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Violent clashes between protesters and government forces are set to continue in Belarus. Anti-government demonstrations in Bulgaria are declining and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has pledged to announce “solutions” to calm down the situation in the coming days. Poland is tightening sanitary restrictions amid surging Covid-19 cases, as Russia rushes to register the world’s first vaccine against the virus. Finally, a continuing ceasefire in Donbas is positive news for Ukraine, although it does not represent a breakthrough in the conflict’s resolution.
The country has been engulfed in chaos since the 9 August presidential election, when incumbent Alexander Lukashenko won his sixth term in office with over 80% of votes in the first round, according to official results. However, multiple reports of electoral violations and outright result-fixing have triggered mass protests in multiple cities across Belarus. A brutal clampdown by government forces, including police, special forces and the military, has resulted in at least two casualties, hundreds of injuries, and thousands of arrests. Protests are likely to continue, leading to more violence and arrests in the coming days. In response, Lukashenko may impose martial law in the country.
Meanwhile, the main opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya (independent) has fled to Lithuania for security reasons. In one of her video statements, she called on Belarusians to stop protesting and abide by the law, although the video appears to have been pre-recorded under pressure from Belarusian authorities.
So far, there have been no notable splits or defections from the Lukashenko camp, although reports suggest that at least some of the state-owned enterprises are going on strike. While Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has congratulated Lukashenko on the re-election, there are no signs of Russian interference, which could become a crucial factor determining Lukashenko’s future.
Anti-government protests have been continuing for more than a month now. The number of demonstrators has declined from an estimated 20,000 in mid-July to just a few thousand in recent days. However, the protest momentum could recover after the summer vacation period. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (GERB) pledged to announce “solutions” that would calm down the protests in the coming days. So far, the cabinet reshuffle and new economic support measures have not alleviated public tensions. Borisov’s resignation would not automatically lead to early election as GERB – being the largest parliamentary party – would get another chance to form a new government. Such a cabinet would have to secure a majority in parliament, which is a realistic scenario. A snap general poll remains the least desired outcome for the ruling party given its falling approval ratings and the fact that an early vote would be organized by a caretaker cabinet appointed by President Rumen Radev (associated with the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party).
The country has been averaging nearly 700 new daily Covid-19 cases during the past week, which is the highest figure since the start of the pandemic. To handle new outbreaks, the government has imposed a universal requirement to wear face cover in public transport as well as indoor commercial and public spaces unless a 1.5-meter distance is kept. The cabinet has also introduced a color-coded system of restrictions applied at the county level across Poland. Nine counties where the infection rate exceeds 12 per 10,000 residents have been declared as “red zones,” while another ten counties with infection rates between six and 12 per 10,000 residents have been designated as “yellow zones”. Most of these zones are concentrated in the southern regions of Silesia, Subcarpathia and Lesser Poland.
Today, 11 August, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had registered the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine, even though large-scale clinical trials have not been completed yet. While the newly developed vaccine could become important in tackling Covid-19, its rushed registration appears to be a move aiming to portray Russia as a global leader in the field of science. Authorities expect to start large-scale production of the vaccine called “Sputnik V” as early as September and commence mass vaccinations in October, although such a timeline seems overly optimistic. Earlier this month, Putin instructed the government to subsidize influenza and Covid-19 vaccines for around 60% of the country’s population, as well as to preserve hospital beds for a potential ‘second wave’ of the disease in the autumn-winter season.
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine has reported a notable de-escalation in fighting along the frontline in Donbas since 27 July, when a comprehensive ceasefire agreement reached by the Trilateral Contact Group (consisting of Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE) came into force. In the past, multiple such ceasefires have not held. While a temporary halt in fighting is positive news for Ukraine, it does not mean a breakthrough in the resolution of the conflict. The ceasefire could lead to a new Normandy Four summit in the coming months. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian electoral commission said it was impossible to hold local elections – scheduled for 25 October – in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.