Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus’s sad capital, is one of the most terrifying public spaces in Europe. It is nothing but concrete, steel, glass and fearsome horizons—no benches, shelter, or anything for people who might wish to do something so normal as to assemble and speak together. Where anything vertical rises from the ground, it bears a video camera, ensuring that any gathering can be observed by the Belarusian KGB. And yet, when Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed victory by an improbably large absolute majority in the presidential elections on December 19, people came, in the tens of thousands, to protest the official results.
By claiming an absolute majority, Lukashenko could pronounce his reelection to a fourth term as president, without resorting to a second round (which public opinion polls indicate he might lose). Very likely, he chose December 19 for the first round of the presidential elections because he knew it would be very cold. It hurts more to be hit by batons in freezing weather. And Independence Square looks like nothing more than the site of massacres past and future.
Still the protesters came, in the cold, carrying the flag of the European Union, signs demanding fair elections, and here and there crosses and icons. They raised the traditional Belarusian flag (banned under Lukashenko) on public buildings. They came, women and men, young and old, knowing what they were risking. Belarus is a police state, where everyone knew that Lukashenko would be reelected regardless of what the ballot boxes held, and where Lukashenko knew that any protest would have to be in Minsk, the one truly big city in the country, where the majority of citizens most likely oppose him. They came, and they called for the president to resign, and called out “Long live Belarus!” But not everyone who wanted to protest reached the mass gathering. In the avenues leading to Independence Square, riot police in plain clothes attacked some of the people trying to reach the city center.
Amid the peaceful chanting, a group tried to enter a government building and broke some glass, in what certainly looks, in all of the video available, like a provocation. The state militia appeared, as if on signal, their shields held together menacingly, as they are taught to do. They were challenged: by young women with flowers, by an older woman with a sign, by a man in uniform. The crowd chanted: “the militia with the people!” No such luck. The militia in uniform seemed to be operating in cooperation with black-clad plainclothesmen who were doing much of the beating. They cleared the square. Buses of Belarusians disappeared to parts unknown; according to the official report 639 people were arrested. Among those beaten were correspondents for Russian, Polish, and American media. The opposition group Charter 97 left a last Facebook posting: “We’re all at the KGB”—Belarus’s secret police is still known by that Soviet name.
Also arrested or beaten were most of the nine candidates who had been allowed to run against Lukashenko in the first round. According to early reports from Belarusian bloggers and in the Polish press, presidential candidates Mikola Statkevich, Andrei Sannikau, and Ryhor Kastusiau were arrested. According to witnesses, presidential candidate Vital Rymasheuski was beaten. The leading opposition candidate, the writer and leader of the “Speak the Truth” movement Uladzimir Niakliaeu, sixty-four years old, was beaten, suffered a concussion, and the apparently abducted by seven men in civilian clothing from the hospital where has being treated.
As I write, these events are still unfolding, and the facts of the crackdown are inevitably subject to revision. But it is absolutely clear that people who stood for election were beaten on election day, and that a large-scale protest of questionable electoral results was dispersed with brutal violence. According to local observers and the OSCE, the elections failed to meet democratic standards, especially with respect to a transparent counting of votes. The Belarusian prosecutor general has already announced that every single person who appeared on Independence Square is subject to criminal charges, since public assembly without permission is a crime in Belarus. Lukashenko calls those arrested “bandits and vandals.”
This might be a good time for Americans to ask: do we have a foreign policy that promotes human rights and democracy? For many, any such mission was discredited by Iraq; but we might remember, from the revolutions of 1989 and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004, that peaceful regime change is possible when all sides agree to the democratic rules of the game. Lukashenko clearly does not, and the only power that might persuade him is Russia. After a difficult year of sparring over gas prices, Moscow and Minsk mended their relations, and the Russian leadership endorsed Lukashenko for president. But if Russia wants closer relations with the European Union, a far more important partner than Belarus after all, should it jeopardize its chances by supporting an openly repressive regime in Minsk?
The very fact that multiple candidates were allowed to stand for office and run open electoral campaigns was a gesture by Lukashenko towards the EU, which he has been courting to balance Russia. It is to be hoped that Brussels and Moscow will see an opportunity in Minsk to clarify their own relations. After the brutality of Independence Square, Brussels should make it clear that Russia can improve its position in Europe by way of peaceful negotiations with the EU, or flaunt its power by supporting a repressive neighboring tyrant—but not both at the same time. The deal to be made with Minsk is simple: the first round of elections should be held again, local and international observers will be allowed to monitor and carry out exit polls, and Lukashenko should have to contest a second round with whomever gets the second-most votes. Moscow can’t be expected to take the initiative, but it ought to be rewarded and respected if it does not impede Brussels and Washington if they choose to make such demands. Of course, no such thing will happen without American and European leaders willing to take some risks—albeit far smaller ones than the Belarusians beaten on Independence Square.