Belarus is a nation plagued with political suppression, and a leader determined to persevere his reign with an iron fist. In 2005 the Bush administration notably labelled Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko “Europe’s last dictator”.
Lukashenko assumed office on the 20th of July, 1994 and was viewed as a political candidate advocating against political corruption. His reign is notorious for resisting ‘shock therapy’ from western influences; this refers to the release of price and currency controls and withdrawal of state subsidies. Instead of welcoming equality and fair trade, the majority of Belarus’s government still retains policies from the soviet-era on account of Lukashenko’s authoritarian style of leadership. Currently Lukashenko and many other government officials are the subject of sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United states for alleged acts of human rights violations since 2006.
Belarusian authorities have put considerable effort into suppressing alternative sources of information out of their control. Whilst the internet is currently accessible in Belarus without restrictions, there is virtually no freedom of expression in newspapers or online media. In addition, websites belonging to opposition parties are often victim to denial of service attacks, believed to be initiated by the state. Opposition parties are existent, but in practice they are limited from any involvement in political decision making, such as gaining a majority vote in parliament. The most active opposition activists and journalists that support the opposition are often fined or sentenced to jail. For instance, participation in an unauthorised demonstration may result in up to two weeks of police detention or a fine. Following the 19th of December, 2009 elections over a dozen opposition leaders, including former presidential candidates were prosecuted for protesting against falsification of electoral results.
Lukashenko’s leadership can be defined as inexorable. His initial rise into power however came with a degree of public consent and support from Russia. His socialist policies revolve around consistent economic growth and an equal distribution of wealth. The economic model imposed by Lukashenko is heavily based on subsidies in the form of cheap gas and oil supplied by the Russian Federation. A lack of these subsides and repression of political opposition would result in his economic policies becoming unsustainable.
In the first and only potentially democratic election in 1994, Lukashenko received 44.82% in the first round and 80.1% in the runoff. He has been reflected in 2001, 2006 and 2010 with an estimated 80% of the vote each time. Most international journalists characterise these election results as neither free nor fair. These landslide victories are often attributed to restrictions on opposition candidates, media censorship, ballot stuffing and a non-transparent count of the votes. With the abundance of free elections, it is difficult to gauge the level of support for Lukashenko. During years of prosperity as a result from Russia’s generous trade, most Belarusians have passively accepted his regime. It should be noted that most citizens do not label him as unpopular, as studies show as many of 50% of Belarusians broadly approve him. However, Belarus’s situation has evolved due to recent economic crisis which has resulted in Russia cutting subsidies.
On Monday 15th February, 2016, the European Union lifted the majority of sanctions against Belarus, despite numerous concerns regarding political repression and human rights abuses. Foreign ministers agreed to uplift over a hundred travel bans, including Lukashenko. The ministers retained sanctions on numerous members of Lukashenko’s secret service amidst allegations of suspected involvement in the disappearance of multiple political opponents during the 2000 elections. Belarus is the only country in the EU which still upholds capital punishment; as such ministers have encouraged Minsk to abolish this practice. In addition to human rights improvements, the EU wishes to improve diplomatic relations regarding national security and cooperation within the EU. Belarus still has a considerable way to go on democratic standards, with still an absence on safeguards against multiple voting and a limited choice available on alternative candidates.
Belarus’s government is not reflective of the level of democracy expected by the European Union and its members. The government’s consistent onslaught of political suppression should not be seen as intimidating. Many view Lukashenko as a puppet for Russia and its attempts to extend a sphere of influence. Since Russia’s forceful control of Crimea and the instability of Belarus’s economy, Lukashenko has been making overtures more frequently with the west. Minsk was recently host to the four-party peace talks on Ukraine, where the EU stated it valued “Belarus’s constructive role in the region”. Ultimately, Belarus can be viewed as totalitarian harmlessness to the rest of the world and with assistance from international communities; its political system can hopefully be reformed. Lukashenko however, has much to answer for during his reign, there consequentially is no place for totalitarianism in the modern world.
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