Belarus has been ruled with an increasingly iron fist since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko. Opposition figures are subjected to harsh penalties for organising protests or even speaking out against the regime.
In early 2005, Belarus was listed by the US as Europe’s only remaining “outpost of tyranny”. In late 2008, there were some signs of a slight easing of tensions with the West, though this proved to be only a temporary thaw possibly just to placate the UN.
The country became independent in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Two decades later, the sense of national identity is weak, international isolation continues and the nature of political links with Russia remains a key issue.
In the Soviet post-war years, Belarus became one of the most prosperous parts of the USSR, but with independence came economic decline. President Lukashenko has steadfastly opposed the privatisation of state enterprises. Private business is virtually non-existent. Foreign investors stay away.
Lukashenko was one of ten candidates registered for the presidential election held in Belarus on 19 December 2010. Though originally envisaged for 2011, an earlier date was approved “to ensure the maximum participation of citizens in the electoral campaign and to set most convenient time for the voters”. The run-up to the campaign was marked by a series of Russian media attacks on Lukashenko. The Central Election Committee said that all nine opposition figures were likely to get less than half the vote total that Lukashenko would get. Though opposition figures alleged intimidation[and that “dirty tricks” were being played, the election was seen as comparatively open as a result of desire to improve relations with both Europe and the US.
On election day, two presidential candidates were seriously beaten by police in different opposition rallies. On the night of the election, opposition protesters chanting “Out!,” “Long live Belarus!” and other similar slogans attempted to storm the government building of Belarus, smashing windows and doors before riot police were able to push them back. The number of protesters was reported by major news media as being around or above 10,000 people. At least seven of the opposition presidential candidates were arrested.
Several of the opposition candidates, along with their supporters and members of the media, were arrested. Many were sent to prison, often on charges of organizing a mass disturbance.
To this day Lukashenko shows no sign of softening his stance – hence his ‘title’.