Because it might be a cautionary tale for the upcoming US elections.
Saturday, August 16, 2020. A few hundred people dressed in white and red colors assembled in front of the United Nations in New York City to show solidarity with Belarus in the light of currently unfolding events.
The long-term president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” has rigged the recent election results in his own favor. Two of the main opponents to his 26-year dictatorial reign were jailed before the elections, and one was refused registration as a candidate by the Belarusian electoral commission. Just when Lukashenko thought he had the election in his pocket due to the lack of opponents, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of a jailed blogger who was a presidential ticket hopeful, entered the race, vowing to pick up where her husband left off. While the failing economy and the lackluster response to the coronavirus pandemic by the government left Belarusian citizens yearning for change, unlikely candidate Tsikhanouskaya found major support and was expected to win the elections.
Tens of thousands of peaceful protesters took to the streets of Belarus just to be met with the brutal force of Belarusian greatly feared OMON (Special Purpose Mobile Unit). Almost 7,000 people have been jailed, mercilessly beaten, and tortured while in custody, at least 50 of them journalists. Meanwhile, in New York, a few people showed up to the UN demonstrations covered in fake blood to shine the spotlight on the horrifying human rights violations transpiring in Belarus at the present moment. One of the protesters described in horror how a female acquaintance of his in Belarus was held in custody for six hours on her knees, head on the floor with her hands handcuffed behind her back. Arrested protesters in Belarus are not allowed medical care, water, food or toilet privileges.
Right after the elections, Tsikhaunouskaya fled to Lithuania, citing pressure from Lukashenko’s regime as the reason for the escape. Eight people from her staff have been arrested over the weekend.
It’s difficult not to draw parallels between the current situation in Belarus with the widespread US Black Lives Matter protests and Trump’s attempt to keep his seat by threatening to postpone November elections and sabotaging the US Postal Service. Malfeasance in office is more common than not, even in developed countries. But it’s much easier to get away with abuse of power among economies in transition and in developing parts of the world. Lukashenko’s presidency, which has been riddled with a history of falsified elections, is a prime example. Trump’s internet censorship order and Lukashenko’s attempt to stop dissidence by pulling the plug on internet and mobile services across Belarus are telling facts that the fast-paced spread of information through modern communication methods can be a tyrant’s Achilles heel.
“I want Lukashenko gone. His time is up. 26 years is enough. That’s an entire generation. I was born, he was a president, he’s still a president. He lost the election, he has to go and he has to pay the price for the atrocities he’s been committing. The people around him, the secret service/police that have been committing crimes should also pay the price, there should be a fair trial and those people should be held responsible, that’s what we are looking for,” says Pavel, one of the attendees at the New York rally, who is originally from Minsk, Belarus’ capital.
Amongst the sea of posters at the New York protest near the UN, one sign stood out with an understatedly written hashtag. Leo, an ex-Chechen citizen living under US asylum, wrote a message on a white placard that read “No One is Free Until We Are All Free,” with the hashtag #lgbtchechnya written in smaller letters just under the main message. “We are all from Soviet Union,” Leo said, teary eyed, “And today we see how hard it is to get freedom for all of us, and that means we all need to support one another. We can’t face this alone. We understand the people of Belarus very well, because the same thing has been happening in Chechnya for many years.That’s why they need to be supported today.”
A recently released HBO documentary, Welcome to Chechnya by Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker David France, reminds us why the Chechen’s genocide of its LGBT community should be one of the world’s most urgent conversations.
Politics all over the world is more connected than it might seem at first glance. Just because things like this are happening across the pond, doesn’t mean that they should be ignored and not talked about, because if we are silent about oppression of others we may be the next ones in line with no one to support our own claim.