Protests in Belarus, October 2020. Photo: Homoatrox, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Belarus’ Clampdown: In the shadow of the war, the purge of civil society goes on

Almost three years have passed since Alexander Lukashenko’s last contested re-election. Political opponents and peaceful protesters continue to be repressed to this day. Under the guise of fighting “extremism”, authorities have virtually purged civil society of all dissenting elements – a survival strategy that further isolates the regime from the West.

Against the backdrop of Russia’s full-fledged war against Ukraine, the continuous erosion of the human rights’ situation in Belarus has fallen below the radar of media attention. Yet, the crackdown on popular protests, which made the headlines following Lukashenka’s sixth election victory on 9 August 2020, is still in evidence. Repression continues within the country and beyond its borders, with the trial in absentia of political opponents and civil society activists labelled “extremist” or “terrorist”. This backlash pushed Belarus further down in international rankings, notably the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI), which in 2022 downgraded Belarus to 123rd position out of 137 countries in terms of governance transformation status.

Silencing and criminalizing dissent

The Lukashenka regime enforces a policy of zero-tolerance towards any form of dissent. As described in the BTI country report, the official clampdown on the peaceful protests reflected its bid to tighten its grip on power: “The authorities responded to demands for political reform from significant parts of Belarusian society, the West and Russia by intensifying repression and a temporary simulation of a dialogue on the so-called [2022] constitutional reform.”

Violence and arrests followed the 2020 popular mobilization, with authorities detaining more than 35,000 people in 2020 alone. Three opposition leaders were arrested before the electoral campaign started, Sergey Tikhanovsky, Mikola Statkevich and Viktar Babaryka, who were sentenced to 14-18 years in prison. Two other presidential hopefuls were forced into exile, and hundreds of staff and supporters of the political opposition were sent to jail.

Those who mobilized following the 2020 vote result and police violence were mostly detained and/or fined for violating the Code of administrative offenses, which effectively bans unsanctioned mass events. From November onwards, however, they increasingly faced accusations of having organized or financed illegal protests, crimes which are punishable with 2-5 years in a penal colony.

Hundreds of people – journalists, students, civil society activists, human rights defenders, bloggers, cultural workers, volunteer medics, lawyers, trade unionists – have been recognized as political prisoners. Their number boomed from 324 in early April 2021 to over 1,500 two years later, according to human rights center Viasna, which also monitored politically-motivated administrative proceedings. In spite of official denial and neglect of the Covid-19 pandemic (an unorthodox and, it turned out, inadequate “Coronadissident” policy), judges invoked sanitary restrictions to hold most political trials behind closed doors.

Purging civil society

For fear of arrest, protests mostly moved online – and so did the official persecution. Administrators of Telegram courtyard chats and information channels emerged as targets. In the absence of horizontal governance schemes in Belarus, Telegram chats have helped people compensate for the State’s inaction, serving to exchange information (about where Covid-19 virus clusters were) and mobilize volunteers to distribute masks. Those virtual communities were instrumental in 2020 to coordinate protest actions, warn participants where anti-riot police were intervening, record evidence of police violence, and raise funds to pay for the arrested protesters’ legal expenses. The main such solidarity platform, BYSOL, was subsequently accused of “financing” illegal protests, and later added to the list of extremist organizations. Subscribing to a Telegram channel enlisted as producing extremist material (a list to which the KGB added hundreds of entries since 2021) – is now enough to face criminal prosecution.

To legalize the criminalization of dissent, the Belarusian legislation was amended in 2021-2022 to limit the right of Belarusians to freedom of opinion. This was used to silence, jail or push into exile all elements of society deemed “dangerous”, especially after street gatherings resumed on 27 February 2022 to protest Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. A generally peaceful nation, Belarusians – who massively support neutrality, according to Chatham House polls – are denied the right to conscientious objection. Over 50 “rail partisans” who sabotaged infrastructure used for Russian military deliveries were arrested in the Spring. The legislation on terrorism was later amended to expand the death penalty for “attempted” or “planned” terrorist attacks.

The heavy-handed official response deterred further activism. By the end of 2020, strikes, street marches, pickets and other public forms of protests had lost much of their momentum. Dissidence, expressed through wearing white-red-white colors, which had become a tolerated fashion during the 2016-2019 liberalization period, also exposed people including minors to police harassment. All markers of Soft Belarusianization – a term coined to characterize the recent emergence of a national sentiment in Belarus, and the subsequent promotion of Belarusian culture and language against “Russian world” domination – have now disappeared from the societal landscape.

“Soft absorption” – of the country by Russia

Civic space has virtually been purged of critical voices. Over 700 civil society organizations including those involved in human rights defense were forced to dissolve in 2021-2022. The continuing crackdown has compelled hundreds of thousands of Belarusians into exile since 2020, with no prospect for a safe return. In exile, they try to reconstitute their communities and resume their activities, in spite of adverse conditions: due to sanctions against Belarus for its enabling role in the war on Ukraine, since March 2022 Belarusian passport-holders have huge difficulties obtaining residence permits or opening bank accounts in most EU countries. In Georgia, where many Belarusians who had fled to Ukraine sought shelter after the full-fledged war erupted, exiles are concerned about being extradited, after the Belarusian KGB signed an agreement on cooperation with its Georgian homologue.

In Belarus proper, governance was taken over by the security apparatus, GONGOs (regime-controlled NGOs) and loyalists, including bureaucrats and the elderly – Lukashenka’s only remaining support base. This situation will contribute to the further consolidation of electoral authoritarianism in Belarus, especially if no genuine reform is conducted until the next electoral cycle in 2024-2025.

Isolated from the West due to sanctions, faced with economic stagnation, and having lost a critical part of its human capital, Belarus is ever more vulnerable to Moscow’s pressure for “deeper integration”. The fact that Lukashenka is trading off the country’s sovereignty in exchange for Russian support to his regime-survival casts a long shadow over Belarus’ chances to democratize. Embattled by decades of fruitless struggle for the respect of their fundamental rights, Belarusians will again need to unite, gather force, and external support, in order to effectively resist the current trend of subjugation – some say, “soft absorption” – of their country by Russia.


First published by Visegrad Insight

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