Photo Courtesy: Artem Podrez
Belarus, a nation in the former Soviet Bloc, has been gripped with violent protests since the presidential election on August 9th. After 26 years of simmering frustration under Aleksander Lukashenko, the anger of the nation’s citizenry finally boiled over this summer. But how did they get here? And where are they going?
The Origin Story
In 1994, when Belarus obtained independence from the Soviet Union, Aleksander Lukashenko became the president of Belarus, and subsequently never left. In Russia, he is affectionately referred to as ‘Batka,’ meaning ‘Daddy.’ The man was branded by his supporters as a ‘muzhik,’ or a humble, salt-of-the-earth personality type. In recent times, however, the Belarusian people have colloquially referred to him as a ‘cockroach,’ and brandished slippers at political protests for this very reason.
Belarus is frequently labeled as ‘the last dictatorship of Europe.’ To dispel rumors of tyranny, the government holds presidential elections every five years. For the better part of three decades, Lukashenko has won each election by a landslide. During this era, it was difficult to learn precisely how the Belarusian population felt about these results. Officials placed tight restrictions on freedom of speech and typically shut down independent polls. Opposition to the presidency is frequently grounds for arrest. Across the nation, the citizenry has been stifled by a culture of fear.
The Disease Descends
In most countries, the coronavirus pandemic has been characterized by lockdowns and social distancing. In Belarus, though, there were no stay-at-home orders issued. Borders remained wide open. Events suffered no cancellations. The annual May 9th victory parade, which was suspended in neighboring Russia, was still held in Belarus this year.
Lukashenko has publicly denied the existence of the coronavirus and enforces zero preventative measures. Since the Belarusian government made no effort to give out masks, neighboring governments distributed masks as humanitarian aid.
During the lead-up to the August election, Lukashenko appeared on news television, dressed in a hockey outfit, posing next to an ice rink.
The president asked a reporter if she spotted any viruses floating around, and insisted that the disease was not present. Gesturing at the rink, he claimed that playing sports was the best form of antivirus treatment.
In another interview, he suggested that campfires, butter consumption, and drinking vodka were also wise defenses from the disease. He also advised citizens to ride tractors, proclaiming that fieldwork and tractor usage would cure people of their afflictions.
To further illustrate his denial of the pandemic, Lukashenko opted to continue meeting government officials in person, sans masks, or social distancing. In recent news, Lukashenko announced that he has contracted an asymptomatic version of the coronavirus.
The Party Line
In comparison to its neighbor, Russia, Belarus is considered a relatively stable nation. While the country is undoubtedly under Russian influence, it doesn’t enter into geopolitical conflict as readily as its former ally. This may go some way in explaining how Lukashenko’s dominance has gone unchallenged over so many years.
There exists a perception among Russian propaganda outlets that citizens in former Soviet states prioritize stability over political progress. The history of the former Soviet territories is marked by political upheaval, conflict, and catastrophe. Nations defined by trauma are said to seek security above all.
A popular narrative states that demagogues, such as Putin and Lukashenko, maintain power because citizens seek consistency. The story told by Russian media outlets is that Putin and Lukashenko rule with iron fists because their supporters want them to.
Now, there are certainly supporters to Lukashenko who would agree with this mindset. Yet, they don’t necessarily make up a majority of the Belarusian public. A Vilnius-based poll conducted in 2016 showed about 30 percent support for Lukashenko, and a leaked internal poll conducted in April of this year shows roughly the same number. It’s not clear what the latest numbers are, especially given the government’s handling of the pandemic and the protests.
The Election Approaches
By early May, Belarus was reported to have 15,000 coronavirus cases formally diagnosed. This was one of the highest per-capita rates of infection in Eastern Europe at the time. By today, that number has risen to at least 71,962 people, and 686 mortalities. As citizens began dropping dead, that 30 percent support for Lukashenko may have eroded, as discontent colored the national mood.
In spite of the restricted speech, over the past few years, an opposition movement has been gathering steam. Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a Belarusian YouTuber, has gained widespread notoriety for encouraging citizens to resist Lukashenko. Tsikhanouski chose to enter the August election as a presidential candidate, garnering popular support. Viktor Babariko, another viable candidate for the opposition, ran alongside him.
