Which of the following movies you find most interesting?
A) “A Single Man” (by Tom Ford, 2009)
B) “Three Women” (by Robert Altman, 1977)
C) “Anna” (by Luc Besson, 2019)
What to us might appear a simple poll on our movie preferences, to Belarusian citizens is a crucial question. One that will be ultimately answered at the ballot boxes on August 9. If Belarus had free and fair elections, the information website TUT.BY would not need movie titles to disguise the presidential candidates as options. Electoral polls, both physical and virtual, are prohibited in Europe’s oldest dictatorship.
The “Single Man” Aliaksandr Lukashenka has been ruling the country with an iron fist since 1994, when the ashes of the USSR were still hot. As of today, he has served five mandates and does not seem eager to step aside. Most analysts concur that despite the current unrest he will score another easy victory on Sunday, keeping on with its authoritarian rule.
Among the opposition, “Three Women” have emerged from three political campaigns obstructed by the government. Their goal is to channel the popular anger towards the ballot box. Veronika Tsepkalo is the wife of Valery Tsepkalo, former ambassador and director of the Belarus Hi-Tech Park; he was denied the candidate status when, according to the government, he failed to collect the necessary number of signatures. Maria Kolesnikova is a former member of the campaign of Viktar Babaryka, now a political prisoner who was also denied from taking part in the elections. Svetlana Tikhanouskaya is the wife of the popular YouTuber Syarhei Tsikhanouski, arrested by the Belarusian special forces after announcing his presidential bid.
Tsepkalo and Kolesnikova are now joining forces with Tikhanouskaya, who has become the face of the opposition and Lukashenka’s main rival. Thousands of Belarusians have been attending her rallies around the country, but this has not stopped Lukshenka from threatening citizens who gather in the streets or simply make music videos. Since the start of the 2020 protests, hundreds of people have been arrested. Tikhanouskaya herself was forced to send her children abroad after being told that they could be taken into state custody. Not surprisingly, intimidations and attacks by the government towards women who oppose Lukashenka are quite common according to a recent report by Amnesty International.
The geopolitics of Belarus
Lukashenka is generally considered very close to Putin’s Russia, and for very good reasons: in 1999 Belarus and the Russian Federation signed the Union States Treaty, which included a commitment to coordinate social and foreign policies as well as, in the long term, to establish a joint parliament and a single currency. While such integration has been put aside, the two keep pursuing their special partnership through the Eurasian Economic Union; until 2019 Belarus also enjoyed advantageous contracts for oil and gas exports from the Russian inland. However, since Euromaidan and the invasion of Crimea in 2014, relations have cooled down and Belarus has made a timid rapprochement with the West.
The logic behind Belarus’s foreign policy reflects its geographical position. Lukashenka has been pursuing a continuous balancing act between two spheres of influence, the West and Russia. As a landlocked country sandwiched between two power blocs, it needs to survive by resisting pressures from both sides using bargaining tools and by keeping a neutral stance on most prominent issues; Lukashenka looks both west and east, fearing regime change and a sudden loss of the country’s sovereignty.
The recent Russian adventurism abroad made Lukashenka aware that the country could be next in line in the Russian invasion list, prompting him to turn towards the resurgent Belarusian nationalism to win additional support among anti-Russia citizens. At the end of July, 33 soldiers from the Russian military contractor Wagner Group have been arrested and accused by the state-controlled media of attempting to destabilize the country. Details uncovered by Radio Liberty, however, recount a different story: the troops were simply using Belarus to reach Sudan, where the contractor is currently active. Most likely the arrests served as a bogeyman for the president to hold on to power and continue the crackdown on dissidents.
“Love, Fight, Win”
During his extremely long tenure, Lukashenka has continued the sovietisation or, more precisely, the russification of the country that began under the USSR. Today, there are only seven Belarusian-language schools in the whole country, but a consistent number of Belarusians seem determined to rediscover their national identity. While also Lukashenka may have decided to distance himself from Russia, he is far from doing the same with his authoritarian credentials.
Lukashenka’s sixth term is behind the corner, but in this context of national resurgence and economic stagnation in the middle of a pandemic, Tikhanouskaya emerges as a beacon of hope and democratic revival. The hundreds of political prisoners, silenced dissidents and outraged citizens are a reminder that Belarusians deserve free and fair elections and a country governed by the rule of law and functioning and accountable democratic institutions which guarantee human rights. The EU must play its part by supporting even vocally Belarusians’ democratic demands and by reiterating its calls to abolish death penalty. It needs prove itself as a reliable force which has always cared for its neighbour. A neighbour which one day we will be hopefully welcomed into our European family.