Belarus Protesters Torn on How Much Change They Really Want
Belarus: are changes possible?
US experts on protests and arrests in Belarus ahead of presidential elections
Ahead of the presidential elections in Belarus, scheduled for August 9, President Alexander Lukashenko continues the tactic of isolating his political rivals and suppressing civil protests. President Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994 and is running for a sixth presidential term, has arrested some of his main political rivals – businessman and politician Viktor Babariko and Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular video blogger and entrepreneur.
Viktor Babariko, the former head of the Belarusian Belgazprombank – owned by the Russian Gazprom – was arrested on suspicion of financial irregularities. His son, who runs his father’s election campaign, was also arrested. Earlier, Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested on charges of preparing violating public order and ties with Russia, in whose mother’s house, according to investigators, about $ 1 million was also found.
Commenting on the situation in the country last week, President Lukashenko said that “today the focus of all political interests is concentrated on Belarus. Both from the West and from the East ”. At the same time, the leader of Belarus noted that “certain forces have become more active in the country,” which began to destabilize the situation. However, Lukashenka added, the country’s authorities managed to stop the “large-scale plan of destabilization” and “rip off the masks” from both “dolls” and “puppeteers who are sitting outside Belarus”.
In Belarus, over the past weeks, massive rallies of opposition supporters have been taking place in support of other presidential candidates. Authorities accuse them of participating in unsanctioned protests and have resorted to arresting a number of activists.
Russian Service “Voice of America” asked for an assessment of the situation of US experts.
Kenneth Yalowitz: Lukashenko faced the most serious challenges to his leadership
According to the former US Ambassador to Belarus and a research fellow at the Kennan Institute Kenneth Yalowitz (Kenneth Yalowitz, Kennan Institute) The President of Belarus today faces the most serious threats to his tenure in power during his entire presidency. Its popularity is declining among the population, including due to the ineffective fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The current protests also involve a significant number of young people who no longer “want to accept the old way of doing things,” notes Kenneth Yalowitz..
“The situation today is different because Lukashenka made a big mistake in how he approached the coronavirus problem. By doing this, he really alienated most of the population, ”says the former US Ambassador to Belarus..
At the same time, President Lukashenko cannot, as before, blame the West for everything, as he needs his support in resisting Russian pressure, adds Kenneth Yalowitz..
“Perhaps Lukashenka feels that the best way to go now to deal with the threat looming over him is to blame Russia in order to get some support from the West. The tragedy, of course, is that he is resorting to old tactics of violence, intimidation and arrest, which are the reasons why relations with the West have become strained, ”notes Kenneth Yalowitz.
However, the former ambassador regrets that the United States maintains a restrained position in the current arrests of political opponents and protesters: “When Secretary of State Pompeo recently visited Belarus, he may have mentioned the issue of human rights, but I do not remember that this issue was at the head list of his priorities. This is very unfortunate for me – we worked to help Belarus move in a more democratic direction and respect human rights. Unfortunately, if the Trump administration does not ignore this issue altogether, then, in all likelihood, it is at the bottom of the list of priorities. “.
“Lukashenka probably faced the most serious challenges to his leadership,” adds Kenneth Yalowitz, noting that if the country’s elite and security forces remain on his side, the President of Belarus may well retain his power. “But he will be weakened and he will have to take into account the different mood of the population.”.
Scott Roland: hopefully we don’t see further arrests and more crackdown on protesters
Former US Charge d’Affaires in Belarus Scott Roland (Scott Rauland) notes that in 2015, President Lukashenko was able to conduct the presidential elections quite smoothly and without further protests. This was also due to the fact that the elections were held against the background of the release of political prisoners and the weakening of Western sanctions..
“I think that the positive attitude of people that arose after the lifting of the sanctions has largely passed,” says the former US Charge d’Affaires in Belarus about the current situation. The general growth of protest moods in the world, including protests against racial discrimination in the United States, also plays a large role in the growth of protest activity in the country, he adds. “People around the world are perhaps a little more inclined to protest against conditions that they consider to be dishonest and unfair.”.
Regarding the fact that the US reaction to the ongoing arrests and suppression of protests was limited to the statement of the American Embassy in Belarus about the need to respect human rights and democratic principles in his Twitter account, Scott Roland noted that the State Department and the administration of President Trump as a whole “today are no longer so active are involved in these issues. ” On the other hand, as Roland notes, now that diplomatic ties are being restored between the two countries and ambassadors are returning to both capitals, the United States can discuss the existing concerns “at the highest level” since 2008 directly. At the moment, Julie Fisher, appointed as Ambassador to Belarus, is awaiting the approval of her candidacy by the US Senate..
“I hope we don’t see further arrests and more crackdown on protests. This will not help Belarus, says Scott Roland, adding that periods of warming relations between the West and Belarus gave hope that Western sanctions against Minsk could be finally lifted. “Any further action against peaceful demonstrators in Belarus will certainly threaten the progress achieved”.
“We hope that in August we will see elections in which the people of Belarus will be able to go to the polls and freely elect whoever they want, without any coercion. And in which all candidates will have a real chance to compete. But they certainly won’t be able to do this if they are arrested, in prison or under pressure from the authorities, ”adds Scott Roland..
Journalist «Voices of America». Prior to that, she worked for international non-governmental organizations in Washington and London, in the Russian-language version of the Estonian daily newspaper “Postimees” and as a spokesman for the Estonian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Interests – international relations, politics, economics
Correspondent of the Russian service «Voices of America» since 2015. Presenter «Present time. America». In the 1990s and 2000s, he was the author and host of various projects on Belarusian television, including an information and publicistic program «Croc», TV News Agency and «Good morning Belarus!»