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Op Ed: Out of the spotlight Belarusians’ struggle for freedom continues amidst persistent repression

Article by Joanna Szymańska

March 2, 2024

Op Ed: Out of the spotlight Belarusians’ struggle for freedom continues amidst persistent repression

As 2024 dawned, the world found itself plunged into deeper socio-political upheaval, with ever more tumultuous events dominating global headlines. Overshadowed amongst these was the elections that took place in Belarus last weekend, the first since the fraudulent presidential vote in 2020 and the subsequent mass protests.


On 25 February 2024, Belarus elected 12,514 local council deputies and 110 deputies to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly. The outcome was of no surprise, and further reinforces President Alexander Lukashenko’s iron grip on power. Meanwhile, Belarusians continue to endure an unprecedented level of repression, which similarly has seen little coverage, since the events of four years ago.


Nevertheless, the year 2020 undoubtedly stands as a haunting memory for Lukashenko. In August of that year, thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to defy the dubious official results of the presidential election which secured Lukashenko his sixth consecutive victory. People voiced their strong dissent while waving the historic white-red-white flags: a symbol of a democratic and independent Belarus, later banned by the authorities. Protesters believed that the rightful winner, and thereby the next president, was Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whose growing popularity became an escalating problem for the regime in the lead up to the elections. As a result, she was threatened, and ultimately forced into exile, where she remains today.


The months that followed brought with them mass repression on a scale that the country had not seen before. Many active protesters had to flee the country. Those who did not want to or did not manage to on time, were detained, imprisoned, tortured, or even killed. The experience of the 2020 mass protests made Lukashenko even more ruthless and extremely determined to prevent any future challenges to his power.


In February 2022, just a few days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, including from the territory of Belarus, the regime in Minsk conducted a sham constitutional referendum to further consolidate power. The referendum, among other things, served as a tool to remove presidential term limits, give a lifetime immunity to Lukashenko and constitutionalise the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, a body introduced by Lukashenko in the 1990s. Officially, this group of about 1,200 people, selected from among local and national officials, is tasked with providing support to the Government and acting as a voice of ‘the people’. It has the power to declare martial law, initiate the process to remove a president from office, or even overturn presidential election results. The purpose of this group is clear: it has been formed to prepare the ground for when Lukashenko no longer serves as president.


In 2023, the regime was able to ban or dissolve most political parties through new regulations that forced all political parties to re-register, under much stricter requirements.[1]  Out of the 15 parties previously registered in the country, only four were confirmed in October 2023 by the Ministry of Justice as successfully meeting the new requirements.[2] They were Belaya Rus, the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus, the Communist Party of Belarus, and the Republican Party of Labour and Justice. Not surprisingly, all of them are considered pro-government and support the regime.


As a result, the outcome of the February 2024 elections was easy to predict, further reinforced by the opposition forces in exile calling for a boycott of the vote.[3] The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) was not invited by Belarusian authorities to conduct impartial election observation.[4] Instead, the regime invited observers from the Advisory Council of Heads of Electoral Bodies of the friendly Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member states.[5]


The lack of strong mobilisation by Belarusians against the highly questionable way in which these 2024 February elections have been held, can be explained not only by the call of the opposition in exile to boycott them, but also by the pervasive terror which has persisted inside the country since 2020. The Government of Belarus has stepped up its efforts to excessively hinder people’s ability to speak out or protest by introducing or amending various repressive laws. According to official data, by November 2023, the number of criminal cases on charges related to “extremism” surged to 16,000.[6] As of December 2023, at least 960 NGOs were in the process of forced liquidation.[7] Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus have effectively outlawed human rights work and independent media, criminalising “working on behalf of unregistered or liquidated organisations” and making it punishable by imprisonment.[8]


Activists, human rights defenders and journalists have been added to the list of ‘extremists’; currently even a single ‘like’ under a social media post written by those on the list can result in criminal charges. Independent media has reported that Belarus and Russia plan to unify their lists of ‘extremist’ individuals and organisations, allowing coordinated repression of independent voices.[9]


