The election in 1994 that brought Alyaksandr Lukashenka to power in Belarus was arguably the first and last election in the former Soviet republic that met some Western norms. In fact, a U.S. commission hailed it as a “first step toward more pluralistic democracy and a free market system.”
However, soon after taking office, Lukashenka tightened his grip on power, rigging the system to guarantee his reelection in all four elections that followed. RFE/RL looks back at the elections and key events surrounding them.
In 1994, Alyaksandr Lukashenka was a 39-year-old outsider, a former collective farm manager who positioned himself as a man of the people. In the first presidential election in Belarus since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Lukashenka campaigned on a platform against government corruption and inflation. He won in a runoff landslide, securing some 80 percent of the vote to defeat Prime Minister Vyacheslau Kebich.
"These were the first absolutely democratic elections in Belarus," said Alyaksandr Abramovich, head of the Central Election Commission.
A July 1994 report by the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe was cautiously upbeat.
“The rejection by Belarusian voters of the old line nomenklatura leadership, even for an unknown quality like Lukashenka, appears to provide a small, first step toward more pluralistic democracy and a free market system,” the report said.
But after the vote, Lukashenka wasted little time dismantling Belarus’s fledgling democratic institutions. In 1995, Lukashenka called a referendum that included four questions on whether to make Russian an official language; whether new national symbols should be adopted, including a flag that largely resembled the Soviet-era republic banner; whether there should be closer economic integration with Russia; and whether changes should be made to the constitution making it easier for the president to dissolve parliament.
Parliament disagreed with three of the four questions on the plebiscite. Members locked themselves in the parliament building and declared a hunger strike. Many were ultimately arrested, and the referendum was held and approved.
Another such vote in 1996 gave Lukashenka the right to appoint ministers and judges to the country’s Constitutional Court and the right to issue decrees without consulting with parliament. The then-head of the Central Election Commission, Viktar Hanchar, refused to certify the results, citing gross irregularities. Lukashenka had him fired and the results stood.
The first presidential election under Lukashenka’s management, the 2001 election was marred by allegations of widescale fraud.
Some 90 minutes after polls closed on September 9, Lukashenka declared himself victor. The Central Election Commission later announced Lukashenka had won 75 percent of the vote, and trade union chief Uladzimer Hancharyk, his closest rival, had just 15 percent.
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Opposition officials said Lukashenka got only 47 percent of the vote, compared to 41 percent for Hancharyk. Under Belarusian law, a second round of voting would have been required if no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote.
An envoy from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Hans-Georg Wiek, said Lukashenka used police to intimidate political opponents and manipulated the media, which is under the exclusive control of the state. The OSCE also criticized the absence of opposition representatives among elections officials.
In the lead-up to the vote, the U.S. State Department said in July that it found “credible” allegations that Lukashenka or those close to him had been involved in the disappearances of up to 30 opposition figures.
The high-profile disappearances included top Lukashenka opponents: Yury Zakharenka, the former interior minister; Viktar Hanchar, the former chairman of Belarus's Central Election Commission; and Dzmitry Zavadski, who once worked as Lukashenka's personal cameraman.
The disappearances have never been solved.
Hopes were high for the opposition ahead of the March 19, 2006 vote.
The opposition held a special congress that picked Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a doctor in physics and mathematics, as its candidate.
"It is the first time during Belarus's independence that all healthy democratic forces, despite their [different] political views, have united to change the situation in Belarus for the better,” Milinkevich told RFE/RL at the time.
Lukashenka appeared unfazed, telling a gathering in southeastern Belarus in November 2005: "What can you do? You'll elect me."
Lukashenka should have been barred from running as the country’s constitution limited presidents to two terms. Lukashenka, however, called another referendum in 2004 -- his third -- to drop the term limit. The vote was passed according to officially announced results, and nothing now stood in the way for Lukashenka to extend his rule.
Belarusian election officials said Lukashenka won more than 84 percent of the vote in the presidential race, with Milinkevich garnering some 6 percent. Outrage over the announced result erupted into street protests in Minsk. Hundreds of opposition supporters were arrested.
