Margo Petruhina expected to see election results on August 9 after Belarus’ latest presidential election. Instead, she was met by a four-day television blackout that was on the precipice of the nation reaching a breaking point despite not being in the country’s capital, Minsk immediately after the election.

Petruhina at a rally. (Image: Margo Petruhina)

Incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory to a sixth presidential term over opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who claimed a victory of her own.

Petruhina’s friends were first galvanized by the disputed outcome to take action in rallies against Lukashenko before compelling Petruhina to do the same.

“I was driven by the thought that I’m part of a big thing that can change everything,” Petruhina says. “I knew that it could be dangerous for me and my family, that I risked a lot, but back in August, the rallies were much safer and me and my friends managed to go through it without any harm.”

According to Belarus’ Central Election Commission, Lukashenko won 80.1 percent of the vote with Tsikhanouskaya claiming 10.12 percent of the vote. However, Tsikhanouskaya claims that she won 60-70 percent of votes in areas where votes were properly counted. 

International election observers cited by Swedish human rights group Civil Rights Defenders have pointed out that no election held since Lukashenko ascended to power in 1994 has been “considered free and fair.” 

Part of this stems from the fact that three challengers to Lukashenko’s presidency weren’t allowed to run for office. Pro-democracy activist Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested along with banker Viktar Babaryka after announcing their candidacies. Diplomat Valery Tsepkalo was forced to leave the country after his candidacy was announced.

The political strife combined with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to make daily life “really tough” in Belarus for Petruhina.

“I don’t know what to be afraid of: a possible arrest if you go outside or of spreading corona,” Petruhina says. “Every single piece of news is usually a bad one and we’re all never surprised about it.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for Lukashenko’s regime to make a statement on the international stage is the Eurovision Song Contest, a pan-European singing competition created to unite the continent in the aftermath of World War 2.

Belarusian Television and Radio Company, Belarus’ state-run broadcasting service, fielded now-engaged couple VAL for the 2020 contest due to be held in the Netherlands in May before it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After the unrest broke out, VAL publicly came out against Lukashenko most notably in a series of Instagram posts taken at rallies protesting the election results.

The broadcaster publicly responded to claims made by the duo about the group’s mistreatment in Eurovision preparations by saying in a Telegraph post that the “artists of VAL group have no conscience.”

VAL acknowledged their involvement in the revolt and the role it might’ve played in their faith for participating in the 2021 competition in an Instagram post:

“When we take certain steps, we understand their possible consequences,” the duo writes in the post. “For us, such concepts as honor, decency, freedom, respect, love, and most importantly people’s lives are much more important than the next personal preferences from any current state organization.

“We made every effort to represent Belarus at the international level with dignity. VAL put all their heart into this work. Precisely because the artists have a soul, we could not remain indifferent to the violence and injustices that swept Belarus. We made our choice. And [Belarusian Television and Radio Company] its own.”

The country has seen significant structural challenges in managing both the pandemic and the continued protests as mobile internet and subway outages have become “a tradition” to Petruhina. Economically, Petruhina’s father has had a day and almost half of his salary slashed from what it was previously.

Despite all of this, Petruhina notes at least one positive that has come from this shared struggle: Belarusians coming together to “communicate more and unite their forces to make changes better.”

An evening demonstration against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime (Video: Margo Petruhina)

Though the rallies were largely peaceful around the country, they were unmistakably protests against the Lukashenko regime.

“I’m personally sick and tired to see one and the same president for all my life,” Petruhina says. “He did a lot for us, I can’t argue, but his time to leave was long ago and all his actions remind of a psycho. That’s real-life which made me shout loudly about my views.”