“No weapon can kill our desire to be free.”Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
The early 1990s marked a turning point in the history of Eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain came tumbling down, unveiling the prospect of a free and democratic future for the newly independent states in the region. The Belarusian people were eager to step out of the shadow of the Soviet period and usher in a new era of change. During the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus gained independence on August 25, 1991 and the first presidential elections were held three years later.
The winner, Aleksandr Lukashenka, continues to rule Belarus today, now as an illegitimate despot. For almost 30 years, he has worked to consolidate power by limiting freedom of speech and persecuting political opponents. Lukashenka wields a wide range of tools to ensure a lack of transparency. He subordinates the judiciary, media, and election administration to sustain his authoritarian regime. Regularly held elections are a mere façade to legitimize the government and keep the small yet active opposition movements at bay, mirroring the pseudo-democratic processes in Russia. The prospects of establishing the free and fair society Belarusian people had longed for seemed impossible, until the pivotal elections of 2020 provided a glimmer of hope.
August 9 marks the three-year anniversary of the 2020 presidential elections, when the Belarusian people made their choice to rebuff tyranny, lawlessness, and Russian influence, instead embracing a free, democratic, and European future. Following the fraudulent elections, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians gathered in the streets throughout the country to defend their vote and protest Lukashenka’s usurpation of power. Faced with the certainty of defeat, Lukashenka ushered in a chilling era of repressions. The leading opposition candidates – Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Viktar Babaryka – had been detained even before the elections. Security forces brutally cracked down on protesters, and hundreds of Belarusians became political prisoners who remain in captivity and still endure the brutality of the regime. Yet, they refuse to give up on their principles and vision of a free and democratic Belarus.
Amid the political crisis, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya took the baton from Tsikhanouski, her husband, and emerged as the new face of the movement. The Belarusian democratic forces have united their efforts behind Tsikhanouskaya to make the will of the people a reality: to free the political prisoners, bring justice to those responsible for tens of thousands of illegal arrests and inhumane treatment of peaceful demonstrators, and pave the way for free and fair elections. The International Republican Institute (IRI) actively supports the Belarusian democratic movement and is committed to providing continued assistance to advance pro-democratic change in the country.
While the democratic forces fight to honor the results of the 2020 elections, Lukashenka continues to alienate Belarus. In exchange for political, military, and financial support from the Kremlin necessary to sustain the regime, Lukashenka has traded state sovereignty and jeopardized the security of his own people. His illegitimate regime has become a launchpad for aggression, a dangerous tool in the Russian war against Ukraine, and an accomplice in Putin’s war crimes. Domestic security concerns are escalating as Russia has announced the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and the Wagner Group has taken refuge within its borders.
The future of a democratic Belarus is indivertibly tied to the outcome of the war in Ukraine. “We hope that, together with Ukrainians, we will gain our freedom and free ourselves from Russia’s claws as a result of this war,” declared Tsikanouskaya. While the struggle against tyranny from Russia and Belarus persists, the international community must continue to lend strong support to the Belarusian democratic movement to ensure its resilience against pressure from the Lukashenka and Putin regimes and the challenges that lie ahead.
The democratic forces will persist in their valiant fight for a free and democratic Belarus. We must continue to stand with them.Top