Time is running out for Belarus

One year on from the stolen Belarusian elections, Lukashenko still remains in power. His iron grip on the country has tightened in the weeks and months since the people of the small Eastern European country went to the polls. Pro-democracy demonstrators are rounded up in the night by the KGB, what little free press existed in the country has been censored, and activists have been found dead with no explanation. Not since the darkest days of the Soviet Union has Europe seen such a reign of terror emanating from this part of the world.

But why is it that Lukashenko has been able to get away with so much with so little response from the West? How is it that a second-rate despot has manage to cause so much chaos, bringing down commercial passenger jets and singlehandedly reigniting the migrant crisis in Europe? The answer is twofold – a lack of vision and support from the West for those fighting the regime, and the begrudging support of Belarus’s most powerful neighbour.

The West, at the beginning of the crisis, was slow to criticise the results of the elections beyond the usual routine remarks of electoral impropriety. Looking back at press releases from Foreign Ministries across the world demonstrates that in the immediate aftermath of the election’s criticism was reserved to the usual claims that electoral observers had seen voter intimidation and suppression. The expectation in the West was that things would carry on as they had after every other election – candidates would be arrested and released, protests would only last for a few weeks, and everything would return to normal.

However, this approach ignored something that was happening on the ground. This election was not simply another rigged plebiscite on the Lukashenko regime, the opposition was organised in a way it had not been before. The message was not the usual ‘we know what will happen so why vote’ attitude, it was more akin to ‘this could be our last chance’. The reason being, that many activists knew that the ‘Union Treaty’ between Belarus and Russia, which claimed to be something akin to the European Union in scale of cooperation, was closer to a long-term annexation agreement.

The importance of the elections was elevated in the minds of many in the opposition. As such when one of the leading opposition candidates, the YouTuber Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested his wife stepped up and replaced him. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya became the reluctant face of the opposition – standing alongside fellow activists Maria Kalesnikava and Veronika Tsepkalo.

After the elections had taken place, and the results rigged, Tsikhanouskaya took the brave step to flee the country, knowing full well she too would end up in jail like her husband. Other candidates did not and faced the consequences. Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania, where on the 11th of August 2020 she was granted asylum. Days later the Polish government offered her and other dissidents the use of a building in Warsaw to organise from. Meanwhile in Belarus weeks of protests took place, despite facing stiff opposition from the government, and a violent crackdown by both the police and the KGB.

Tsikhanouskaya herself offered support from afar, but more importantly the West woke up the importance of recognising her as the official opposition. Since then, she and her advisors have flown around the world meeting heads of state and government to talk about the importance of regime change and looking for support.

Whilst this is a noble cause, the sad reality is it is unlikely to get far. The problem that Tsikhanouskaya and the rest of the opposition must face, is that Belarus is within Russia’s sphere of influence. Lukashenko has been allowed to make numerous visits to Russia in the past year for meetings with President Putin, who has continuously offered his unyielding support. Last week – this support extended further as Lukashenko allowed for Russian troops to be based in the country under the terms of the ‘Union Treaty’ that so many have warned and protested about.

This in essence, is why it is that Tsikhanouskaya is fulfilling the role of Sisyphus. For as many world leaders as she might meet, and as many parliamentarians she might rally to her cause, the Russian boulder will continue to roll down the hill. Not until the West is willing to take more concrete actions towards regime change will she see her aims met.

A radical new approach needs to be taken when it comes to offering support – something on the lines of non-recognition of the Lukashenko regime. Throughout modern history we have seen examples of this. Until 1971 the Peoples Republic of China was not recognised at the United Nations, the government in exile of the Republic of China in Taiwan was. Throughout the Cold War, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other maintained official governments in exile in London, with the Ukrainians and Persians doing the same in America. Diplomatic recognition of the Belarusian opposition based in Warsaw would make life more difficult for the regime in Belarus. Likewise increased targeted sanctions against the regime and its operators will harm their ability to continue repression unless through Russian support.

The reality is that unless stronger support measures are put in place, Tsikhanouskaya risks ending up like another former Presidential Candidate; Juan Guaidó. Guaidó was recognised by the United States and other countries as the President of Venezuela in January 2019 after an equally corrupt and contested election against the dictator Nicolás Maduro. Yet, months after his recognition Guaidó has fallen out of the headlines, few in the West pay little, if any, attention to the situation in Venezuela or the plight of Mr Guaidó who has found himself in a lonely battle.

Time is running out for the Belarusian opposition. The longer Lukashenko has in power, the closer the country can be drawn into the clutches of Russia, and the less likely it is that there will be a country to save in the future. We owe it to those democratic activists fighting for their country’s survival to act fast and decisively. Yesterday’s announcement that the UK will impose economic sanctions on Belarus is a welcome first step and I hope that more is to come.

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