On Sunday, July 3, the people of Belarus celebrated the 1944 withdrawal of Nazi forces at the hands of the Red Army; the day that is considered by the government to be Independence Day. However, rather than being marked by celebrations, nationalistic sentiment, and popular support for the government, this Independence Day brought to light deep-seated sentiments that have been subdued for 17 years, the time that President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power.
Demonstrators in Minsk responded to calls for revolution that originated on a Russian social networking site and used hand clapping and other nonviolent gestures to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the current regime. Then, in the style of the authoritarian governments of the past, Lukashenko’s troops mercilessly beat and arrested dozens of prisoners at the rally.
Since his controversial landslide reelection in December, Lukashenko has been the subject of popular animosity in Belarus; as a result, massive crackdowns and arrests have taken place. However, after the success of the 2011 revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as the possibility of success in Libya and Yemen, it is clear that around the world, autocracies are on the defensive. Things may be about to change. Welcome to the European Spring.
Alexander Lukashenko took office in 1993 following the collapse of the USSR and the creation of an independent Republic of Belarus. However, in the style of the former Soviet leaders, Lukashenko has held almost absolute power over his nation for the last seventeen years. While many areas in Eastern Europe still have yet to see democracy to this day, upon comparison with nations such as its neighbors Poland, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, it is apparent that the government of Belarus is a holdover from the late twentieth century, a time in which dictators controlled much of Eastern Europe.
However, the main difference between Lukashenko and the men with whom he is often identified, such as Nicholae Ceausescu, is that following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, such leaders either fled the onslaught of democracy or, in the case of Ceausescu, were murdered at the hand of their own people. In the mid to late 1990s and the 2000s, Eastern Europe embarked on a transition from autocracies to democracies, from Communism to a free market, and from oppression to glasnost. But, similar to the situation in the 1990s in Serbia, the strongman seized power and refused to let go. While Lukashenko did win a supposedly free election in 1994, he has been accused of compromising the results of the next several elections, must notably in 2010, all the while ruling Belarus with, in his own words, an «authoritarian» style of government.