The result was widely condemned abroad as well. The OSCE, which monitored the vote, said it failed to meet democratic standards. That was echoed by the United States. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "The United States does not accept the results of the election. We support the call for a new election." That call to rerun the election was repeated by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
“All the process of [vote] counting was not transparent, and so, [there were] very few observers which were really independent or from the opposition side,” Andres Herkel, PACE's rapporteur on Belarus at the time, said.
The EU slapped a travel ban on Lukashenka and 30 other officials. The U.S. Treasury blocked Lukashenka’s personal assets and those of 15 other high-ranking officials.
In September of that year, Belarus’s rubber-stamp parliament approved holding the presidential vote in December, four months ahead of when Lukashenka’s third term was due to end.
Analysts at the time said he may have rushed the vote to give the opposition little time to mount a challenge.
The poll came amid fresh tensions in relations with Moscow, mainly over a proposed customs union as well as Minsk’s offer of refuge to the ousted president of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiev, a decision that Moscow opposed.
There was even talk the Kremlin was planning Lukashenka’s ouster. Russia's NTV channel in July that year broadcast a highly critical documentary on Lukashenka. The program, titled "The Godfather," focused on several high-profile disappearances in Belarus during Lukashenka's presidency in the 1990s.
A video uploaded to YouTube around the same time purported to document an anonymous former employee of the Russian security forces claiming then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was planning Lukashenka's assassination.
In the vote on December 19, Lukashenka was declared winner with more than 80 percent of the vote. Andrey Sannikau got 2.5 percent, the highest of the nine challengers.
In September, Sannikau’s press secretary, Aleh Byabenin, was found hanged in his apartment. Byabenin was a director and cofounder of the Charter 97 opposition news website. Authorities ruled his death a suicide, but Sannikau expressed strong doubts about that conclusion.
The election ended with mass protests amid charges of mass falsification of the results. One of the presidential candidates, 64-year-old Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, was arrested while lying in a hospital bed after being beaten unconscious by security forces during the protests. All told, more than 600 people were detained, including seven of the election candidates, sparking condemnations in the West.
U.S. President Barack Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said the United States "strongly condemns the actions that the government of Belarus has taken to undermine the democratic process." The European Union's top diplomat Catherine Ashton, meanwhile, called on the regime to "immediately release" the opposition leaders.
After the vote, the United States and EU toughened sanctions on Belarus’s leadership. The EU reinstated a travel ban on Lukashenka and froze his assets, and the United States imposed stricter financial controls and widened its travel bans on senior officials.
U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a statement in January 2011 that the "disproportionate use of force and initial detentions of hundreds of demonstrators...oblige the United States and others in the international community to act.”
The election came over a year after Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and began backing separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas with money, weapons, and soldiers. Experts said the events in Ukraine prompted Lukashenka to reassess his ties with Russia amid concerns for his own country’s territorial integrity. The EU and Washington also rejiggered strategy toward Minsk, opting for engagement rather than isolation.
In an apparent attempt to curry favor in the West, Lukashenka released six high-profile political prisoners in September, just two months before the election, including Mikalay Statkevich, who was imprisoned alongside nine other opposition leaders after running against Lukashenka in the 2010 presidential election. In May 2011, Statkevich was given a six-year jail sentence on a charge of organizing mass street protests against Lukashenka's re-election at the time.
Opposition activist Vyachaslau Siuchyk on September 15 returned to Belarus after five years of self-imposed exile in Ukraine, saying he thought it was the “right time” to come back.
Despite the encouraging signs, the actual election on October 11 differed little from past elections under Lukashenka. The Belarusian leader was declared the winner in another landslide, again with more than 80 percent of the vote. None of the other three candidates got more than 5 percent.
There were "significant problems" in the counting and tabulation of votes, the OSCE complained. No veteran opposition leaders stood, as they were not allowed to register.
A Belarusian human rights group also said the vote fell far short of democratic norms. Aleh Hulak, head of Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, criticized "mass early voting" and "nontransparent vote-counting.”
There were protests after the vote, but not on the scale of the 2010 events. Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature that year, warned ahead of the ballot that her homeland is a “soft dictatorship.”
After the vote, the United States and EU suspended most of their sanctions on Belarus. In February 2016, the EU made the move permanent.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU had seen a "positive trend" in Belarus.