Belarus protests: How did we get here?

It has been nearly fifty days since the disputed Belarusian presidential election fuelled a wave of anti-government demonstrations and protesters have not yet given up.

Despite a violent crackdown by security forces and widespread reports of torture, scores of people continue to protest against authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

On Saturday, more than one hundred women were detained by Belarusian security forces, according to a list compiled by the Viasna human rights organisation. Just last weekend, hundreds of protesters were detained as tens of thousands showed up at an anti-government rally.

Here’s a look back at the past seven weeks of the largest protest movement ever seen in the country.

What happened during the Belarus presidential election?

The August 9 presidential election saw Belarusian strongman Lukashenko face his first serious challenge in 26 years of power when the wife of a disqualified opposition candidate decided to run for office and rose in popularity.

Tens of thousands of Belarusians showed up to rallies for this new candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher and political novice, who promised to hold fair elections if she won.

Then, on August 9, election officials announced that Lukashenko won by nearly 80% of the vote, with partial results even being announced before people finished voting.

Monitors said there were thousands of election violations. Experts and international leaders said the election was neither free nor fair.

How did people react?

Protests immediately broke out in the aftermath of the August 9 election, with a violent crackdown by security forces. Police detained thousands of people in the aftermath of the election, human rights groups said.

Authorities also restricted access to the internet, according to internet watchdog Netblocks.

Evidence soon emerged of widespread violence, torture and abuse of detainees including systematic beatings and electric shocks. Some had serious injuries and had to be hospitalised, human rights groups said.

In late September, the UN’s top human rights body passed a resolution that seeks scrutiny of the alleged violations in Belarus. The resolution had been submitted by the European Union which called on the UN human rights chief to report back on the situation by year-end.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks during a media conference at the European Parliament in Brussels, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.

What has happened to the opposition?

Opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled Belarus for Lithuania two days after the election. Her colleagues said she had been placed under “unprecedented pressure” at the Electoral Commission in Belarus before fleeing.

Several members of the opposition formed a coordination council in the wake of the protests but many have been detained.

Maria Kolesnikova, who had thrown her support behind Tsikhanouskaya and become a significant opposition figure herself, was detained after authorities tried to expel her from the country earlier this month.

Her colleagues, who were forced to leave Belarus by security forces, said she tore her passport up at the border. She now faces charges of undermining state security.

It remains to be seen what will happen in Belarus, although Lukashenko currently enjoys the support of both Russia and China and assumed his sixth term of office after a secret inauguration ceremony in Minsk.

EU foreign ministers, meanwhile, were unable to agree on sanctions against Lukashenko this past week. Tsikhanouskaya encouraged EU leaders to “be more brave” at a meeting earlier this week, stating that sanctions were important in the fight against Lukashenko’s regime.

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