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23 October, 2015
"I remember that when I was a schoolgirl, they told us we have to be ready to give our lives for the motherland. Nobody told us that people must be happy, that life has some other meanings or goals."

Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, made this comment a few weeks ago in an interview with Radio Freedom. Almost nothing has changed in the Belarusian writer’s home country since her childhood – Alexander Lukashenko,
“Europe’s last dictator” has been at the country’s helm for 21 year now, and on the 11th of October, the “grateful people” elected him again, to serve his fifth term.

Since it’s Belarus we’re talking about, the word “elected” probably sounds a bit comical, since everyone knows that the country’s presidential elections have lost their pivotal meaning decades ago and are held just because the Constitution makes them an obligation.

My stay in Minsk corresponded with the elections. I did not hold my breath in this regard even before arriving to the Belarusian capital, doubting that they would bring about any change whatsoever. But what I later saw and heard happening in Minsk exceeded even my wildest expectations.

The day began unremarkably; early in the morning, me and my Belarusian colleague headed to an election precinct located in one of the colleges. At the entrance, we were greeted by a sight of a haphazardly established, Soviet-style public canteen that offered various meals, starting from sausages and ending with cakes and candy. Later I found out that every single election precinct had such a canteen; some even offered souvenirs to foreign visitors. The precinct where His Majesty the President was going to show up personally to cast his vote had seafood added to its already extensive menu. On that day, even business worked for the public good.

Voting itself took place in massive halls that clearly saw no renovation since the communist rule. The whole situation closely resembled a funeral – despite having flowers scattered everywhere and patriotic music blaring from the speakers, the voters were met with sad gazes and mournful faces. Designating the election day a national holiday clearly did not have the desired effect on the overall atmosphere.

Prior to the elections, Lukashenko released political prisoners thrown behind the bars in 2010; this gesture was aimed at appeasing the EU and getting additional ammunition in campaigning for lifting of economic sanctions imposed on Belarus. Surprisingly enough, it worked – the EU suspended the sanctions by four months, albeit not without a warning that they may be re-imposed at any moment.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier commented on the “positive developments” in Belarus, lauding the release of political prisoners but at the same time claiming that the elections did not correspond to international standards:

“Elections in Belarus are now officially over. Re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko was not unexpected, but there had been changes made to conditions under which the elections were held. Political prisoners were freed prior to them, and Berlin did its best to observe them. We did not see the repressions that accompanied the previous elections,” Steinmeier observed. Harlem Désir, French Secretary of State for European Affairs, called the elections transparent to an extent possible for Belarus.

By making such statements, Europe has once again sent Lukashenko a sign that it is still ready to extend him a helping hand. However, only time will tell whether Lukashenko himself, despite happily meeting American and European leaders together with his little son, is ready to respond in kind.

Today, just as it was 21 year ago, whether Belarus will get economically sanctioned by Europe again depends on “Batska” alone, and nobody else. He has yet another tough choice ahead of him – deciding whether to allow establishment of Russian airfields in Belarus or not. On the election day, he stated publicly that although Kremlin looks to him for military cooperation, he is opposed to the idea.

“We don’t need any military bases here. They [the Russians] can supply us planes if they want to, but these planes will be flown by Belarusian pilots – and their skills are fully up to the task, let me assure you. So here’s the question: Why do we need Russian airfields if we can establish our own?” declared Lukashenko, but not without adding immediately afterwards that he will discuss this issue with the Russian president.

However, a few days prior to that statement, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev stated overtly but clearly in one his speeches that Moscow won’t take “no” for an answer.

Establishment of Russian airfields in Belarus was “humbly” protested in Minsk in the beginning of October. The protestors claimed that Lukashenko considers military cooperation with Russia “a guarantee against democracy”.

But when matters come to Belarusian democracy itself, many question marks pop up. While for many countries worldwide, including Georgia, the events in Ukraine represent a prime example of a heroic and united fight for democracy, few Belarusians share that sentiment. Most of them do not want to take after Ukraine in this regard, thinking that bloodshed is a way too steep price to pay for toppling a regime and becoming free. To quote Svetlana Alexievich again, “for people living in the villages, ‘freedom’ equals ‘sausages’. Lukashenko understands them. He is a political animal. He does what they want.“

Meanwhile, in my home country – Georgia – people got their first taste of freedom in the 90s, and since then have displayed exemplary unity in protecting their recent acquisition. Georgia elected its first president in 1991, after the Soviet Union fell, and not so long ago, we elected our fourth – peacefully and democratically. For your information, Lukashenko became President of Belarus in 1994.

Author: Mari Javakhishvili
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