KIEV, Ukraine — Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s authoritarian leader, was sworn in for yet another five-year term last week in the capital Minsk and used the occasion to lash out at his perceived enemies. But even as he struck this defiant pose, storm clouds gathered to the country’s west.
On Friday before a packed house at Minsk’s central Palace of Republic, after taking an oath to “protect the human rights and freedoms of all citizens,” Lukashenko delivered a speech in which he promised to defend Belarus from “plots from inside and outside the country.”
Belarus had “exhausted the limits of revolutions and upheavals,” said Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and was re-elected on Dec. 19 with some 80 percent of the vote. “The virus of color revolutions defeats only weak nations,” he added, referring to a series of mass uprisings that toppled established governments.
The Belarus strongman made his comments as criticism of his suppression of the country’s opposition after the presidential elections reached a crescendo in the European Union and the United States. EU officials boycotted the inauguration — choosing instead to visit in neighboring Lithuania a university attended by students exiled from Belarus.
As polls closed on election night, thousands massed on Minsk’s central squares — one of which is located just outside the concert hall where Friday’s inauguration took place — and claimed that the president’s victory had been rigged from the outset. When a few dozen protesters tried to storm the main government building, riot police swept in and violently dispersed the crowds.
The force of the subsequent crackdown took many by surprise, even among longtime Belarus watchers. The police swept up hundreds directly on the square, or hunted them down afterward. Protestors were given jail sentences of up to 15 days. Opposition groups, media outlets and human rights organizations were searched, their equipment seized and in some cases, their members arrested.
Many still remain in jail, including four candidates who faced off against Lukashenko in the elections. Officials charged more than 30 people (including seven of the nine opposition candidates) with either participating in, or organizing, “mass disturbances.” The two criminal offences carry jail terms of up to five and 15 years, respectively.
Belarus authorities also announced the closure of the office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE conducted an election monitoring mission that said the presidential contest was riddled with voting violations.
Lukashenko claimed that Germany and Poland had financed the opposition, with the goal of staging a coup d’etat. Berlin and Warsaw flatly denied the accusations.
“I have to say today that all programs and a huge portion of the money came from Germany and Poland, or via Germany and Poland. They also wrote a program to overthrow the constitutional order,” Lukashenko told a government meeting on Jan. 20.
Meanwhile Western countries are massing their political forces to respond to Belarus’s actions and allegations. After years of frosty relations, the EU had recently entered a period of detente with Belarus, and had hoped for further improvement after the election. The crackdown dashed these expectations, and left many EU officials seeking a sufficiently harsh response.
Two weeks ago the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee met in a special session and adopted a multi-point resolution, which in addition to other demands called for an immediate release of all Belarus political prisoners. Last week, the parliament itself met and issued its own statement, demanding new presidential elections that meet international standards.
On Jan. 31, EU ministers will meet to debate re-imposing a travel ban against top Belarus officials that had been suspended in 2008 in response to political reforms in the country (including the release of the last political prisoners being held at that time). Poland has already announced its own unilateral ban on Belarus authorities.
The main question at the moment is not whether sanctions will be introduced, but instead how far they will extend, and in what way they will punish Lukashenko directly. Even more to the point, will these sanctions even work?
Catherine Ashton, the EU’s representative for foreign policy, told the European Parliament: “The events we witnessed were an affront to our vision of respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and democracy.”
“The time has come to act,” she added.