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Column: The people of Belarus are pleading for help.

For the Valley News
Published: 6/29/2020 10:10:14 PM
Modified: 6/29/2020 10:10:10 PM

While the United States is focused on its own elections, the fallout of a global pandemic and its fraught racial history, other nations struggling to cast off despotic leadership are in great need of American support.

Imagine, elections are on Aug. 9. On June 17, the current president freezes the campaign funds of a leading presidential contender. But the candidate’s campaign volunteers are undeterred. So the next day the candidate and his son, who is helping with the campaign, get arrested. They aren’t allowed to communicate with the outside world. Their lawyers aren’t allowed to see them. Meanwhile, state television announces that there is a major money laundering case (fabricated) against the candidate and his son.

In the recent past another potential candidate was imprisoned indefinitely. Now his wife is running for president — and is getting regular threats and messages that her children will be taken away.

All of this is happening in 2020 in the heart of Europe, in Belarus. Viktor Babariko is in prison with his son Eduard, instead of strategizing in his election headquarters. People, lots of people, are out on the streets in every Belarusian city, protesting peacefully, for now. Many are facing police brutality as they stand up to President Alexander Lukashenko and call for a free and fair election and release of political prisoners.

Babariko was detained because he was the “leader of illegal activities (and) tried to influence witness testimony,” Ivan Tertel, chairman of Belarus’ State Control Committee told the AFP news agency. At the same time, the Belarusian state-owned mass media keep telling lies, not only about opposition leaders but also about the true level of support for Lukashenko, which, according to informal online polls, is somewhere between 3% and 6%. Such polls might not represent an accurate picture, but even they are now banned by the Belarusian government. Not to mention that, for the past two decades, broader polling results have been revealed only to the administration, which doesn’t want the people to know the real state of things.

It was nerve-wracking to observe from afar that Lukashenko refused (and still refuses) take the global pandemic seriously, and now this small nation is paying for that decision. The president and his administration spent more energy covering up how many COVID-19 cases were registered in Belarus than trying to help local officials fight the virus. Lukashenko insisted on the Victory Day parade commemorating the end of World War II, and other public events went on as normal. There was zero economic support to the citizens of Belarus, even though life was turned upside down by the spread of the disease. People felt abandoned. It seemed bad enough already.

In order to run for president in Belarus, a candidate has to collect 100,000 signatures in support, but really even more, because officials loyal to the president always make sure to find something wrong with many signatures and hence not allow the opposition candidate to participate in the elections. In a recent editorial, The Washington Post has noted that Babariko collected what he says are 400,000 signatures.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994. He has always made sure that his re-elections go as planned. But if in the past there were many people who genuinely believed that he takes care of the nation, and really worried that if a new president was to be elected the country would fall apart, now those people would be very hard to find. The country is falling apart. Something is rotten in the state of Belarus if a calm and apolitical majority of Belarusians is calm no more, is out in the streets, is volunteering to collect signatures, is posting, blogging, etc., all in favor of fair elections. They are done with Lukashenko and his cronies, whom he keeps changing like gloves, and who have military ties.

There are many of us in the Upper Valley who either know someone from Belarus or have family there. My parents, one of my siblings and extended family live in Belarus. My brother is a volunteer at Viktor Babariko’s headquarters.

Belarusians are pleading for help. They are asking the world to stand up for what’s right. Lukashenko is claiming that foreign “puppet masters” are trying to influence the election to get rid of him as a way to deter statements from democratic governments. But his people have had enough. They are asking the international community to stand with them in opposing the unlawful actions of the president and his government. The nation is fed up with such treatment and is fighting peacefully, but the people need all the help they can get.

American officials — governors, Congress, the president and the State Department — need to speak up, and speak up now, in support of democracy, free speech and fair elections in Belarus. The U.S. cannot claim to be a democratic nation and then stay silent when a whole country is trying to fight a tyrant who has held power for 26 years and won’t hand it over.

Yuliya Ballou, a native of Russia, has spent her summers in Belarus since childhood. She became a U.S. citizen in 2005 and teaches German at Hanover High School. She lives in Royalton.




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