Promptly, both candidates were arrested and charged with a flurry of accusations. Once Tsikhanouski was removed from the running, the incensed opposition rallied around his wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as a new candidate. Formerly a stay-at-home mother, Tsikhanouskaya rose to the challenge and was registered in the election. Lukashenko dismissed her bid, declaring that a woman could not be in charge of Belarus. Earlier this year, he expressed that Belarusian society “has not matured enough to vote for a woman,” adding that “this is because by constitution, the president handles a lot of power.”
In the lead up to August 9th, all polls were banned, save those within government control. Supervisors and journalists covering the election were arrested. Rumors flew that the staff at the polling stations were rigging the numbers. Ballot stuffing and fraud took place. Military vehicles entered the capital city of Minsk, to repress displays of dissent.
In spite of the polling prohibitions, the independent monitoring group “Honest People” claimed that opposition candidate Tsikhanouskaya had won in at least 80 polling stations. Abroad, vast voting lines formed in front of Belarusian embassies, and foreign exit polls found Tsikhanouskaya to be overwhelmingly victorious. Nonetheless, the Belarusian government declared that Lukashenko had received 80% of the vote, and the opposition candidate had received merely 10%.
Protests exploded across the country. Footage emerged of vast swaths of people taking to the streets. The night after the elections, tens of thousands of protesters emerged in Minsk, and thousands more came out in other cities. Given that Belarus is a relatively small country, this is no mean feat.
Riot cops used tear gas and flashbangs to the blind, choke, deafen, and disorient the protestors. Citizens were brutally beaten with batons and shot with rubber bullets and water canons. On the first night alone, 4,000 people were arrested. At least 6,700 were arrested by the time of this article. An information blackout swept across the nation, as the internet was shut down.
Oftentimes, citizens were swiftly snatched by cops and thrown into riot vans. Journalists reporting hearings the sounds of screams and beatings from within the vans. A statement by Belarus’ Press Association claims that at least 50 journalists have themselves been detained or injured during protests. Onlookers agreed that the riot cops pursued civilians at random, including non-participants.
In response to the public upheaval, Lukashenko accused the protesters of being unemployed criminals. He suggested that if they were to find jobs, they would not have the spare time to be conducting these demonstrations. In spite of his advice, the numbers of protestors continued to swell.
During the blackout, a combination of VPNs, proxies, and the encrypted messaging app Telegram allowed sinister clips to slowly surface on the internet. A young man was run over by a police van, on video. On another video, police were seen viciously assaulting a man and woman in a residential neighborhood, some distance from the protests.
Occasionally, the tide would turn: some videos show riot police attempting to make an arrest, before being swarmed by angry mobs. Citizens run at the authorities and fight them, to free their fellow protesters. Streets are occupied with hordes of people chanting the word ‘shame.’ Molotov cocktails are thrown; barricades are built.
The police brutality is met, not with submission, but with greater unity. Across the former Soviet state, cities have replaced the official national flag with the historical white-and-red flag, a symbol of the burgeoning movement. Flowers and white balloons are popular representations of peaceful protest.
When protesters were running from the cops, other citizens opened the stairways to their residences or offered their apartments for shelter. Many injured individuals took refuge in the apartments of their countrymen, for fear of being arrested at the hospital.
From Terror to Torture
The consequences of arrest are dire, given that freed detainees describe detention centers as torture chambers. As Belarus flickered back online, social media networks were flooded with evidence of sadistic abuse, including sexual assault and starvation.
Harrowing stories of senseless beatings have emerged, accompanied by photographs of bruised and swollen bodies. Stories speak of citizens being stripped naked, assaulted, and threatened with rape. One reporter, Nikita Telizhenko, was imprisoned for three days; he described people sprawled on the floor of the detention center, piled atop each other, in a pool of excrement and blood. Not permitted to budge, or use the toilet, for hours on end.
The Belarusian special forces, also known as the OMON, do not carry out their jobs in a neutral, bloodless manner. Detainees claim that they take pleasure in insulting the protestors and threatening to “gangbang” or “murder” them. The torture is said to be laced with propaganda: the OMON supposedly taunts the detainees for trying to oppose Lukashenko. Protestors are verbally belittled and humiliated for their efforts, as indoctrination sessions are carried out.
Framed as “educational work,” the cops may beat demonstrators while ordering them to quit protesting. Any actions against the regime are represented by OMON propaganda as futile and ridiculous. Rather than showing passive obedience towards Lukashenko’s government, the riot police are characterized as ideologically charged, and dedicated to the regime.
