• Jane

Life under an Authoritarian regime: Belarus

More than 2.6 billion people live under some form of authoritarian regime, spanning from China to Myanmar to Saudi Arabia. With the recent fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, much has been said lately about what life is like for those who live in the absence of a democratic (and legitimate) government.

Belarus, an Eastern European country that borders Russia, is not only famous for the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, but also for being Europe’s last dictatorship.

After the Soviet Union dissolved, Belarus became an independent state in 1991 and held its first election in 1994. Unlike countries such as China who are at least ‘upfront’ about their authoritarian political structure, Belarus continues to pretend it adopts the rule of law. In reality, democracy in Belarus is nothing but a façade for large scale corruption, persecution, illegitimate governance and authoritarianism.

In 1994, Alexander Lukashenko was elected president. Almost 30 years later, Lukashenko won his 6th presidential term at the 2020 election, despite national polling predicting a complete landslide for opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Due to concerns for her safety, Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee Belarus and live in exile in Lithuania. Her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested in May 2020 and is still in custody in Minsk (the capital of Belarus). Amnesty International declares him to be a “prisoner of conscience” (a person imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or political views).

The countries highlighted in red do not recognise the result of the 2020 Belarus election.

Despite significant risk, the protests that erupted after the election were the largest anti-government protests in the nation's history. Thousands of Belarusians have now been imprisoned for participating in these demonstrations.

A statement released by the United Nations Human Rights Office in September 2020 revealed that there have been more than 450 documented cases of torture of detained protesters. By the end of 2020, the Viasna Human Rights Centre (an organisation based in Minsk) recorded over 1000 testimonies of torture victims. Both the United Nations and Viasna Centre also documented numerous reports of sexual abuse and rape.

While the situation in Belarus is dire, two recent incidents show that Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorship is now transcending international borders.

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya who was in Tokyo for the Olympic Games was ordered to leave the athletes village by her two coaches who were allegedly “following orders from higher up.”

Her coaches were suspended by the International Olympic Committee and have since had their accreditation revoked. Fearing for her safety, Tsimanouskaya refused to board the plane back to Belarus and pleaded with the Japanese police for help. She was subsequently granted asylum in Poland.

Another incident was the diversion of RyanAir flight 4978 in May 2021. The flight took off from Athens, Greece and was bound for Vilnius in Lithuania. While the plane was in Belarusian airspace, the pilot was diverted by a Belarusian fighter jet and was ordered to land in Minsk due to an alleged “bomb threat.” The real reason the plane was intercepted was because activist and journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were on board. They were both arrested by Belarusian authorities at the airport and several hours later it was declared that the bomb threat was a “false alarm.”

Protasevich had been living in Poland since 2019 after he was expelled from the Belarusian State University for being accused of attending an “unauthorised event.” Both Protasevich and his girlfriend are still in prison and have been labelled “agents of western intelligence” by Lukashenko. Their future remains in limbo, but it is unlikely the pair will be released as long as Lukashenko is around.

Attacks on independent media (which is almost non-existent), international NGOs and perceived ‘regime critics’ are likely to persist. Belarus is not safe. Democracy, the rule of law and human rights are ‘privileges’ that many of us take for granted. The ability to criticise politicians and government policies is a fundamental right in a place like Australia. In Belarus, it could cost you your life.