Will Belarus become the next East-West proxy war?


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: unrest in Belarus.

This past Sunday marked the 50th consecutive day of protests in the country. Marchers say President Alexander Lukashenko has become a dictator, and they want him to resign. They also want justice for those injured in violent crackdowns in August.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Lukashenko shows no signs of leaving, but neither do the protesters. WORLD correspondent Jenny Lind Schmitt reports now on the latest developments.

CHANTING: [Sveta–the President]

JENNY LIND SCHMITT, CORRESPONDENT: Organizers called Sunday’s march through Minsk the People’s Inauguration of the Real President. That in reference to Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, the opposition candidate observers say won the August presidential election.

Although Google maps showed virtually all major roads closed in Minsk, more than 100,000 people still turned out to march. And once again, riot police showed up in force to indiscriminately arrest, beat, and intimidate marchers and passersby.

Sunday’s event was a response to the secret inauguration Lukashenko held for himself on Wednesday.

AUDIO: [Lukashenko swearing oath]

That ceremony ushering in the president’s sixth term was held without public notice and not televised. Critics say that violates the law and renders the inauguration illegitimate.

But just days before holding his inauguration, Lukashenko visited Sochi, Russia, to seek support from his chief ally, Vladimir Putin.

AUDIO: [Putin speaking]

Putin promised a loan of one and a half billion dollars—enough to shore up Belarus’ faltering economy and pay the salaries of the riot police doing Lukashenko’s dirty work. Observers say this plays right into Putin’s hand, giving him more influence over Belarus. He frequently underscores the country’s “brotherhood” with Russia.

AUDIO: [People marching and chanting]

But that hasn’t deterred the protests in Minsk, even with opposition leaders jailed or thrown out of the country. Some people want churches in Belarus to take more political action. But the Baptist and Pentecostal Unions met earlier this month and recommended continuing in non-political acts of prayer, charity, and evangelism. That disappointed some members, and pastors feel the danger of disunity in the church.

For now, the protests remain a grassroots effort driven by ordinary citizens seeking change, often in innovative ways.

Belarus prides itself on a technology sector that has managed to thrive despite the authoritarian political system. Since the August elections, many developers have used their skills to help the opposition. 

MAXIMOV: [SPEAKING IN BELARUSIAN]

Andrew Maximov is an expat from Belarus living in Los Angeles. He’s using artificial intelligence to identify riot police officers from videos and photos. In a video on his YouTube channel Maximov matches the photo of an officer in a baklava, only his eyes visible, with a photo of the officer’s complete face.

He says the goal is to show police officers that they can’t act with impunity.

MAXIMOV: [SPEAKING IN BELARUSIAN]

“You have no masks,” Maximov says.

On Tuesday Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya met with French President Emmanuel Macron.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Belarus needs help in starting dialog between the nation and our authorities, and we need these mediators now. And maybe Mr. Macron alongside with the leaders of other countries, can be these mediators in starting dialog.

Earlier this week Macron went beyond calling for new elections and declared that Lukashenko must step down. Tsikhanouskaya will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel next week.

Tsikhanouskaya’s story is emblematic of what is happening in Belarus. Until earlier this year, she was a reserved stay-at-home mom. Her husband, Sergei Tsikhanousky, was the outspoken government critic.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: The man I love was trying to topple a dictator and then he went to jail for it. 

In a video op-ed for The New York Times last week, Tsikhanouskaya explains what happened after his arrest.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: So I did what any loyal wife would do. I ran in his place.

She didn’t expect authorities to allow her candidacy. But they did. And that was their mistake.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I’m sure that they did this just to laugh at me. They were sure that people will never vote for a woman, for unknown person, for housewife.

The people of Belarus did vote overwhelmingly for Tsikhanouskaya. And now they’re turning out in the thousands, wearing masks of her face, shouting her name and declaring her the rightful president.

CHANTING: [Sveta–the President]

Tsikhanouskaya says her role is to be the symbol of a new Belarus that wants real democracy. Her goal is to facilitate a transition of power. Then she wants to organize new presidential elections, in which she does not intend to run.

The question now is, which side will wear out first? And can leaders in Europe, the United States, and Russia work together to resolve the crisis? If not, Belarus could become the stage for a new proxy conflict between East and West.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jenny Lind Schmitt.


(AP Photo/Francisco Seco) Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya holds flowers as she joins in a demonstration outside the European Parliament Brussels, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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