Democracy denied: EU threatens sanctions over Belarus election and aftermath

Belarus election: Opposition leader Tikhanovskaya fled 'for sake of her children'

Belarus isn’t often in the news — except for elections.

That’s when President Alexander Lukashenko and his supine parliament score unbelievable margins of victory. This usually sparks protests at home and finger-wagging from abroad. The rule since 1994 is that nothing much changes and, after a brief bout of turbulence, things again go quiet.

Lukashenko likes to win. He’s won reelection six times, making him Europe’s longest-ruling non-royal leader. His lowest vote total was the 75.6 percent he won in 2001.

Alexander Lukashenko the authoritarian leader who has ruled the former Soviet country since 1994.
Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader who has ruled the former Soviet country since 1994.

This year, he followed the usual pattern of frightening or arresting potential opponents. But in an unusual move, the government allowed Tikhanovskaya to register after her husband Sergei, a popular blogger, was arrested.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the woman who has been catapulted into political stardom in Belarus by her push to dislodge the man often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, maybe an accidental challenger, standing in Sunday’s presidential election only because her opposition activist husband Sergei was arrested.

But a hint of the strength and resilience that has made her a courageous if unlikely opponent who has refused to accept Alexander Lukashenko’s claim to victory in a poll marred by vote-rigging may have been present at age of 12, when she arrived to spend a summer in rural Ireland.

Tikhanovskaya was one of the “Chernobyl children”, whose health was either directly or indirectly affected by the radioactive fallout of the 1986 nuclear disaster in neighbouring Ukraine and whom Irish families hosted for respite and recuperation.

Despite the disdain heaped on her by Lukashenko, his opponent Tikhanovskaya’s ran a campaign, based on a promise to free political prisoners and to hold an honest election within six months, caught fire. She held large rallies around the country and it was obvious she was gaining momentum before Sunday’s vote.

svetlana Tikhanovskaya
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the woman who has been catapulted into political stardom in Belarus by her push to dislodge the man often referred to as Europe’s last dictator,

That momentum caused the government to crackdown in the days before the election. One of Tikhanovskaya’s top allies fled to Russia, others were arrested. She went into hiding, only reappearing to cast her ballot.

Demonstrators took to the streets immediately after the voting ended Sunday night and an exit poll from a government-controlled body predicted an overwhelming Lukashenko victory.

Belarus election: Opposition leader Tikhanovskaya fled ‘for sake of her children’

Despite her clear courage in the face of adversity, Tikhanovskaya has since left the country for Lithuania, this was for the sake of her children, however, the protests are continuing, making them the biggest challenge Lukashenko has ever faced.

Departure does not diminish her achievements’

Analysis by Tatsiana Melnichuk, BBC Russian, Minsk

Svetlana Tikhanovksaya is “a hero”, according to opposition campaign partner Maria Kolesnikova, who says her departure does not diminish her achievements.

Activists and many others here are convinced she left under pressure from Belarus authorities. They all think Ms Tikhanovskaya was given a text to read under pressure.

After the 2010 election, state TV ran “confessions” from detained opposition activists that looked similar to what we saw on Tuesday. Many people I have spoken to in Minsk back Ms Tikhanovskaya all the way, saying she had no choice but to flee in order to protect her children, as her husband is in prison.

But others believe she should have realised what she was getting into and how dangerous this could be. No-one doubts her good intentions or her sincerity.


What happened in Monday’s protests?

Riot police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades to disperse thousands of demonstrators rallying in the capital.

The brutality of the crackdown has shocked observers as many of these weapons had not been used in Belarus before the weekend.

Polish-based broadcaster Belsat TV aired footage of the police charging into the crowds.

Belarus riots

Reports say some of the demonstrators fought back, throwing petrol bombs. Protesters also tried to build barricades.

Officials say one demonstrator died when an explosive device went off in his hands – the first confirmed fatality since the clashes began.

A number of people were arrested. One journalist was injured, her colleagues and eyewitnesses said.

The European Union has said the Belarus presidential election in which President Alexander Lukashenko appeared to win nearly 80% of the vote was “neither free nor fair.” Now, Brussels could take action.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, on Tuesday condemned “disproportionate” violence by authorities in Belarus and said it was considering sanctions against those responsible.

President Alexander Lukashenko was declared winner of Sunday’s Belarus presidential election, garnering about 80% of the vote in an election that many believe was rigged. The result triggered violence between security forces and opposition supporters that saw one protester killed.

Brussels on Tuesday said it was considering “measures against those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests and falsification of election results.”

“The elections were neither free nor fair,” Borrell said in a statement. He cited “credible reports” from domestic observers that showed the election did not conform to international standards.

“We will be assessing the Belarusian authorities’ actions to address the current situation and conducting an in-depth review of the EU’s relations with Belarus. This may include … taking measures against those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests, and falsification of election results.”

Borrell’s statement comes as protests continued for a third straight day Tuesday, despite a massive police and military presence, after preliminary results from Sunday’s vote gave incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko an 80 percent victory over opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

“State authorities deployed disproportionate and unacceptable violence causing at least one death and many injuries. Thousands of people were detained and the crackdown on freedoms of assembly, media and expression intensified,” Borrell wrote.

Since 2004, the EU has imposed sanctions on individuals and organizations linked to the Belarusian regime after a series of flawed elections allowed Lukashenko to maintain his hold on power.

In 2016, after the country released certain political prisoners, the EU lifted sanctions for more than 100 Belarusian individuals and companies while leaving other restrictive measures in place, such as asset freezes and travel bans, for four persons linked to the unresolved disappearances of two opposition politicians, one businessman and one journalist in 1999 and 2000. The EU also maintained an arms embargo. These sanctions were extended until February 2021.

“Since the 2015 release of political prisoners, the relationship between the EU and Belarus had improved. But without progress on human rights and the rule of law, the EU-Belarus relationship can only get worse,” Borrell wrote Tuesday.

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