Several leaders from the Caucasus have courted controversy by being among only a handful of world leaders to congratulate Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka after he claimed victory in an election marred by fraud.
Governments around the Caucasus have remained tight-lipped on the mass protests and labour strikes taking place throughout Belarus since Sunday’s poll.
Belarusian police have responded to the protests with unprecedented violence, killing at least 2 protesters and detaining at least 6,000 people. There have also been reports from detainees released of widespread torture.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan both congratulated Lukashenka on the official election results on Monday.
Abkhazian President Aslan Bzhaniya and South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov were also quick to congratulate Lukashenka on what they both called his ‘convincing victory’.
The head of the Russian Republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov also congratulated Lukashenka.
In Georgia, officials have refrained from making any comments on either the election results or the continuing protests.
Several dozen Belarusians in Georgia have held daily protests in Tbilisi against the results and police crackdown.
A small number of protesters have gathered in Tbilisi in support of pro-democracy protests in #Belarus. Results announced by the Central Election Committee gave incumbent president Alexander Lukashenka a landslide win amidst widespread reports of fraud. pic.twitter.com/pf4fLWAIVo
— OC Media (@OCMediaorg) August 10, 2020
Marisha Korzh, a veteran activist from Belarus and one of the organisers of the Tbilisi protest told OC Media that it was important for countries in the region not to recognise the results of the election in order to pressure members of the Belarusian government to negotiate with protesters, something she said Lukashenka himself would never do.
Korzh said there was speculation in Belarus that Lukashenka may no longer be in the country, and that the security services, the KGB, were now in control.
‘We were very disappointed with Pashinyan recognising the elections,’ she said.
Korzh added that they had already penned an appeal to Georgian lawmakers and Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia not to follow suit.
‘I hope they look at all the blood and protests and at least won’t say anything for some time’.
Georgian opposition party European Georgia has condemned the actions of the Belarusian authorities.
In a video address on Wednesday, Elene Khoshtaria, an MP from the party, said that ‘rigged elections can never be tolerated.
In solidarity with Belarus #ЖывеБеларусь pic.twitter.com/V8bAzWSTAK
— Helen Khoshtaria (@Helenkhosh) August 11, 2020
Pashinyan under fire from rights advocates
In his note congratulating Lukashenka, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan expressed confidence that both countries would expand their cooperation ‘not only bilaterally but within international organisations and integration associations.’
Both Armenia and Belarus are members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union. Pashinyan met with Lukashenka on 17 July while taking part in the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council meeting in Minsk.
Others in Armenia to congratulate Lukashenka included President Armen Sarkisian and head of the opposition Prosperous Armenia party, Gagik Tsarukyan.
Tsarukyan, one of the wealthiest men in the country, is currently under investigation for vote-buying during the 2017 parliamentary elections as well as for illegal business practices.
‘The unprecedented large number of voters that voted for you shows your inviolable reputation and the unconditional trust your people have towards you,’ Tsarukyan stated.
‘I’m confident that, thanks to you, relations between Armenia and Belarus will gain new impetus strengthening the fraternal and friendly ties between our two people even more. I will also make every effort [to that effect].’
Tsarukyan is widely considered to be close to Lukashenka, and the two share a number of business links.
Many in Armenia were critical of Pashinyan’s congratulatory note, especially considering his long history as campaigning for democracy before coming to power in the 2018 Velvet Revolution.
Artur Sakunts, head of Armenian rights group the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor Office, accused Pashinyan of hypocrisy, especially given the ongoing prosecution of former President Robert Kocharyan for his role in the 2008 dispersal of protesters. ‘It’s completely absurd,’ he said.
Deputy Chairman of the National Assembly, Alen Simonyan, defended Pashinyan’s actions, telling reporters that he was the last leader of a CSTO member country to do so.
Simonyan also expressed concern over the situation in Belarus, stating that any violence against protestors was unacceptable.
Mikayel Zolyan, an MP from the ruling My Step faction also justified Pashinyan’s actions. He wrote on Facebook that the functions of the head of state are different than those of an opposition politician, journalist, or human rights activist. ‘The head of the state, in terms of foreign affairs, has to be guided by its country’s interests, and everything else in this sense becomes secondary,’ Zolyan wrote.
