MOSCOW—Riots erupted in Belarus on election night as a crowd of thousands protested the apparent victory of “Europe’s last dictator,” Alexander Lukashenko, and authorities fired tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and grenades at the crowd.
Natalia Vasilyva, The Telegraph's correspondent on the ground in Minsk, told The Daily Beast, “Things look really bad here; my ex-colleague, an AP photographer Mstislav Chernov, has been hospitalized after riot police beat him severely.”
Earlier this evening, witnesses also saw a heavy army vehicle run through the crowd on the Masherova Avenue; it is unclear how many people got injured in the incident. Belarusian journalists have been publishing photographs of severely injured people at the protests.
— Hanna Liubakova (@HannaLiubakova) August 9, 2020
Lukashenko lead official exit polls in Belarus’ presidential election around 8pm local time with almost 80 percent of the vote, with only 6.8 percent of the vote going to the main opposition candidate, 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who joined politics after her husband’s arrest earlier this year.
On the morning of election day, at least 28 observers were detained and eight more people were missing, including seven team members of Tikhanovskaya, who by various accounts was either in hiding or planning to vote in public later in the day. (She eventually emerged at a polling station surrounded by staffers and journalists, with her press secretary telling The Guardian, “We can’t defend ourselves physically against armed people or the security services … This is the most trustworthy defense we have.”)
For millions of Belarusians, the election represented the best chance in the past 26 years to finally end the long, authoritarian rule of Lukashenko. The opposition blames Lukashenko for political repressions and for serious human-rights violations, including allegedly ordering the murder of four people long ago. Lukashenko’s critics want to see him in court.
For Lukashenko, Sunday was the day that his long-running political machine needed to work to keep him in power. Aware of the dark ramifications of any disgraceful defeat in an actual election, Lukashenko has clearly turned once more to repression of opponents and independent observers.
Belarusians complained about problems with the Internet on election day. First, accessing YouTube, Viber and Telegram appeared to be difficult, then the entire country was left without internet; cell phones did not work either. But that was only after more than one million people voted online in a parallel, unofficial vote run by the independent Golos platform.
“This is the closest we’ve ever been to victory,” film director Yury Khashevatsky told The Daily Beast. “Lukashenko does not have enough money to pay all his KGB agents [in Belarus, the domestic intelligence agency is still called the KGB], police and army officers to stay loyal, cover up for him, provide him with rigged elections. Change is coming close, so are the investigations for members of Lukashenko’s death squad, who remain unpunished,” he said, referencing the murders of four opposition figures in the 1990s. (A man claiming to be a former elite police officer emerged in 2019 to say that he helped assassinate Lukashenko’s enemies.)
Khashevatsky warned the world about the newly emerging dictatorship back in 1996 with a film called An Ordinary President. A year later, he was attacked, and police broke both of his legs and destroyed his video equipment. Khashevatsky, now a member of Tikhonovskaya’s campaign, is full of hope that justice and democracy might prevail in Belarus. But the diverging interests of millions of Belarusians and one authoritarian over his retirement plans is hard to bridge.
“There is no plan for Lukashenko’s peaceful retirement, he sometimes says it is only China he could run to, but knowing his character, we realize he would not trust Chinese authorities for giving him a shelter, either,” Khashevatsky said on the phone from Minsk. “So the scenario of repressions and violence will repeat—that is the only solution he knows; as one of my characters said in the end of Ordinary President, “we live in a fairy tale, the further, the scarier,’” the film director laughed. But on Sunday, he said he believed his country was “one step away from winning freedom.”
This violent scenario has played out for years in the country: anti-Lukashenko protests in Minsk in 2010 were followed by the arrests of four presidential candidates, Lukashenko’s key opponents. Police beat those who participated in the opposition. Lukashenko filled prisons with his critics. Anger simmered. Andrei Sannikov, the key opposition candidate at the time, told The Daily Beast that his interrogators in prison threatened to kill his wife, a well-known Belarusian journalist, Irina Khalip. The population of political prisoners, dissidents, and exiles grew larger. All of those, whose lives were ruined, blamed Lukashenko for human-rights violations and crimes. “Today more than a million Belarusian abroad and millions at home dream to see Lukashenko on trial, punished for violating our state Constitution, taking over the power with help of police and army,” Pavel Marinich, another opposition leader, told The Daily Beast in a telephone interview from Lithuania, where he lives in exile.
As history shows, when most authoritarian leaders and dictators fall, they have ended up in prison, or executed; the lucky ones have found shelter in a friendly country. “Lukashenko has been obviously thinking of his retirement plan; his eldest son, who works as a presidential aid, has traveled to Dubai a lot,” Khalip told The Daily Beast. “We don’t want him to escape justice, there are plenty of reasons for international courts to charge him with crimes.”
While Belarusian police detained journalists and activists all over the country on Sunday night, hundreds of people wearing Belarusian traditional shirts gathered in front of Belarusian embassy in Moscow. “Go away, go away, Lukashenko!” people chanted.
There is no easy way out for an authoritarian in this situation. “We hear about European experts discussing a safe retirement with Lukashenko,” but that doesn’t seem very likely, Marinich added. And yet, Marinich said, Belarus’ opposition has never been as inspired as this year: every tiny village and town protested against Lukashenko during the last two months of the presidential campaign. “This is incredible, 1,000 people came out even in Gancevitchi village with a population of 1,900 people,” he said. “But of course he is going to rig the election and draw in 70 percent for himself. It is not going to help him win people’s trust.”