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Just over one year has passed since the disputed Presidential election in Belarus which returned President Alexandr Lukashenko for a sixth term in office.

The anti-government protests, that erupted after the election, have been quelled following a crackdown by Belarusian security forces. Lukashenko has consolidated his grip on power, while political opposition in the country has been virtually neutralised. Opposition activists have been jailed or gone into exile abroad. Repression of the Belarusian people has evolved into an unprecedented and systemic State-led campaign of human rights violations, in an effort to silence dissent.

Opposition critics have been targeted, both at home and abroad.  In May 2021, a Ryanair flight was diverted and forced to land in Minsk to arrest journalist and government critic, Roman Protasevich. The independent media in Belarus, human rights organisations and civil society groups have all had their offices raided and staff detained in what Lukashenko has described as a “purge” of “bandits and foreign agents”.

Over the course of the last year more than 35,000 people have been detained by the authorities and, at the time of writing, 722 people were being held as political prisoners. Detainees have reported widespread abuse and torture at the hands of the security forces.

In July 2021, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Belarus said in her annual report to the UN Human Rights Council that the Lukashenko regime had “launched a full-scale assault against civil society”.  

Lukashenko’s survival has largely been attributed, however, to the intervention, and support, of Russia which now holds significant leverage over the regime. At a summit between Presidents Putin and Lukashenko in September 2021, the two leaders agreed to further integrate the two countries’ economies. Military cooperation between Belarus and Russia has also increased over the last year, and by default, expanded Russia’s military footprint in the country.

What has the international response been?

Most Western countries do not recognise the outcome of the August 2020 Presidential election and have widely criticised the Lukashenko regime for its failure to engage in dialogue with the opposition and for its continued repression of the Belarusian people.

EU nations, the UK, the US and Canada have all moved to impose financial and economic sanctions on the regime and have committed to supporting the opposition and Belarusian civil society more broadly. There are questions, however, over what sanctions can hope to achieve in the longer term when Russia remains Belarus’ largest trading partner and biggest political supporter. Many commentators have argued that Western sanctions merely “play into the hands of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin”.


Where the country, and Lukashenko, go from here is uncertain. The recent push by the Kremlin for greater economic integration, may be followed by demands for closer political union, in what some have described as the “soft annexation” of Belarus by the Kremlin. Yet, political integration may also no longer be necessary for Putin to achieve his aims in Belarus. The regime’s dependence on Russia has become almost irreversible, which keeps Belarus firmly within the Kremlin’s political and economic strategic sphere of influence.

Whether Lukashenko can hold on to power is debatable. President Putin has long signalled his desire for progress on longstanding promises of constitutional reform, and fresh elections, albeit undoubtedly on Russia’s terms.

On 28 September 2021, Lukashenko confirmed that a constitutional referendum would be held in February 2022. This could provide an opportunity for Lukashenko to step down as President and be succeeded by a figure either of his own choosing, or that of Russia. When announcing the referendum, President Lukashenko vowed “not to let the opposition come to power”.

The proposed referendum has therefore been met with scepticism. While constitutional reform appears on the cards, assuming Lukashenko lives up to his commitments, it is unlikely to deliver the sort of reform that Western countries and opposition activists are demanding. Instead, Lukashenko’s crackdown on society seems likely to continue unabated. 

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