Belarus is a land-locked former Soviet state, situated between Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, and Ukraine. It has been a headline making nation, due to its proximity and activity relating to the 2022 crisis in Ukraine.
While dealing with war and unrest from its neighbors, Belarus is not without its own civil unrest. In fact, the clashes between the Belarussian majority and their post-Soviet leaders are so severe, recognition of the official government itself is disputed.
Republic of Belarus
The Republic of Belarus officially declared independence from the Soviet Union on 25 August 1991, with its current constitution established on 15 March 1994.
Alexander Lukashenko has held the office of President of Belarus since 20 July 1994. Often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” (that is, until Russian President Vladimir Putin extended his term limits in 2021), Lukashenko is the only person to have held the title of President of Belarus.
In addition to being a repressive dictatorship, the government of Belarus has been dancing around a war between Russia and Ukraine. Lukashenko has given conflicting signals of Belarus’s participation in the conflict and the role which Belarus will assume..
Regardless, any participation is largely unwelcome by the Belarussian people. This has prompted more civil unrest, Belarussian volunteers to fight with Ukraine, and an international discussion about how to respond to Lukashenko’s Belarus and what really happened in the Belarussian presidential election of 2020.
Despite his lengthy service in office, he is a widely unpopular leader in Belarus. Some reports speculate that only about 3% of Belarussians support his position in office, though in reality his approval rating floats around 24%. It is most likely that only 24% of voters actually voted for him in the most recent election cycle in 2020.
The aftermath of the rigged 2020 Belarussian presidential election has sparked unprecedented protests, and responses to protests in the country. Violent arrests and deaths of protesters have occured since the election aftermath. The unrest resulted in an escalation of crackdown on opposition, including an internet blackout which lasted several days in summer 2020.
There are presently two functioning governments representing Belarus from exile, both with recognition by world leaders and the international Belarussian diaspora. This article will explain both of them and their significance.
In 2020, large scale protests emerged nationwide in opposition to the election results. Many believe that the election was truly won by Lukshenko’s political opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the Belrussian democratic movement. Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania after Lukashenko declared illegitimate victory, and she has been acting as the president of the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power which serves the Belarussian people from exile in Poland.
The council’s mission is to facilitate the democratic and nonviolent transfer of power in Belarus by annulling the 2020 presidential election, release all political prisoners in Belarus,and end the persecution of citizens aligned with political opposition.
The Council has stated it aims to maintain friendly relations with Russia, a notion which was well received by a spokesperson for Vladimir Putin. The Council also seeks to strengthen relations with the US and European Union.
Representatives from the EU, USA, Poland, and Lithuania have recognised the Council to varying degrees as an interim representative body for the Belarussian people,and dispute the legitimacy of Lukashenko’s presidency.
As of 2022, Lithuania recognises the Council as the only legitimate Belarussian government.
The governing body of the Belarussian Democratic Republic. Rada BNR, has governed the Belarussian Democratic Republic since 1918. While exiled since 1919 after Belarus’s accession into the Soviet Union, the Rada BNR continues to function and hold elections in exile, and is widely recognised by the Belarussian diaspora.
Many exiled governments of former Soviet States like Ukraine and Estonia returned mandates to their nation’s new independent governments. Rada BNR was prepared to follow suit, but chose not to do so in response to Lukashenko’s reversion to Soviet era policies and cultural society.
The rada awards several military and civic awards to Belarussian activists, and foreign advocates for Belarussian freedoms. The body also serves to ensure access to free information and education for the international Belarussian diaspora.
The current president of Rada BNR is Ivonka Survilla.
Toiday, the Rada exists to preserve Belarussian independence and transfer its mandate to a democratically elected Belarussian parliament. Many Belarussians hope that in the near future, this mandate could be transferred to the Coordination Council.
Why They Matter
The many popular civic and international protests, and online movements like #standwithbelarus demonstrate the demand by the Belarussian people for democratic freedom and regime change. The largest factor contributing to Lukeashenko’s maintenance of power in his country is due to protection from Vladimir Putin, and the influence of Russian propagandists.
International recognition of one or both of these democratic governments of Belarus empowers Belarussians to achieve change in their country. As more nations like Lithuania take this action, the Lukashenko presidency will have to fight harder to maintain power in the country. With enough unrest and international support, Lukashenko may even need to call upon his allies for support.
If Lukashenko called upon Putin to support his position in power physically, it would weaken Russia’s presence fighting to, as the Kremlin states, “liberate” Donbas, in the war or “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Lukashenko and members of his government have faced sanctions imposed by Western nations since the 2020 election, and this has continued to expand since he granted permission for Russian troops to transfer and hold weapons and enter into Ukraine via Belarussian land following the 24 February invasion.
Belarus has not officially entered the war between Ukraine and Russia, most likely due to its own internal instability, and despite pressure from the Kremlin to support its mission.
The democratic future for the Belkarussian people remains uncertain, but in a critical moment of history in the former Kievan Rus region, discussions of the exiled Belarussian governments and their influence compared with the government of Alexander Lukashenko has never been more relevant in the recent history of Belarus.
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