Riots Erupt Across Belarus as Lukashenko Declares Himself President

Credit: RFE/RL

One demonstrator is dead. Thousands are injured and 500+ detained.

Preliminary results from Belarus’ Central Election Commission (CEC) indicate that incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko won re-election for his sixth-consecutive term with more than 80% of the vote — declaring himself victor after allegations from the opposition of early vote rigging, ballot-stuffing, the detention of journalists, foreign interference, and widespread corruption in the CEC.

His main opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was only awarded 10%.

CEC projections indicate that approximately 45% of the votes were cast early and that national turnout was roughly 55%.

These projections are highly controversial and have garnered widespread international criticism from foreign leaders — primarily of Poland and Lithuania — election observers, Belarusian journalists, and Tikhanovskaya alike.

Tikhanovskaya has officially rejected the “illegitimate” results, promising to continue organizing demonstrations in pursuit of “free and fair elections” and the “peaceful transfer of power.”

Within an hour of the announcement, demonstrations began in five major cities: Minsk, Brest, Grodno, Mogilev, and Baranovichi.

Based on evidence obtained via opposition channels — including verifiable pictures of ballot totals and videos of precinct results announcements — as well as exit polls conducted outside Belarusian embassies abroad — Tikhanovskaya *most likely* won the election by a 4:1/3:1 margin.

Demonstrations began peacefully. There is no anecdotal evidence — nor any media — of violence instigated by protestors in any of the major cities in Belarus. By all accounts, Belarusian officials began firing on protestors with rubber bullets shortly after a national internet and television blackout.

The scope and size of such demonstrations dwarf any comparable instance of unrest in Belarus’ recent history. When examined alongside the brief moments of unrest following the elections of 2010 and 2015 — there is no example in which mass detentions, clashes, and demonstrators overpowering law enforcement even come close to reaching the nationwide scale in which they happened last night.

A second round of protests are scheduled for 19:00 (10:00 EST) tonight.

A nationwide labor strike is set to begin on 11 Aug. 2020.

Credit: TASS

Here is a look at the results, side-by-side with exit polls conducted by an independent observer:

Credit: Twitter, Franak Viačorka

Here is an example of an independent exit poll taken amongst Belarusian diaspora and expatriate communities outside embassies in 26 cities in Europe:

Credit: ExitPoll Abroad

Now, compare this to the official exit poll released by the CEC — conducted by the Youth Laboratory of Social Research “VKMO”:

Credit: VKMO

The results are seemingly inverted — in Lukashenko’s favor.

These results come after months of grassroots organizing by Tikhanovskaya, drawing tens of thousands to her rallies in an unprecedented campaign that challenged Lukashenko’s 26-year reign as despotic leader of the ex-Soviet republic. Tikhanovskaya — whose staff was detained just days before the election — came out of hiding yesterday in order to cast a ballot for herself in Minsk.

Before the results were announced, videos began circulating on Telegram channels belonging to NEXTA — a relatively trustworthy opposition outlet within Belarus — of alleged vote-tampering and ballot-stuffing on behalf of election officials in Minsk.

Here, we see footage of an election commissioner allegedly removing what seems to a be a large trash bag of uncounted ballots from a second-story window behind a nearby polling center:

Credit: Twitter, Tadeusz Giczan

Here, we see invalid ballots distributed to Tikhanovskaya voters — fueling rumors that many of the votes in Minsk were tampered with in order to disqualify a large portion of the official vote tallies:

Credit: Twitter, Denis Kazakiewicz

As the votes were being counted, a significant number of foreign journalists were detained by Belarusian police. Outlets that reported detentions of their photographers include AP, Dozhd, BELTA, and NEXTA — including many more. They were denied accreditation by the Belarusian government under the justification that they were foreign instigators distributing propaganda with the intent to sow civil unrest in Belarus:

Credit: Twitter, Alex Luhn

Another angle:

Credit: Twitter, Bryan MacDonald

The CEC alleges that 41% of all votes tallied were absentee ballots and early votes — a highly unlikely number that led to some precincts (i.e. Pr. 51 in Minsk) reporting voter turnout totals that exceeded the number of eligible voters. Some precincts — even in Lukashenko strongholds in Grodno and Uzda, for example — reported turnouts of 107%, 112%, 125%, and even 170% in the most extreme cases.

By some estimations, the official CEC turnout total (73%) significantly underreports the true totals — as countless ballots were either declared invalid or were not counted at all.

Independent observers have estimated the true turnout to be roughly 80%, with the early voting statistics to be either illegitimate or wildly fabricated.

