The chaos in Belarus, sandwiched between Russia and the rest of Europe, could undermine regional stability and trigger a new confrontation between the United States and Europe on one side, and Russia on the other.
The administration of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko must listen to public opinion and settle the situation peacefully.
On Aug. 9, incumbent President Lukashenko won his sixth presidential election, but opposition forces are demanding a new vote, calling the election tainted by unfair competition on a large scale.
The opposition leader, who was seen as a strong rival of Lukashenko, was detained on the grounds that he had participated in an unauthorized rally and was not allowed to run in the election. The official announcement that Lukashenko received about 80% of the vote is also questionable. The outpouring of criticism is understandable.
Demonstrations in the capital city of Minsk have swelled to about 100,000 people. The government arrested senior members of opposition forces, and has hinted at the possibility of sending troops to suppress the protests. There have been casualties in clashes with security forces, and there are concerns that the bloodshed could spread.
Crackdowns on peaceful protests cannot be ignored. The government should agree to talks with the opposition side.
Mounting dissatisfaction with the long-term administration is behind the demonstrations.
Lukashenko entered national politics at the end of the era in which Belarus had been part of the Soviet Union, and he has been president for more than a quarter century since 1994. Although it is certain that he has maintained social and economic stability, he has been called “Europe’s last dictator” due to his authoritarian political style.
In 2004, Lukashenko abolished an article in the Constitution that limited the president to a maximum of two consecutive terms in office. In last year’s lower house election, he restricted the activities of opposition parties and allowed candidates who supported him to monopolize the seats.
The country’s economy, which depends on Russia, has been sluggish in recent years. Also, Lukashenko has spoken in a way that makes light of the danger of the novel coronavirus. These factors have spread distrust in him. His old supporters also may have begun to break away.
What is important is to avoid a recurrence of the rivalry between the United States and Europe on one side and Russia on the other over influence in Ukraine, which is adjacent to Belarus. Since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, relations between Russia and the European Union have deteriorated significantly.
The EU has rejected the results of the presidential election in Belarus and denounced its excessive crackdown on demonstrators. On the other hand, the EU’s stance of refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of Belarus is notable. It seems that the EU does not want to give Russia an excuse to militarily intervene in Belarus.
In telephone talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron shared a common recognition that the Ukrainian experience must not be repeated. Countries concerned should work together to promote dialogue between the Belarusian administration and the opposition side.
— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 26, 2020.