, the few exceptions are forced to compete with the state-owned industry on an unequal playing field. The press isn’t the only industry subject to appropriation. The coal industry is home to one of the Czech Republic’s biggest controversies when the government shorted stock values of the previously privately-owned OKD company to undercut foreign investors and confiscate profits. A scenario not unlike what transpires in Belarus. Perhaps, for this reason, the Czech Republic is trying to distance itself by calling out Belarus’s unfair elections.
Nonetheless, the recent protests in Belarus echo a sentiment of discontent. More and more people are joining the rallies to protest Lukashenko’s sixth win. Many optimistic observers are comparing the current uprising to the ones that toppled communism in 1989. For the first time in many years, opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, gained rapid popularity as a symbol of hope, change and progress. However, police brutality against protestors forced her to concede and flee the country for her and her family’s safety.
Tikhanovskaya posted a heartfelt apology in which she asked protestors to avoid violent clashes with the police and stated that “it was a very hard decision to make. I know that many of you will understand me, many others will condemn me, and some will even hate me. But God forbid you ever face the choice that I faced”.
Belarus may seem trapped in its communism past, but the rise of promising candidates who represent democracy is a step in the right direction.