Here is what the queues looked like at one of the polling stations in Minsk:

Credit: Twitter, Thomas van Linge

Thankfully, due to the courage of some honest election officials, NEXTA was able to obtain images of state-certified vote tallies in several districts that were long-considered to be Lukashenko strongholds. Almost every official vote tally reported to foreign news outlets show Tikhanovskaya leading by a 4:1 margin.

Here is one of the ballots from Uzda — a conservative Lukashenko stronghold in which he won unanimously in 2015 — where Tikhanovskaya leads him by four votes:

Credit: NEXTA

Here is another count from Minsk, in which Tikhanovskaya leads 707–428:

Credit: NEXTA

Another from Minsk (Pr. 51), where she leads 1226–394:

Credit: NEXTA

There are about 30 official, CEC-certified tallies circulating now that demonstrate similar results — with Tikhanovskaya leading by a 4:1 to 3:1 margin.

In order to visually demonstrate the disparity in voting, Tikhanovskaya voters planned to fold their ballots 4–6 times — contrasting with a single fold — taking pictures of the transparent ballot boxes:

Credit: Twitter, Franak Viačorka

Here is an image from a polling place in Minsk showing Tikhanovskaya with an apparent majority of ballots:

Credit: Twitter, Tadeusz Giczan

Official exit polls from Belarusian embassies, like the one in Moscow, reported similar results in favor of Tikhanovskaya:

Credit: Twitter, Franak Viačorka

Here is another from The Hague, Netherlands:

Credit: Twitter, Alex Kokcharov

Based on circumstantial evidence — gathered from exit polls conducted at Belarusian embassies abroad and images of the certified vote tallies — Tikhanovskaya seems to be the victor of the popular vote by an estimated margin of 4:1.

Here is a video of an official vote count being read aloud by election officials outside of a polling center in Minsk in which Tikhanovskaya won 90% of the vote:

Credit: Twitter, Tadeusz Giczan, NEXTA

Tikhanovskaya’s official spokesperson declared victory, rejecting the “illegitimate” results of the election and urging Lukashenko to “initiate the peaceful transfer of power.” She assured that if the official results were not recognized — demonstrations would begin in Minsk, as well as a labor strike, and protestors would not cease until a “free and fair” democratic process was ensured:

Credit: Twitter, Franak Viačorka

Following the CEC’s announcement that Lukashenko had won the election by a margin of 8:1, demonstrations started almost immediately in every major city in Belarus:

Credit: Nasha Niva

Preparations for civil unrest were made by Belarusian officials many days ahead of the election.

Traffic information indicates that officials ordered the closure of the MKAD beltway around Minsk on 8 Aug. 2020 in order to prevent demonstrators from entering — or, leaving — the city. This was also able to ensure the movement of law enforcement and military equipment into the city in preparation of backlash against the election results:

Credit: Google Maps

Journalists were able to obtain footage of convoys of military personnel entering Minsk just before the election:

Credit: Twitter, Franak Viačorka

There is also data that indicates widespread internet blackouts in Belarus, with significant shutdowns of DNS services related to social media, official state websites, and channels belonging to the Belarusian opposition:

Credit: Twitter, NetBlocks

Once the official results of the election were announced, the internet was blacked-out nationwide:

Credit: Twitter, NetBlocks

Here is a visualization of where the blackout hotspots were within Belarus:

Credit: Twitter, Aliaksandr Herasimenka

A day before the election, masked officials began arbitrarily detaining activists on the streets of Minsk in order to quell the possibility of civil unrest before the election. Individuals who were believed to be associated with foreign media outlets, as well as political activists who were canvassing for Tikhanovskaya, were detained en masse:

Credit: Twitter, Hanna Liubakova

Information obtained via Telegram indicates that Belarusian officials closed-off access to public transit at 18:00 local time in Minsk on 8 Aug. in order to move large amounts of military personnel and equipment into the city:

Credit: Twitter, IntelCrab

Public transit has not reopened.

There is also information obtained by LENTA.ru that indicates Belarusian officials ordered the closure of all broadband and cellular data communications in Minsk on 8 Aug., however these restrictions were easily circumnavigated by individuals using VPNs.

There were also detentions of opposition leaders that had supported Tikhanovskaya, amongst other opposition candidates, just days before the election:

Credit: Twitter, Guy Elster

Demonstrations across Belarus began peacefully, with relatively no retaliation from law enforcement.

