Belarusian blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski has been in jail since May 29 for taking part in an unsanctioned political rally. Photo: Uladz Hrydzin (RFE/RL)

This is Belarus, one of the “best” countries in the world to live in

In Belarus, access to independent information is the greatest threat to the authoritarian state. One vlogger, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, travels the country documenting daily life in what is referred to as Europe’s latest dictatorship.

Article originally published in VG

This article, co-authored by HRHF’s director Maria Dahle and board chairperson Bernt Hagtvet, was originally published in the Norwegian-language daily newspaper VG on Wednesday 24 june 2020. References to dates have been updated to coincide with the English language release on 30 June 2020.

Everyone knows very well that our government is not legitimate. The president is not elected. I didn’t choose him.

This is the assessment of the Belarusian authorities as told by a resident of Glybokoye to Belarusian vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski.

(English subtitles available)

The interview entitled “A Woman from Glybokoye Says All the Truth about Lukashenko” has been viewed over one million times on YouTube since it was published in April.

In the ten-minute video, the woman lashed out at the country’s president Aleksander Lukashenko, who has been ruling Belarus with an iron fist since 1994. She describes an everyday life where the factories have gone bankrupt, the collective farms are in ruins and public buildings are decaying. Wages are low, while government employees are turning over in wealth.

Syarhey Tsikhanouski is both an independent blogger and opposition politician, a combination that has led to his frequent arrest by Belarusian authorities. In late May, he received 15 days of administrative punishment for “organising a non-sanctioned mass gathering”. His own YouTube channel “The Land of Life” has almost a quarter of a million subscribers. Since its launch in March last year, his videos have gained close to 30 million views – an impressive number in a country with just over nine million inhabitants.

Tsikhanouski’s video style combines journalism and interviews with people with a good measure of humour and sarcasm. In a motorhome, he travels the regions of Belarus. Standing in front of dilapidated housing blocks, abandoned farms or roads in miserable condition, the episodes often start with the following statement: “This is Belarus, one of the best countries in the world to live in”.

In a country where the state has complete control over all TV stations, the YouTube channel “Land for life” has become a respite for Belarusians hungry for information on what it really is in their own country.

If you were born in Belarus after 20 July 1994, you will only have known a single head of state for your entire life. You have lived in a state that has systematically shut down political opposition and independent press. Human rights defenders are routinely harassed. Critical voices are jailed for fabricated charges. 70 percent of the country’s economy is controlled by the state. The president’s son is the head of the country’s security council. There he controls, among other things, the country’s powerful security body – which, for simplicity’s sake, is still called KGB 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The president himself recommends driving a tractor, drinking vodka and taking a sauna to avoid being infected by the coronavirus. He is also known to have said: “It is better to be a dictator, than a homo.”

Belarus has for a number of years found itself in a special class when it comes to violations of basic human rights. The country is the last in Europe to practice the death penalty. The method of execution is by gunshot to the head. Relatives are not told when the execution will take place or where the deceased are buried. In fact, the situation is so precarious that the country is among the eleven states in the world with its own UN-approved Special Rapporteur. The Belarusian Human Rights House played an important role in putting the mandate into place in 2012. Later this month, the UN Human Rights Council will consider extending the mandate by one year. It will be important to be able to conduct independent monitoring of human rights violations before and after the presidential election.

The Belarusian authorities, however, do not recognise the UN-appointed rapporteur. As such, French political scientist Anaïs Marin has been unable to travel to the country itself. In her June report last year, Marin describes human rights as “fundamentally bad without significant improvements”.

The elections will not be recognised as free and independent by the international community, as were none of the previous four. There is little evidence that the election of Lukashenko for his sixth term will lead to major changes in Belarusian society in the near future.

On 9 August 2020, in what will come as a surprise to absolutely no one, Aleksandr Lukashenko will be “re-elected” as president. In the longer term, there are some indications that this year’s presidential election will pave the way for reform in Belarus. Unlike in the past, young Belarusians now take to the streets to show their support to others than Lukashenko. Photographs taken in May and June from the Belarusian capital Minsk and other cities depict long queues of people waiting to sign election lists for the nomination of other candidates.

Previously, Lukashenko had support of 80 percent of the population. Now 80 percent want him gone, says Deputy Leader Valentsin Stefanovich of the human rights organisation Viasna, member organisation of the Belarusian Human Rights House.

If the elections in August are free and fair, Lukashenko will not win. This is a new situation for him.

Valentsin Stefanovich, Deputy Leader, Viasna

With Russia breathing down his neck, President Lukashenko is trying to maintain a good relationship with the European Union. After many years of sanctions, the EU changed its strategy in 2016. At that time, the Belarusian president had slightly opened up civil society’s room to manoeuvre. Nevertheless, suppressive laws are still intact and can be used when needed – such as now, for example.

Since the beginning of May, protesters, journalists and opposition politicians have been arrested or fined across the country. Despite over 200 people being arrested for taking part in protests, and potential candidates like vlogger Tsikhanouski being held prisoner so he cannot stand for election, defiant Belarusians continue to walk the streets all over the country.

During the weekend of 20 – 21 June, people protested in several cities after the popular presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka and several members of his electoral team, including his son, were arrested. Videos of the police’s forceful behaviour are reminiscent of photos from previous elections. In those elections, the authorities struck during the election night. Now Lukashenko is trying to get rid of opponents a month and a half early “to prevent eastern and western forces from destabilising the country”.

The president is not wasting time. In early June, he fired the country’s government. Two weeks ago, he announced that pensions should be raised. He draws inspiration from how peaceful protesters are treated by his friends in Central Asia:

 “Nobody knows how my friend Rakhmon [president of Tajikistan] arrived in the capital of Tajikistan to clean up the mess. And how many people died out there (…). You have forgotten how former Uzbek President Karimov suppressed the coup in Andijan by shooting thousands of people. Everyone condemned him, but when he died – they were all on their knees, sobbing and crying,” said the president in an address to his bureaucrats.

The member organisations of the Belarusian Human Rights House, report that several human rights defenders observing the protests or covering them for independent media have also been arrested.

Still, they are undeterred. The young generation of Belarusians does not have the same fears as those who grew up during Soviet times. Lukashenko’s propaganda and symbols mean nothing to them. They are tired of stagnation and want modernisation, says Viasna’s deputy head.

It is the youth who are the hope of the country called Europe’s last dictatorship. They deserve our attention.


Top photo: Belarusian blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski has been in jail since May 29 for taking part in an unsanctioned political rally. Photo: Uladz Hrydzin (RFE/RL)

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