Given the level of repression, the courage of Belarusians who actively oppose the regime continues to amaze. A day before the elections, on 24 February, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya reported on X (formerly Twitter) that her address to Belarusians about the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Lukashenko’s sham elections was displayed on 2,000 screens in public spaces throughout the country, an action organised by BELPOL, a coalition of former police & security forces officers.[10]


According to the Human Rights Center ‘Viasna’, currently there are 1,411 political prisoners in Belarus.[11] Many of them have faced inhuman treatment, denial of medical care and no access to lawyers. Nasta Lojka, a prominent human rights defender who was sentenced in 2023 to seven years in prison for ‘incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord’, reported that she was forced to remain in a courtyard without any outerwear for eight hours in temperatures below ten degrees celsius, after which she fell ill.[12]  A few days before the elections, on 20 February 2024, it became known that a 63-year-old political prisoner Ihar Lednik died in the Minsk regional hospital. Such news does not always make headlines in the western media, but it is crucial to highlight that Ledinik is the fifth political prisoner known to have died in Belarus since 2021.[13]


Families of many political prisoners have not heard from their loved ones for months, many do not know if they are still alive. This includes Siarhei Tsikhanouski, blogger and husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, or Maria Kalesnikava, one of the leaders of the opposition. Many other political prisoners have very little or no opportunity to send and receive letters. With the continuous disbarment of lawyers who can represent the victims, access to any information related to the well-being and condition of political prisoners is increasingly limited. As recently as last month, the security forces have raided homes and detained family members of former and current political prisoners.[14]


More than three years after the 2020 protests, the regime continues to do everything in its power, with a vast arsenal of violent means at its disposal, to spread fear and terror among its citizens. In the face of the ongoing repression, the West must strengthen the support for Belarusian civil society, which, despite the mounting challenges, continues to be very active and vibrant.


We must continue to show unwavering support to the brave people of Belarus repressed for exercising their fundamental human rights and demand the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners. As Tsikhanouskaya called for recently, sanctions against the regime must be tightened.[15] Thanks to Belarusian and international investigative journalists, we know about the instances of sanctions evasion in the European Union, and the European community must address this as a matter of urgency.[16]


Belarus might not be front page news, but the struggle for a free and democratic country continues.


Joanna Szymańska is the Acting Head of Europe Office at ARTICLE 19. She has extensive experience of working on freedom of expression issues in Central and Eastern Europe.


[1] CSO Meter, Belarus launches campaign of forced liquidation of political parties, July 2023,

[2] Alexandra Boguslavskaya, Ban any opinion: are the authorities of the Republic of Belarus building a party system?, DW, November 2023,

[3] Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to Belarusians: “This day is for you, not the regime. Spend it wisely!”, February 2024,

[4] Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, The OSCE ODIHR regrets that the Belarusian authorities did not invite observers to the upcoming elections, Elections*-2024, February 2024,

[5] Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, “Seriously underlines the credibility of this kind of company.” Pavel Sapelka spoke about international elections* monitoring, Elections*-2024, January 2024,

[6], The Prosecutor General’s Office has counted more than 16 thousand “extremist” crimes since 2020, Reformation, November 2023,

[7] LAWTREND, Monitoring the situation of freedom of association and civil society organisations in the Republic of Belarus December 2023,

[8] OMCT, Belarus: New amendment to the Criminal Code leaves no room for legal human rights activities, January 2022,

[9] Maria Yeryoma, Belarus Weekly: Belarus, Russia to unify lists of ‘extremists,’ coordinating repression, The Kyiv Independent, February 2024,

[10] Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Twitter post, Twitter, February 2024,

[11] Viasna, As of February 28 1411 persons in Belarus are considered as political prisoners,

[12] ARTICLE 19, Belarus: End persecution of human rights defender Nasta Lojka, April 2023,

[13] Viasna, Political prisoner Ihar Lednik died. He had health problems, February 2024,

[14] European Parliament, New wave of mass arrests in Belarus of opposition activists and their family members, February 2024,

[15] Todd Prince, Tsikhanouskaya Calls On U.S> To Support Belarusian Opposition, Tighten Sanctions on Lukashenka, RFE/RL, December 2023,

[16] OCCRP, Lithuania Cracks Down on Sanction Evasion Schemes after OCCRP Investigation, March 2023,


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.

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