After the disputed vote, Belarus experiences a year of intense repression

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The makeshift memorial to the protester who was shot by police during the massive protests against Belarus’ autocratic president last year has been removed by Belarusian authorities. They replaced placards and flowers with a garbage bin.

Alexander Taraikovsky was killed in protests, one day after President Alexander Lukashenko was reelected to a sixth term in an Aug. 9, 2020 presidential election that the opposition called rigged. In a shockingly brutal crackdown, police used stun grenades, rubber bullets and clubs to disperse peaceful protestors.

Lukashenko was nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator” by the West because of his incessant repressions of dissent. He took the helm of the country in 1994. He responded with unusual ferociousness to last year’s unprecedented protests. That turned out to be the opening salvo in a year of intense repression, the most shocking example of which was the arrest of a journalist after his flight was forced to divert to Belarus.

Officials initially claimed that Taraikovsky (34 years old) was killed by an explosive device he tried to throw at police. However, Associated Press video proved that he did not have any explosives when he fell on the ground. Later, officials acknowledged that Taraikovsky may have been hit with a rubber bullet. They never opened an investigation.

Taraikovsky’s partner Elena German said that it was a premeditated killing, but they aren’t willing to admit it. She spoke with The Associated Press via telephone from Minsk (Belarus’ capital).

“There is no law. She said that we have not yet received a formal refusal of opening a criminal case. “They refused to return the clothes that Sasha (Taraikovsky), wore when he fled home that day.”

While the Belarusian authorities responded by making mass arrests and beatings to protestors, peaceful demonstrations that attracted up to 200,000 people continued for several months. The protests eventually died out due to the relentless repressions and the winter weather. Opposition leaders were either forced or jailed, and authorities moved quickly to eliminate any signs of dissent.

People were frequently arrested for simply displaying the red-and white flag of the opposition in their windows, or for wearing red-and–white colors. Two people were sentenced to two years in prison for writing “We will never forget!” on the spot where Taraikovsky was murdered.

“I think that our biggest mistake was that [we] underestimated the cruelty and power of the regime,” Sviatlana Sikhanouskaya told The Associated Press earlier this week in Vilnius, Lithuania. “We thought maybe that if there was hundreds of thousands of people on the streets, the regime might at least hear people.”

The West refused to recognize the election, and sanctioned Belarusian officials that it claims were involved in vote-rigging.

After a plane carrying passengers from Greece to Lithuania was diverted by the West, it increased pressure on Belarus. The plane was to be flown to Minsk where it was intercepted by authorities.

Lukashenko claimed that there was a bomb threat against this flight, and that it was diverted. The European Union called it Air Piracy and banned Belarusian airlines from its skies. It also cut imports of top commodities in the country, including potash, which is a common fertilizer ingredient.

Lukaschenko, furious, retaliated and signed a deal with the EU to combat illegal migration. Officials from Lithuania, a neighbor, accused Belarusian officials of encouraging thousands of migrants, many of them from Iraq to cross into their territory in the “hybrid warfare” against the West.

In the latest drama to seize the world’s attention, Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya fled to Poland this week, saying she feared reprisals back home after a dispute with her coaches at the Tokyo Games.

Public protests have become nearly impossible to organize after a year of repressions. However, opposition leaders are confident that Lukashenko’s rule will be overthrown.

Tsikhanouskaya said, “The system has gone rotten.” She left Lithuania for Lithuania after being pressured to do so a day after last years election. “It’s already impossible for this system to be monolithic again because so much people really want change.”

Tsikhanouskaya suggested the country’s increasing isolation could increase pressure on its elite and make them join the fight against Lukashenko.

Analysts cautioned however that Lukashenko might not be able to hold on for a while.

Artyom Sharaybman, the head of Sense Analytics (an independent analysis firm), stated that “Western sanctions inflict considerable pain on Belarusian regime through hitting its economic foundation.” These regimes are capable of allocating scarce resources to the benefit and support of armed forces, so they can survive in international isolation.

Shraybman claimed that the West was trying to show it doesn’t work and that repressions against civil societies will only increase in response to sanctions. He was forced to flee Belarus for fear of being arrested.

In fact, the Belarusian authorities have intensified their crackdown against independent journalists, civil rights activists, and anyone they consider suspicious or disloyal in recent weeks. Lukashenko called the activists “bandits” and “foreign agents” and promised to continue his “mopping up operation” against them.

29 Belarusian journalists currently are in custody serving or waiting for trial. More than 50 NGOs face closure, including the Belarusian Association of Journalists (the largest and most respected media organization in Belarus) and the Belarusian PEN Center (an association of writers headed by Svetlana Alexandrievich who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2015).

Andrey Dynko was a journalist for the online newspaper Nasha Niva that was closed by authorities and spent 13 days in prison under gruesome conditions.

Dynko said that she feels like she has come back from the abyss in a telephone interview with the AP from Minsk. “I have a special item that I treasure most now — a plastic container that I used to drink from, wash myself with and slept on for 13 days instead of a pillow.

German, Taraikovsky’s partner, stated that she had “learned how to be strong” in the past year, but admitted that she still has very little hope and energy.

German, who is married with two daughters, said that many of his acquaintances have traveled abroad and that he has a similar desire. “I don’t see any future here for my children, and I don’t want them to learn propaganda.”

In the face of increasing Western pressure, Lukashenko relied on financial and political support from Russia, Belarus’ main sponsor and ally. To keep Belarus’ Soviet-style economy in motion, the Kremlin provided a loan of $1.5 billion to Belarus. This was strongly condemned by Western sanctions.

Independent analyst Valery Kaarbalevich stated that although the Russian money has supported Lukashenko’s rule at the moment, the discontent is simmering and could explode at any time.

Karbalevich stated that “It is quite evident that Lukashenko lost the support from the majority of the country’s urban population” and that protest sentiments were stifled but not eliminated by repressions.