Jillian Stirk spent more than 30 years in Canada’s foreign service with assignments to Poland, NATO, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and as ambassador to Norway. She served as chargé d’affaires in Moscow in 2019.
When the people have had enough, they will mobilize to secure their freedom.
That is the message from Belarus, a former Soviet republic at the heart of Europe. It all started when Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – whose activist husband, Sergei, was arrested in May – announced she would run for the presidency in his place against incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, who has been Belarus’s dictator since 1994. With the support of Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, two women representing opposition politicians barred from running, she rallied Belarusians against the thuggish President.
As expected, however, the election was rigged, with Mr. Lukashenko claiming victory with 80 per cent of the vote. Security services unleashed a wave of violence on protesters, arresting and torturing them; Ms. Tikhanovskaya herself was forced to flee to Lithuania. As Belorussian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich aptly put it: “The authorities have declared war on the people.”
Since then, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Belarusians have continued to take to the streets in support of free elections. And it’s not just young urban intellectuals calling for an end to Mr. Lukashenko’s dictatorship – it’s factory workers, the state-controlled media and everyday people from across the country. The streets have thrummed with euphoria after years of pent-up frustration.
Geopolitical factors are part of the story, too. Sandwiched between Russia and the West – a victim of its geography and history – Belarus has been a battleground for armies, the site of some of the worst Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust, and a victim of the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. While revolutions of the late 1980s liberated much of Central and Eastern Europe from communism and Soviet rule, this corner of the former Soviet bloc remained tied to Moscow.
Unlike in neighbouring countries, there is no deep reservoir of anti-Russian sentiment in Belarus, and many Belarusians had been largely happy to trade freedom for a dysfunctional legacy of inefficient industries propped up by cheap Russian energy. When the economy began to falter, however, Mr. Lukashenko tried to play nationalist and energy politics with Moscow, only to find himself out of his depth and increasingly at odds with both his patrons and his own population. Then COVID-19 made a bad situation even worse.
What is happening in Belarus is a continuation of the unfinished fight for freedom that began 30 years ago.
From the perspective of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Lukashenko had a simple job: keep the people down, the EU out and Russian gas flowing westward through the strategic pipelines that cross the territory of Belarus. The instability and unpredictability that characterize the current situation are anathema. Mr. Putin has his own domestic troubles and critics, not only in Moscow but as far away as Khabarovsk, a normally quiet city in the Far East that has been the scene of protests over the summer; already, the Russian opposition has drawn parallels with the unrest in Belarus.
It is impossible to predict how this will play out, but one thing is certain: Mr. Putin will be looking for a solution. It is not in Moscow’s interest to engage its military or security forces, which would cause bloodshed and make Belarus’s problems its own. However, the prospect of an unknown government that might move Belarus away from Russia and closer to Europe would rattle the Kremlin. More likely, Moscow will try to orchestrate a transfer of power to reliable and trusted figures within the regime, perhaps with some feint at democratic reform. Although Mr. Lukashenko has ordered further crackdowns, he may soon find himself either expendable or subject to pressure for a closer union with Russia.
Statements from the Canadian government in support of Ms. Tikhanovskaya and free elections are welcome, as far as they go. At an emergency summit, the EU rejected the election outcome and agreed to sanction those involved in violence and repression, even as Russia warns against foreign interference. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has offered to broker peace; it would be well-placed to do so given its expertise in human rights, elections and democracy.
Despite troubles closer to home for Canadians, what is happening in Belarus is important. Not just because of its strategic location at the centre of Europe at a time when Western relations with Russia are more difficult than at any time since the Cold War, but because it proves that even when human rights seem most at risk, and when propaganda and disinformation runs rampant, the desire for freedom is universal and irrepressible. To achieve that, for all, is the unfinished business of the 20th century. Authoritarians everywhere should take note.
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