Many people suddenly became aware of Belarus on August 10, the day after the controversial presidential elections concluded.
Reports surfaced that the internet was restricted. In addition, both presidential candidates claimed to have overwhelmingly won the elections as massive protests broke out followed by brutal repression.
So what happened?
More importantly, why is this relatively small country threatening global diplomacy, and creating new frictions between Russia, NATO, and the EU?
Europe’s Last Dictator
Alexander Lukashenko has been President of Belarus since it became independent.
He was the only representative to vote to maintain the USSR. In fact, during his tenure, he has run Belarus in a similar manner to the former Soviet Union. And he’s won reelection every 5 years under dubious circumstances.
There have been flair-ups of protests and repression for years. However, the situation became especially serious following widespread discontent regarding the handling of the coronavirus in the middle of the latest round of presidential elections.
Matters worsened when Lukashenko had his leading opponents arrested on charges of being foreign agents. The wife of one of the imprisoned men, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, stood in his place for the election, uniting the opposition to the government.
Things Break Out into the Open
The police blocked roads around the capital Minsk during the election, and there were severe restrictions on internet access.
Following that, the government claimed that Lukashenko won with 80.1% of the vote. Even his supporters couldn’t believe it! They understood that he was unpopular and couldn’t possibly win that big.
Opposition candidate Tsikhanouskaya claimed to win between 60-70% of the vote. As a result, people took to the streets in mass protests, and the political crisis garnered international attention.
Belarus under Lukashenko notoriously retains a close relationship with Russia. However, prior to the protests, relations had become strained.
Lukashenko accused Russia of trying to interfere in the elections, after ordering the detention of several members of Russian-based private security firm Wagner Group.
Immediately after the elections, Lukashenko continued to accuse foreign agitators of interfering in the country. He accused everyone from the Ukrainians to the Americans, to the EU, but also dropped accusations against Russia.
At one point, he even ordered the mobilization of paratroopers to the Polish border.
The Broader Conflict
Both the EU and Russia publicly state that they are against foreign intervention.
However, Russia has agreed to provide troops to Lukashenko if necessary. Meanwhile, EU countries have already issued sanctions on members of the current Belarus government.
The worry is that, since Lukashenko appears to have no interest in relinquishing power, protests will continue. And if they do, a conflict similar to Ukraine might occur.
Belarus itself is a relatively small country with under 10 million inhabitants. It has the lowest GDP per capita in Europe.
However, given that it’s half-way between Berlin and Moscow, and that it has important fuel transport lines, it’s likely to remain a geopolitical focal point until the election issue is resolved.