Credit: NEXTA, Demonstrators in Grodno

Protestors took to the streets in Grodno, Pinsk, Kobrin, and Zhlobin — met with little resistance from Belarusian officials — demanding that the election results be overturned in favor of Tikhanovskaya. The also demonstrated in favor of a second election in which the results would be reported accurately with full transparency from the CEC:

Credit: Twitter, Tadeusz Giczan

However, once Belarusian officials began to quell the demonstrations in Minsk — which numbered approximately 15,000 — protestors began to fight back against arbitrary detentions:

Credit: Twitter, Thomas van Linge

This is when the peaceful demonstrations began to devolve into clashes between pro-Tikhanovskaya demonstrators and Belarusian officials:

Credit: Twitter, IntelDoge

Demonstrators in Minsk were able to push back Belarusian law enforcement and take over the streets within the hour:

Credit: NEXTA, Minsk

Belarusian officials were able to regroup in Minsk, deploying tear gas, flash grenades, water cannons, and rubber bullets against demonstrators who were marching towards the Presidential Palace:

Credit: Twitter, IntelDoge

This led to a tense standoff between demonstrators and officials in downtown Minsk which continued through the night:

Credit: Twitter, TUT.BY

Demonstrators began constructing barricades made of roadblocks, trashcans, and signage in order to prevent the advance of law enforcement:

Credit: Twitter, Leandra Bias, NEXTA

Riot police began advancing on the barricades on Independence Ave. in downtown Minsk:

Credit: Twitter, MBKh Media, NEXTA

In this incredibly graphic video, we see a police truck in downtown Minsk plow through a group of protestors setting up a barricade — there are still no confirmed fatalities, although it is assumed that some of the victims have died from their injuries:

Credit: Twitter, Tadeusz Giczan, NEXTA

Here are photos of the aftermath:

Credit: Twitter, Hanna Liubakova, NEXTA

However, even after Belarusian officials attempted to stop the civil unrest from escalating further and spreading to other major cities, demonstrators in Minsk continued to fight back against their advances:

Credit: Twitter, Thomas van Linge

In some cities, such as Zhodino, Belarusian officials began to retreat and put down their arms — allowing protestors to reclaim the streets:

Credit: Twitter, Tadeusz Giczan, NEXTA

Here is footage from Korbin, in which riot police put down their shields and defect to join the demonstrators:

Credit: Twitter, Oliver Carroll, Belamova

In Minsk, clashes between demonstrators and riot police continued — leading to a causality:

Credit: Twitter, Tadeusz Giczan, NEXTA

Police deployed rubber bullets and flash grenades into the crowds:

Credit: Twitter, IntelCrab, NEXTA

Leading to a series of casualties and potentially thousands of injured demonstrators:

Credit: Twitter, Hanna Liubakova

Protests persisted until about 02:30 local time in Minsk, in which demonstrators began to retreat and regroup. A further round of protests is scheduled for tonight at 19:30 local time — as well as a labor strike that is set to begin on 11 Aug. 2020.

Here is footage of the demonstrators beginning to disperse in Minsk:

Credit: Twitter, Tadeusz Giczan

It remains unclear as to how this situation will develop in the upcoming days. Aleksandr Lukashenko has declared himself victor with an overwhelming majority, alleging that the protests have been organized by foreign intelligence services with ties to the Czech Republic, United States, United Kingdom, and — bizarrely — Russia.

The leaders of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan have already congratulated Lukashenko on his victory and have used their foreign ministries to endorse the seemingly illegitimate results of the election.

There is still no statement on behalf of the U.S. State Department, nor any acknowledgement of the unrest in Belarus from U.S. officials.

It is unclear as to what steps Svetlana Tikhanovskaya will take next. She has indicated her willingness to organize further demonstrations in Minsk — as well as sponsor a nationwide labor strike — but there is no official information yet as to her plans or current whereabouts.

The injuries in the demonstrations are officially counted as 500+, however speculation indicates that injuries are well into the thousands. The vast majority of prisons in Belarus are at full capacity with demonstrators and officials are housing further detentions in warehouses, garages, and other government buildings in Minsk.

There is one confirmed death, however official Belarusian channels deny any and all injuries and deaths as a result of last night’s demonstrations.

It is unclear whether a Tikhanovskaya presidency would drastically change the foreign policy of Belarus, or what implications civil unrest in Belarus has for NATO or Russia. As this situation is still developing — complete with unexpected twists and an unprecedented scale of civil unrest — it is hard to predict the upcoming days with regards to the domestic affairs of Belarus.

Aleksandr Lukashenko has not been seen in public, fueling rumors that he has either fled Minsk for Turkey, or that he is operating behind-the-scenes as he plans his next step to secure his presidency.

I will continue to update this article, as well as post daily updates with new information as it comes in. As this is a fast-moving situation with unpredictable implications, please be patient as I work to gather as much information as possible.

Alexander Leslie is a foreign policy analyst, freelance journalist, and has an M.A. in Eurasian, Russian, & East European Studies from Georgetown University. His interests include U.S.-Georgia relations, energy politics, and studies in counterterrorism policy.

Contact: aejleslie@gmail.com

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