Indeed, these security forces may be the last bastion of support for Lukashenko. Even his former support base of blue-collar workers may have turned on him, as strikes have commenced in state-owned facilities.
In a bid to sustain his popularity amongst the police, Lukashenko has awarded medals for “impeccable service” to members of his security services. State TV has shown the president circling over the protests in a helicopter, calling the demonstrators “rats.” The footage depicts him wearing a bullet-proof vest, wielding an AK-47 assault rifle, and cheering for his forces. In response, the protestors, already equipped with cockroach puppets, took up the chant “happy birthday, you rat,” as Lukashenko entered his 66th year.
Within the police force itself, the violent suppression of protestors is not without detractors. Mikhail Zaleuski, the head of Belarus’s top football club, Bate Borisov, made an Instagram post where he condemned the violence of the cops and threw his old police uniform into a bin. This is not an isolated incident, as social media shows ex-special forces officers dumping their uniforms in disgust, voicing shame at the conduct of their former colleagues. At least 50 riot police in Minsk dropped their shields and were embraced by the protestors, who chanted the word “brothers.”
Thousands of women have taken to bearing flowers, forming human chains, and wearing white, in displays of solidarity for those targeted by the mass detention.
For now, it is apparent that the population of Belarus is united in its fury. But what will become of the movement?
A Storm on the Horizon
A new opposition council has formed against the Belarusian president. This council consists of 50 prominent cultural and public figures, including Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian writer who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. The council does NOT include Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania on the 11th of August
The former candidate’s team informed CNN that nine people associated with the campaign, including her campaign manager, had been arrested, and her departure was partly intended to free her peers. In addition to concerns regarding her campaign team, Tsikhanouskaya also purportedly left the nation for the sake of her children, out of fear that they would be taken from her and sent to an “orphanage.”
Tsikhanouskaya released a video while detained, just before her departure. The footage shows her with her head lowered, reading anxiously from a script, encouraging her supporters to obey the law and refrain from protesting. Lukashenko dismissed his rival by calling her a “poor little girl.” After arriving in Lithuania, Tsikhanouskaya insisted that Belarusians will “never accept” Lukashenko’s leadership. She is slated to speak to the UN Security Council this Friday.
Lithuania, Tsikhanouskaya’s current refuge, has called for the EU to take stronger actions against the Belarusian government. The Eastern European country, as well as neighboring Poland, has backed opposition calls for a fair election and the release of detainees. Thus far, the EU has passed sanctions against senior Belarusian figures and provided money to victims of repression.
Nonetheless, the overall European response has been characterized as cautious and gradual. After all, the EU member states fear that aggressive action may trigger intervention from Russia.
Without the backing of the Russian Federal, it’s feasible that Lukashenko would’ve been ousted by now. Due to a brutal history of warfare, including the ravages of World War II, Russian foreign policy highlights a need for defense from potential Western invasion.
For decades, the Federation has aggressively dominated its former Soviet territories, partly to block inroads from Western military forces.
Wielding influence over its neighbors also helps Russia maintain its image as an imperialistic international power. Through maintaining geopolitical control over Eastern Europe, Putin gathers support from his conservative base, as many Russian citizens sustain nostalgia for the Soviet empire.
Putin himself has responded to the protests by ordering Europeans to stay out of the crisis. He informed President Emmanual Macron of France that “putting pressure on the Belarusian leadership would be unacceptable.” He has also threatened to send Russian police to Belarus, should events “get out of control.” Putin has not elaborated as to what he means, both in terms of a formal intervention, and in terms of constitutes “out of control.”
In an attempt to win more muscular support from Putin, Lukashenko has tried to exacerbate Russian suspicions towards the protestors. Lukashenko has called this council a collection of “wild Nazis” and “tricksters.” He proclaimed that the council plans to close the Belarusian border with Russia, apply for membership in NATO and the EU, and ban the Russian language from the country.
Such efforts would likely alienate both Russians and many Belarusians if they were to be executed. However, these claims are also completely unfounded. The council had not set a policy agenda at the time of Lukashenko’s accusations, other than calling for the president to step down and permit a fair election.
At present, Lukashenko continues to maintain his grip on power, even as his citizens indicate that they would rather endure torture and detention than cease their protests. The future depends on Russia, the EU, and above all, the citizens of Belarus.
This article was written by Avanti I of Boston, Massachusetts.