Updated: Oct 27, 2020
Is Democracy at home on the verge of collapse?
By Seamus Bozeman
Image via Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
Tear gas blankets the street, the city is obscured, people filled with anger and grief crowd the streets in peaceful protest. Flashbangs and rubber bullet rounds pierce the late-night air, Minsk is in disarray. Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, has won a controversial election reelecting himself yet again, with an improbable eighty percent of the vote, which many have called “blatantly fraudulent”. By international standards, the election was ‘not fair or free.’ The leader of the opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, escaped into neighboring Lithuania on August 10th, 2020, following a short period of imprisonment after her calls to challenge the legitimacy of the outcome. Many feared she had been indefinitely imprisoned by the ruling party. Since the elections, there have been brutal anti-democratic actions by the local riot police, security forces, and K.G.B. (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti or committee for state security) agents against peaceful protesters and journalists.
Over 7,000 people have been arrested, but there will probably be more as the protests continue, and the government tightens its grip. The internet and many social media platforms that drive first-hand accounts have become impossible to access in central Minsk, where most of the protests have been occurring, though it seems WhatsApp has avoided interruption and been the main platform to organize protests. There have also been demonstrations outside of the capital, which have faced ‘appalling’ police violence and human rights abuses. In detention centers, protesters have suffered beatings, inhumane treatment, psychological torture, cramped cells, and lack of food and water, according to multiple human rights groups. The government has denied the clear evidence of abuse, while Mr. Lukashenko has declared on State TV that there will be an inquiry into the actions of the police. Days in, the movement has grown more vigorous, also spreading to State-owned companies, where workers have led strikes and joined protesters. The Belarusian State-run news outlet Belta has also seen some resignations supporting the opposition’s calls for a new free and fair vote. The Prime Minister has hinted at new elections, but only after a constitutional referendum is held, which could lend Mr. Lukashenko broad powers similar to the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The thoughts of a possible new vote are weakening and becoming less likely, paving the road for more diplomatic roadblocks in the coming weeks and months.
The ever-changing situation in Belarus is becoming more fraught since the protests have begun, which is commonplace following every election since 2001. Each election the people have contested results and fought back, but brutal crackdowns by government forces and police have quickly quelled all opposition. Unless Lukashenko dies or is overthrown by the people, the long-embattled legacy of ‘the last dictator in Europe’ will continue into the foreseeable future.
The European Union has signaled for a transfer of power to the opposition, sanctions and travel bans on significant governmental figures including Lukashenko, which will put pressure on the country but might have damaging effects on the economy and the people if the Belarusian president refuses to budge or support efforts to find a middle ground. The U.S. has rejected the idea of placing sanctions or punitive actions on Belarus because of Trump’s inability to punish anyone with ties to Putin or even Russia itself. With concessions unlikely in the near future, a standoff with E.U. member states and Russia are inevitable as both have reportedly positioned troops on either side of Belarus. Independent research has confirmed reports of Russian military activity east of Belarus, but NATO has denied accusations of their presence to the West.
“The U.S. used to be a champion of democracy…” but now “...when it comes to urging Authoritarian leaders to protect democratic freedoms…” We have abandoned the world, and the U.S. has become a mouthpiece of ‘hypocrisy.’" -Samantha Vinograd, former National Security Advisor under the Obama Administration
The United States and its democracy is crumbling, the constitution has been set alight, and clouds of tear gas shroud streets across the country. Trump, police agencies, white supremacists, federal agents, Qanon followers, and right-wing vigilante groups have no qualms crushing dissent…..
Is this our country’s future? I worry as we move closer to elections on November 3rd that the government's control will get tighter and put the throat of democracy in a chokehold with unchecked authority, possibly extinguishing a free and fair election. The issues in the U.S. are different than those of Belarus, but both are plagued by authoritarian rulers who will do anything in their capacity to stay in power, from the simplest tactics of voter suppression to brutal crackdowns on social unrest. Unlike Belarus, the U.S. still has a president who is bound by constitutional standards, but with Republican control of the congressional body and supreme court, the interpretation of the law can serve Trump and his cronies who have the power to actively dismantle the system that makes the United States a country that can function as a democracy. With the complications of the pandemic, the ability to take hold of more authority is greater than ever, and people’s health and safety can be used as an excuse to delay, abolish or completely destroy freedoms that people once had, whether that be free elections, freedom of assembly, or the freedom of the press.
The fact that the U.S. may not have another democratic election should frighten everyone. The brutal crackdowns, federal kidnappings of protesters, and curfews could be just the beginning and should give the people of the United States warning of what could come, no matter the outcome of the popular or electoral vote. The only way to make and keep the voices of the people heard and fuel the flame of democracy is by protesting injustice, voting for the future we want, and ending authoritative regimes.
Written by writer Seamus Bozeman