‘Imagine how not sending your congratulations would have been perceived when all your allies had already sent their congratulations. What would you have done if you were the Prime Minister of Armenia?’
On Wednesday, 13 Armenian civil society organisations issued a joint statement expressing solidarity with the Belarusian people. They condemned what they said was the falsification of the election results as well as the post-election violence and arrests by police.
The statement drew parallels between the situation in Belarus and the events of 1 March 2008 in Armenia, when the government violently dispersed protesters against the results of elections leaving 10 people dead.
On Friday, a small peaceful march took place in central Yerevan in solidarity with the people of Belarus. The march started in front of the National Assembly building and ended in front of the Government Building in Republic Square. In the event page, the organisers stressed that the objective of the march was to express support to ‘our friends living in Belarus.’
One of the participants, Nina Ananian, said that she took part in the march in support of her friends in Belarus.
‘I believe it’s necessary to make Armenia’s support of Belarus visible despite our Prime Minister’s congratulatory remarks,’ Ananian told OC Media.
‘A people who have gone through falsified elections, the events of 1 March, and the 2018 revolution are obliged to support and urge to continue a peaceful struggle.’
‘Like in Belarus, the rights of people in Azerbaijan are limited’
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev also came under fire from opposition parties and local rights groups for congratulating Lukashenka.
Anar Mammadli, the head of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDS), told OC Media that Aliyev was generally among the first world leaders to congratulate presidents of countries in the post-Soviet space following elections.
He said that a lack of democratic elections connected Azerbaijan with Belarus and ‘other authoritarian countries’.
‘Because of that, the destiny of their leaders are similar.’
‘These leaders support each other this way in their re-election or the prolongation of their stays in power […] It is an unwritten tradition that goes back many years’, he said.
A number of people on social media as well as prominent bloggers condemned events in Belarus as well as Aliyev’s reaction.
Popular Front Party leader Ali Karimli and Musavat Party leader Arif Hajili were also critical, with the latter comparing the situation in both Belarus and Azerbaijan to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
‘Azerbaijan’s people are very similar to the people of Belarus,’ Mammadli said. ‘Like in Belarus, the rights of people in Azerbaijan on free expression and participation in the elections are limited.’
Mammadli said that because of COVID-19 restrictions, protesting in front of the Belarusian Embassy in Baku would be difficult.
However, on Tuesday, EMDS shared posters on Facebook in support of the Belarusian people.
‘We want people to share them on their pages to express their feelings. Unfortunately, now we can do only this’, Mammadli concluded.
Congratulations ‘despite an absence of official relations’
The leaders of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia were quick to congratulate Lukashenka despite Belarus recognising neither of them as being independent.
‘Despite an absence of official diplomatic relations, Abkhazia and Belarus have considerable experience of cooperation in various spheres’, Abkhazian President Aslan Bzhaniya said in his congratulatory statement.
Bzhaniya came to power in March after disputing the official results of the previous presidential elections and leading street protests against the government.
Lukashenka has predominantly discussed Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the past within the context of his relationship with the Russian leadership.
Two days before the presidential vote, Lukashenka claimed that in 2008, Belarus faced the possibility of Western sanctions if he followed Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
He also reiterated a claim he made last year that Russia failed to guarantee they would cover any economic damage from such sanctions.
News from Belarus made headlines in Abkhazia after journalist Semyon Pyegov, who previously worked in Abkhazia, was reportedly attacked by police and detained.
On 10 August, the Union of Journalists of Abkhazia condemned the physical violence and arrests of journalists in Belarus and called on the authorities to ‘immediately free them’.
The union said that Pyegov ‘started his journalistic career in Abkhazia, in the newsroom of TV company Abaza-TV’.
Pyegov was released on Tuesday together with three other Russian journalists.
Other political leaders in the region to congratulate Lukashenka included head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov.
In a statement on Telegram, the Chechen leader 'wholeheartedly' congratulated Lukashenka for his ‘convincing’ victory, calling him a ‘big friend of the Chechen people and Russia’, a ‘talented politician’, and a ‘tough executive’.
Last June, the Belarusian President awarded Kadyrov in Minsk with the Order of Friendship of Peoples.
Kadyrov’s congratulation came shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.