The pressure on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is not easing. Nearly one week after claiming a landslide victory in the 9 August presidential election, protests continue around Belarus and despite the efforts of the government, they are increasing in size, and attitude. Today thousands of protesters rallied outside of the state television studio in Minsk and demanded full coverage of the protests against the disputed election, and the demonstrations that followed. State television did not broadcast video of the demonstrations and violence. Around Minsk other protests also took place today including one at the metro station where a protester died last Monday. The cause of death remains unclear. Government officials claim an explosive device went off in his hands, but opposition leaders have disputed the claim.
With his hold on power becoming tenuous, Lukashenko is turning to Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin for help. The two leaders spoke today with Lukashenko claiming he secured a pledge from Russia to provide comprehensive security assistance to Belarus if needed. The Russian government has not mentioned a pledge but it is not outside the realm of possibility. Even though relations between Russia and Belarus have become strained lately, Moscow continues to regard the nation as vital to Russia’s interests and security. Much in the same light it once regarded Ukraine, the Kremlin views Belarus as a buffer against the West. As was the case with Ukraine, the Kremlin would view the collapse of a friendly government in Belarus to be a security threat to all of Russia, and act accordingly.
Author’s Note: There is a lot going on around the world this weekend and as a result, many areas to cover. For today through Monday I’m going to concentrate on brief updates unless a major event occurs. At the start of the week I’ll look around and decide which area takes precedence and go from there. Hope everyone’s having a good weekend. – Mike
The Belarusian government has moved to release thousands of detainees in an attempt to quell the growing number of protests around the nation in the aftermath of President Alexander Lukashenko’s contested reelection. The mass release is a relief-valve move that Belarusian leadership is hoping will bring peace back to the streets of Minsk and other cities around the country. For Lukashenko, the first major challenge to his rule shows no signs of going away anytime soon, releases or not.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets on Thursday, calling for new elections, and for Lukashenko to just ‘go away.’ Lukashenko is accused of rigging last Sunday’s election to win his sixth consecutive term as the Belarusian president. He has dismissed the demonstrators as being of a criminal element, and accusing them of being part of a foreign-supported operation to destabilize the country.
The election, and subsequent protests and mass incarcerations come at a time when Belarus is attempting to forge better relations with the West. Ties with traditional ally Russia have become strained in the last few years. Lukashenko has resisted accepting deeper political, and economic ties with Russia. Moscow responded by becoming more coercive in its dealing with the Belarusian government.
There are significant similarities between what’s happening in Belarus now and the events leading up to Euromaidan Ukraine in 2013-2014. Needless to say, many people are looking at Belarus now and wondering if a Minsk Summer could be in the cards soon. Perhaps. However, along with some striking similarities, there are major differences between Ukraine in 2013-14 and Belarus at the present. This weekend we’ll examine Belarus closer.
Before that, expect an update post on the Eastern Med tomorrow or Saturday.
Come Sunday, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and company will likely be in need of a heavyweight infusion of Xanax to calm their jangled nerves. Italy is facing a critical political moment this weekend. As fate would have it, Italy is not alone. Austria is in a similar situation. The primary difference between the two EU members is that Italian voters will be going to the polls to decide on a constitutional referendum while Austrians will be selecting a new president. The results of both events hold potentially far-reaching consequences for the European Union. We discussed Italy yesterday, so this update will be, in large part, a summary of the upcoming election in Austria.
Sunday is a second chance for the Freedom Party and its candidate Norbert Hofer to capture the presidency. He was defeated in a second round runoff by Alexander Van der Bellen, former head of the Green Party, by a razor thin margin. Hofer and the Freedom Party challenged the results and because absentee ballots had been mishandled, Austria’s Constitutional Court decided that the entire election had to be held again. And so it will be on Sunday.
The significance of this election cannot be undervalued. The president of Austria is mainly a ceremonial post lacking the responsibility of running the day-to-day operations of the government. Yet many Europeans remain very concerned about what a Hofer victory will bring about though. To them Hofer is a far-right wing, anti-establishment candidate cast in the same mold as Donald Trump. Should he win the election on Sunday, it will further solidify the ascendancy of Trump-like politicians across the continent. But a victory by Van der Bellen will not be a sign that the populist, anti-establishment wave has reached its high-water mark. At the most, a Van der Bellen win gives the EU and politicians around Europe time to fortify their positions in preparation for the next electoral swing towards populist candidates.
One year ago, the prospect of a right wing candidate becoming president of a Western European nation-state was nearly impossible to fathom. Now, following Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, the prospect is becoming quite plausible in places like France and Austria. The world is watching and waiting to see how this weekend’s drama plays out. And right now in Brussels, the EU leadership has to be wondering incessantly about what Europe will look like come Monday morning.