Keeping Democracy Healthy: Fragile Transitions in Belarus and Ethiopia

This 15th edition of Freedom House’s newsletter, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic, takes note of fragile transitions in Belarus and Ethiopia, the challenges faced by women journalists during the health crisis, and the postal service controversy in the United States.

By Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research

Welcome back to Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic, Freedom House’s newsletter on COVID-19 and democracy.

This week we’re watching two transitions closely: one on a hopeful trajectory in Belarus, and one on a worrying path in Ethiopia.

In Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been one of the world’s most flagrant deniers of the coronavirus pandemic. His refusal to take the threat seriously contributed to a major outbreak, with tens of thousands of cases and more than 600 deaths in a country of 9.5 million. The state’s failure prompted civil society to step in and fill the gap, as Freedom House’s Sofya Orlosky wrote in May. This month, voters did their best to punish Lukashenka at the polls, even after he imprisoned the leading opposition candidates on trumped-up charges. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of one of the imprisoned candidates, united the opposition and mounted a powerful bid to end the president’s quarter-century of authoritarian rule. Lukashenka claimed victory with an implausible 80 percent of the vote, igniting enormous protests across the country—to which he responded with a brutal crackdown, including widespread torture. But citizens remain undaunted, turning out this weekend for an even bigger protest to demand that Lukashenka step down and allow free and fair elections under international observation.

A peaceful demonstration in Belarus voices concern over the recent presidential election.
A peaceful demonstration in Belarus voices concern over the recent presidential election. Image credit: Banifacyj/

Ethiopia has been undergoing a fragile transition since 2018 that has allowed the authoritarian country to begin to open up. But the coronavirus led to the postponement of elections scheduled for September. As our Yoseph Badwaza wrote back in April, the pandemic had the potential to derail promising reforms. Now major violence has erupted after the murder of a popular musician and activist, to which the government has responded with significant repression, including a full internet shutdown that lasted for a week and the arrest of some opposition leaders. An Ethiopia Working Group co-chaired by Freedom House has called for a transparent investigation into the musician’s murder, and a roadmap for holding elections so that Ethiopia can form a new legitimate government.  The United States should play an active role in supporting the dialogue within Ethiopia that will be needed to take these steps.

Special Feature: Impact on Women Journalists

In our special feature for this week, Moldova Policy Research Fellow Joseph Bistransky uses the case of Moldova, where women make up some two-thirds of media workers, to explain how the pandemic has disproportionately affected female journalists, just as it has women around the world. The disparate impact is another reminder of the importance of supporting gender equality—both as an end in itself and to uphold other fundamental freedoms, in this case freedom of the press. So long as women in the media are burdened by discrimination, the press corps as a whole can’t be fully effective as a pillar of democracy.

United States

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced on Tuesday that recent operational changes at the US Postal Service (USPS) would be suspended until after the November elections. The decision came amid increasing public concern about disruptions to mail service and their potential to wreak havoc on the elections, which are expected to feature a surge of mail-in voting thanks to the pandemic. Frequent remarks by President Donald Trump alleging that voting by mail would become a vehicle for fraud had raised fears that DeJoy’s operational changes, which he said would cut costs and improve financial sustainability, were actually intended to suppress voting by mail. Different forms of mail-in voting are widely used across the United States with almost no fraud reported, though most states have never experienced the volume anticipated in November. Despite DeJoy’s announcement, some postal union leaders expressed doubt that all of the changes already implemented could be easily halted or reversed.

Around the World

Here are some of the other stories we are watching around the world:

  • Iran’s press board rescinded the license of the newspaper Jahane Sanat after it published an interview with a state epidemiologist from the country’s coronavirus task force. The epidemiologist, Mohammadreza Mahboubfar, had alleged that, due to political and security concerns, COVID-19 data had been manipulated since the virus first appeared.
  • This month, antigovernment protesters in Bolivia have demonstrated against another postponement of the rerun of last fall’s disputed election, which led to then president Evo Morales’s ouster. The protests were sparked by the caretaker government’s announcement that the rerun would not be held until October due to the pandemic, marking the third time it has been delayed.
  • Over the last month, around 70,000 people accused of violating curfew or mask requirements in Rwanda have been ordered to listen to hours-long lectures about COVID-19 in stadiums or detention centers. Police are forcing some alleged violators to choose between a public rebuke to their employers or a steep fine.
  • A new report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre explores layoffs of garment factory workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, and Myanmar due to the economic downturn precipitated by COVID-19. Findings suggest, though, that the pandemic has been used as cover to dismiss unionized workers and labor activists.
  • Facebook revealed last week that it had removed seven million posts containing misinformation about COVID-19, including one from US president Donald Trump in which he claimed that children are “almost immune” to the virus. Another 98 million posts received warning labels for being misleading.

That’s all for this week. Stay safe, and stay free.

For Freedom House’s continuing analysis of the COVID-19 crisis, with stories from around the world about how states are responding, please subscribe to Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic here.