Belarus is a former Soviet nation in Eastern Europe, bordered by Russia to the east, Ukraine to the south, and the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member states of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to the north and west. Since the nation’s establishment in 1994, they have had only one president, Alexander Lukashenko. He is the twelfth longest-ruling, non-royal national leader in the world. Lukashenko has been described as Europe’s “last dictator.”
The results of the most recent election, held on 9 August, are widely disputed. Both the EU and the US have condemned the presidential vote, which had no neutral, international observation. Lukashenko, who has engaged in some of the most shameless electoral fraud in recent European history, claims to have won 80 per cent of the popular vote. Previous Belarusian elections under Lukashenko were declared “neither free nor fair” by independent observers, who were banned this year.
His main opponent was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a human rights activist, who replaced her husband as a candidate after his arrest in May. She has been forced into exile in Lithuania in the wake of the election, with many of her allies and aides being arrested by Belarusian authorities. Where votes were properly counted, she claims to have won the majority of support, ranging from 60per cent to 70 per cent.
Last Sunday (23 August) saw as many as 100,000 people turn out in the capital city of Minsk to protest the incumbent president—around 1 per cent of the country’s population—despite a ban on such protests by the government. State-owned media downplayed this number, putting the crowd at just 20,000. Since the election, thousands of protestors and opposition loyalists have been arrested.
At least four people have died in clashes with riot police and many demonstrators describe being tortured in prisons. Sergiy described his experience to BBC News: “You understand you’re totally without any rights, that they could do anything they wanted. The pain was unbearable and I begged him to stop but he continued.”
Many protestors were taken to the notoriously brutal Okrestina detention centre in Minsk. “They beat people ferociously, with impunity, and they arrest anyone,” one man explained. “We were forced to stand in the yard all night. We could hear women being beaten. I don’t understand such cruelty.”
Lukashenko is a close ally of Vladimir Putin, who was recently encouraging further economic and legal integration with Russia. The republic, like its neighbour Ukraine, has often formed a buffer between Russia and NATO. In recent days, Lukashenko has claimed that NATO is “trying to topple the authorities” by positioning troops on the borders with Poland and Lithuania, claims that NATO has categorically denied.
A news blackout by the state-run media was combined with top-down online censorship but nonetheless thwarted by Telegram messaging app, Nexta. Pronounced ‘Nekh-ta’, they are a small and radical news application based in Warsaw; throughout the news blackout, they “published calls for help, maps showing where police are located as well as addresses for protesters to hide in, and contacts for lawyers and human rights activists,” according to BBC News.
Much of the Belarusian economy has been kept in state hands under “Soviet style” management; Soviet-era factories are still running, with Lukashenko hammering home that his leadership has ensured economic and social stability in recent decades. He still has significant influence via the state-run media and loyal but brutal security forces. Even some of his loyal base has abandoned him since the election due to the brutality and violence being carried out against peaceful protestors.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped his cause, either, over the past few months. In the weeks leading up to the election, his public health policy boiled down to “telling his citizens to protect their health by riding tractors, drinking vodka and taking saunas.” Belarus has had one of Europe’s highest per capita infection rates, causing widespread incredulity in his leadership.
“Lukashenko has not been doing anything new this year, but people started seeing him in a new way,” explained Maryna Rakhlia, a Belarusian expert at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, describing COVID-19 as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Despite her exile, Tikhanovskaya has been posting messages of support for the protestors, praising recent walkouts by workers across the country. She called for the authorities to stop the violence and instead start a meaningful dialogue with her supporters. There is an astonishing amount of hope amongst her supporters, despite recent events.
This could be a moment of real political change for the former-Soviet state. The breadth and depth of outcry is unprecedented in Belarus, despite all attempts by the loyalist authorities. Moreover, with a popular, progressive opposition waiting in the wings, this could finally be the end of Lukashenko’s once-invincible reign.
For the LGBTQ community, the coronavirus crisis has worsened an already precarious reality—physically, emotionally, socially, politically and economically. Sadly, the unique needs and hardships faced by the queer community, and particularly the most marginalised within it, are, for the most part, excluded from the global discourse surrounding the pandemic and our societies’ reaction to it.
Research indicates that queer people are drastically more susceptible to substance abuse and mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, and are more prone to suicidality. This results, to a large extent, from what researchers define as ‘minority stress’; queer members of other minority groups (such as people of colour and immigrants) often experience increased levels of minority stress. Physical distancing and an abrupt reduction in social interactions during COVID-19 are noted by experts to exacerbate the mental and emotional strain experienced by LGBTQ people, and particularly queer youths and young adults.
Lack of access to care during the pandemic also significantly impacts the queer community, as many services vital to their well-being have been regarded as ‘nonessential’. An article published by Harvard Medical School titled COVID-19 and the LGBTQ+ community: Rising to unique challenges notes that trans and non-binary people may be having difficulty accessing hormone treatments and surgeries during the crisis—both of which are essential for their physical and mental well-being.
Furthermore, the economic fallout from the pandemic is proving to be a great source of distress for the queer community. Seeing as many LGBTQ people were economically disadvantaged prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, the current crisis puts them at an increased risk of unemployment, homelessness, and food insecurity.
“When something like the pandemic happens, the lowest on the totem pole are always the ones that are forgotten,” Jari Jones, a New York City-based trans actress and activist, told Screen Shot. “A lot of rich white queers who are living in New York were able to leave the city, and were able to go to their rich homes or parents and quarantine there, while a lot of queer people of colour, mainly, or those experiencing homelessness or travelling from home to home now had to find a way to be stationary within New York—there wasn’t the option of leaving, ” she added. “[This] affects people of colour in a dramatic way because a lot of us don’t have the resources to be in safe areas […] a lot of us had to go into the shelter system, which only exposes you more to the virus.”
The pandemic has also served as an excuse for oppressive leaders around the world to curtail the rights and liberties of queer people. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s parliament—now ruling by decree due to the COVID-19 emergency—just passed a bill which, among other provisions, amends the civil registry document to read ‘sex assigned at birth’ instead of ‘sex’. This move by the Hungarian government precludes trans and non-binary people from ever having their gender identity be recognised by the state, and opens the door to further violence and discrimination against them.
Hungary is merely one out of many European countries in which the pandemic accelerates the erosion of queer rights—a recent report by ILGA Europe finds. Members of ILGA-Europe also crucially point out that it’s not overwhelming public support but rather widespread indifference which makes this anti-queer campaign possible.
But not all is bleak. While the current crisis has presented new (and intensified existing) challenges for LGBTQ people, the pandemic has also encouraged increased activism and mutual-aid among queer communities. “We come from generations of people who had to band together, who had to make do with what we got,” said Jones, referencing the rallying-up of queer communities, and particularly queer people of colour, in response to the virus. “I’m seeing a lot of people and grassroots organisations coming together to feed each other, to deliver masks, deliver medicine, to make sure our elders of colour are taken care of. These organisations are giving out money and funds and food to make sure that those people are staying afloat.”
“It’s refreshing to see parts of the community, or sub-communities, come together to make sure that we’re still thriving through this,” Jones added.
The implications of the coronavirus crisis will be evident for years to come, and the chaos left in its wake will be felt most potently by vulnerable groups, including the queer community. A genuine resilience to this virus can only be developed if the specific needs and challenges of all segments of the population are acknowledged and addressed. And so, the prevailing apathy must be urgently replaced with keen readiness to act, not just on behalf of, but alongside society’s most marginalised.