The people of Belarus want democracy — America must stand with them

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Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic president of Belarus, is accused of using massive fraud to steal his 2020 re-election and of the violent mistreatment of protesters in a democracy movement.

Today marks the second anniversary of Belarus’s infamous 2020 presidential election, in which dictator Alexander Lukashenko defied the will of the people for true democratic change to cling to power. In the two years since, the embattled opposition movement has survived against all odds, while Lukashenko has become a key supporter of Russia’s war in Ukraine and has allowed Vladimir Putin’s forces to operate from Belarus against the will of his people. It is vital that the United States and our partners support the aspirations of the Belarusian people for a say in their future, and for their country not to be used as a base for Russia’s brutal wars of conquest.

Why was the August 2020 election a turning point for Belarus? Pro-democracy leaders in the country had struggled to formulate an effective response to Lukashenko’s strongman rule for more than two decades. Yet the consequences of years of repression, corruption and misgovernance began to show in the lead-up to the election, with popular will mobilizing behind an increasingly vocal opposition movement. Lukashenko imprisoned opposition candidates, including Siarhiej Tsikhanouski and Viktar Babaryka — a third prominent candidate, Valery Tsapkala, escaped arrest by fleeing the country — in the hope that this would arrest the groundswell of support for democratic change.

Tsikhanouski’s wife, Sviatlana, bravely entered the race and ran a campaign promising to respect human rights, tackle corruption, and chart a course of democratic reform for the country. She quickly rallied opposition support and her campaign events drew thousands of Belarusians, electrifying the population. Reliable polling pointed to a close race and a likely win for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Yet, when the Central Election Commission released official results, Lukashenko claimed over 81 percent of the vote, with just 10 percent for Tsikhanouskaya. Post-election polling showed that Tsikhanouskaya likely won the election outright. The election evidently was stolen utilizing techniques such as inflating numbers during early voting and blatant ballot-stuffing on election day. Numerous cases of fraud were documented.

Enraged by this brazen and illegal result, Belarusians took to the streets in huge protests. These were met with mass arrests, beatings, and other mistreatment of protestors by the Belarusian police and security forces. Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee Belarus for neighboring Lithuania; she led the election protest movement from her new base in Vilnius, and later shifted to a long-term effort to maintain unity among the democratic forces.

Despite the severe constraints on independent media in Belarus, democratic forces have been able to get their message out to ordinary Belarusians seeking a new way forward. In the two years since the stolen election, the movement has promoted a vision of a new Belarus: producing a draft constitution, and putting forward reforms for the economy, education, health care and the environment. And since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the movement also has focused on galvanizing opposition to Belarus’s involvement in Russia’s war.

Once Ukraine prevails in the war, there will be openings for a political transition in Belarus. The opposition movement remains unified and is poised to engage in such a transition and build a pro-reform, pro-Western, democratic Belarus. America and our democratic partners can enhance the potential for a peaceful transition of power by providing key diplomatic, political and moral support to the Belarusian democracy movement now, including helping the democracy movement to communicate its vision to the citizens of Belarus.

Two years after Lukashenko’s infamous stolen election, the fight for a new Belarus continues. Let’s make sure the United States is on the right side of that fight.

Stephen Nix is the senior director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute. Follow him on Twitter @stephennix.

Tags Alexander Lukashenko Belarus Belarusian democracy movement Belarus–Russia relations Russian invasion of Ukraine

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