What's happening with Belarus' "Slipper Uprising"?
After claiming independence from the Soviet Union nearly three decades ago, landlocked Belarus established a constitution and elected Alexander Lukashenko (who has been in power since that time). Within two years, he altered the Constitution, giving himself leeway to make unilateral decisions independent from other government bodies (hence why he is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator”).
Globally, Lukashenko is likened to Vladimir Putin, and infamous for silencing the media, threatening opposition, and toying with election results. He also commented that ice hockey could be a solution to COVID-19 (more on that later).
Lukashenko was recently up for reelection (again) – and leading up to those elections, blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky made the “Slipper Uprising” an unforgettable landmark in Belarusian history. Longtime critic of Lukashenko, Tikhanovsky often wrote about him as “a cockroach”, and even drove around with a giant slipper tied to the top of his car to illustrate his point. Demonstrators now commonly carry their slippers at protests in a symbol of squashing oppression.
Sergei wanted to run for president against Lukashenko, but after the electoral commission denied his registration, his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya registered in his place. In Belarus, a person needs 100,000 signatures to be qualified to stand for election. Tikhanovskaya garnered over 730,000 in less than a month. (Read more about Svetlana’s amazing story here.)
Sergei Tikhanovskaya was detained at a rally in Svetlana’s support on May 26 and has yet to be released.
The August Protests
The results of Belarus’ August 9 elections showed the now-apparently-reelected president with an 80% win, which many believe was rigged. This will be Lukashenko’s sixth consecutive term as president.
As soon as the election results were announced, citizens took to the streets in the nation’s largest-ever protests (of up to 200,000 people). Protesters are demanding for the president’s immediate resignation and to restore a fair democratic voting process (opposition candidates like Tikhanovskaya are also calling for the release of all political prisoners).
The Government’s Response
Not unlike the police response to many other civil rights protests around the world, Belarus’ government responded with violence.
In a recent statement from the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, human rights experts implored Belarus to bring police officers to justice for torturing citizens.
Over 450 cases of torture, including sexual assault and rape, have been recorded since the protests began.
Nearly 7,000 people have been detained, including journalists and passers-by who were “arbitrarily arrested and hastily sentenced.” Members of the press, including two BBC reporters, have been stripped of their accreditation for participating in the protests.
Other mistreatment such as beating, kicking, and dragging protesters in the streets of the capital are no longer surprising stories. The police are also using rubber bullets and stun grenades against demonstrators.
Despite world leaders and NATO imploring Lukashenko to dialogue with his opposition and respect basic human rights, he has not entertained it. In fact, this past week he deployed half of the Belarusian army to its Lithuanian and Polish borders.
Lukashenko vs. The Internet
Since the protests ignited, it has also come to light that even state media outlets are hemorrhaging journalists as a result of exasperation and corruption. One anonymous former state journalist reports: “We rewrote texts for Belarusian TV, implying that the country was successfully dealing with COVID-19 and that only people with prior conditions were dying and that there was a surplus of intensive units and ventilators in the hospitals. We had to write that the whole world envied Belarus.” Reports about the nation’s response to COVID-19, as well as its overall health of the nation, were of course, patently untrue. In March 2020 Lukashenko claimed the virus was a hoax, that ice sports could cure one’s health, and called the global response to COVID-19 “psychosis”, insisting that saunas, vodka, and tractors and fieldwork could cure anyone.
Worst of all, but least surprisingly, media coverage of presidential campaigns covered only the incumbent; state journalists were told not to write about any other candidates, not even to mention their names.
Over 50 outlets have been blocked after reporting on Belarus’ true situation. Freedom of speech is most certainly at risk as journalists are arrested and media outlets are shut down by the president, who has control over the country’s media.
NPN will stay on this story. For a more in-depth look at Svetlana Tikhanovsky’s remarkable fight so far, click here.