Often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” Aleksander Lukashenko has said that only the “unemployed” and “people with a criminal record” are participating in the mass pro-democracy protests in Belarus. If this were true, then Belarus would break the world record in the number of “unemployed criminals” per capita, as the nationwide protest movement against the dictatorial regime of Lukashenko continues for the fourth consecutive week.
While many political commentators and journalists predict that the protests will weaken — or warn about the possibility of Russia’s military interference, such as in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2014 — the people of Belarus continue to surprise everyone with their persistence. Even if it is still difficult to measure the potential success of Belarus’ civil uprising, Belarusians have already shown the world that Belarus will walk its own unique path towards democracy.
The dictator who is afraid
The last time Belarus had free and fair elections was in 1994. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Lukashenko, who had worked at a collective pig farm, became the independent country’s first president. This was the first and only time the European Union and the United States recognized the results of Belarusian elections as legitimate. After holding onto power for 26 years, Lukashenko still refuses to step down.
By preserving elements of the Soviet system in Belarus like no one else in the post-Soviet states, he has maintained power over the state media. At the same time, most of the manufacturing industry has remained in state ownership, and the secret service agency (the infamous KGB) officially remained in place. Lukashenko also changed the national flag of the independent Belarus Republic — the white-red-white flag currently used by the opposition protesters — back to the red-green flag of Soviet Belarus, and marginalized the Belarusian language in favor of Russian.
After a night of interrogation and threats, we were brought to a forest, tortured and threatened to be raped and murdered.
Over the years, Lukashenko intensified his authoritarian rule with violent crackdowns on the opposition, involving numerous cases of torture and disappearances of his critics. Even though many Belarusians, until recently, accepted Lukashenko’s claim of being a strong leader who defends the interests of 9.5 million citizens against dangerous “foreign powers,” the support for his regime has been in decline for a long time.
After he was traditionally declared the winner of the presidential elections in 2010 with over 79 percent of the votes, spontaneous and unexpected protests took place in Minsk, challenging the official results. The protest however was swiftly and violently suppressed by riot police the night after the elections and all seven opposition candidates were arrested.
Andrei Sannikov, who received the second-highest percentage of voters’ support was among the imprisoned. “Lukashenko has been scared to lose his power since 2010,” he said. “Back then, he staged a crackdown on the opposition in front of the whole world for the first time. Before 2010, the persecutions were hidden from the media and international community. But when he saw people were suddenly gathering in the streets following the election fraud in 2010, he decided to use violence right away, even despite the presence of some international observers and foreign press.” And since then, the regime has used only more violence against the opposition, fearing a larger civil uprising, similar to what transpired in neighboring Ukraine.
A year after the first public crackdown during the elections of 2010, I myself experienced the fear of Lukashenko. As members of the Ukrainian protest movement FEMEN at that time, Oksana Shachko, Aleksandra Nemchinova and I staged an action in Minsk to show solidarity with hundreds of political prisoners like Andrei Sannikov. In FEMEN’s provocative and spectacular manner, the three of us mocked Lukashenko in front of the KGB headquarters in Minsk, while demanding the release of political prisoners. Our fragile voices screamed the patriotic motto used by pro-democracy opposition “Жыве Беларусь!” or Long Live Belarus!” surrounded by the silence of semi-empty streets.
Following the ironic theatrical action, Shachko, Nemchinova and I were kidnapped by a group of KGB agents at a bus station on our way back to Ukraine. After a night of interrogation and threats, we were brought to a forest, tortured and threatened with rape and murder. After the hours of the most cruel experiences in my activist life, we were abandoned in the forest near the Ukrainian border.
Women made the change
For the fourth week in a row, tens of thousands of voices are shouting “Long Live Belarus!” all across the country, and protesters are filling Minsk’s streets with white-red-white flags promising to never be silent again. The country has changed and that is largely thanks to women.
This year ahead of the presidential elections, Lukashenko’s popularity was swiftly declining, in part due to the disastrous mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis. As a result, Lukashenko decided not to wait and began the repression two months before election day. All independent opposition candidates were imprisoned, except one: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who registered as a candidate in place of her arrested husband Sergey Tikhanovsky. The opposition formed a female trio against Lukashenko, as Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was joined by the representatives of other persecuted opposition candidates, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronica Tsepkalo.
Lukashenko, who positioned himself as the “father of the nation,” did not consider a woman as a threat to his leadership. “Our constitution is not suitable for a woman,” Lukashenko ensured back in May, at the beginning of the presidential campaign. “Our society is not ready to vote for a woman.”
Nevertheless, once the authorities released the official election results on Aug. 9 suggesting that Aleksander Lukashenko had won with 80 percent of the vote, while Tikhanovskaya received only 10 percent, few could believe these numbers. The opposition trio pointed out that all independent exit polls were predicting a victory for Tikhanovskaya with 60-70 percent of votes. Disbelief in the results manifested itself immediately in the streets, as thousands went out to protest the election fraud on the night after election day.
The protesters were met with violence, as police did not hesitate to use tear gas, rubber bullets and even stun grenades against the peaceful protesters. Thousands were detained and mistreated. As the heartbreaking testimonies of women and men who experienced humiliation and violence in detention centers were spreading, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya announced in an emotional video addressed to the nation that she was forced to flee the country as a result of threats and pressure from authorities.
Following the violent crackdown on protesters during the first two nights after election day, thousands of women spontaneously self-organized a march against violence. As the images of extreme brutal force used by the police against the peaceful protesters were spreading all over the international press, Belarusian women went to the streets to face the police and the special KGB forces responsible for those crimes. Holding hands, wearing white clothes and carrying flowers, the women shouted “Do not beat us,” “We demand peace” and “You are someone’s child too” to the masked and heavily-equipped riot policemen.
Taking its own path towards democracy
The nationwide civil uprising started with cars honking in solidarity with a few thousand protesters in Minsk and grew to large protests taking place in more than 30 cities. They were then joined by workers, who went on strike at the major state owned factories, including 15,000 employees of the Minsk Tractor Works. The strike was then supported by more than 300 state media employees, who finally refused to continue spreading the regime’s propaganda, as well as some diplomats and numerous artists. And since Aug. 9, Belarusian citizens tirelessly protest everyday in small groups all across the country, while every weekend hundreds of thousands protest in Minsk.
In the time of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and the gilets jeunes, or yellow vests in France, the Belarusian protests are exceptional in a number of aspects.
The nonviolent nature of every demonstration that took place across the country in August was both impressive and effective. Even after being targeted with rubber bullets, surrounded by riot police and experiencing physical violence and humiliation during detention, the protesters continued to patiently sing, dance or clap in response to the brutality of the regime. Such attitude does not only result in admiration of the democratic world, but also paralyzes the authorities who seek to discredit and repress the movement.
Taking place at all times across the country — and without defined organizers — the decentralized protests are a sign of their exceptional scale. This fact emphasizes that we are not witnessing yet another activist movement against a political leadership of the country. In Belarus, it is the whole nation that protests against the dictator Lukashenko, who refuses to step down and keeps the nation hostage. During the weekdays, people self-organize and gather for protests and symbolic actions near their workplaces, in front of churches and in others public spaces — while on weekends, hundreds of thousands of protesters rally in the capital. People shout “Everyday!” and “See you tomorrow” to encourage each other to continue the uprising.
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The lack of political colors, political leaders and identity politics make the Belarus uprising radically different from many other recent protest movements and the latest revolutions in neighboring Eastern European countries. The streets are crowded with people, most of whom weren’t interested in politics until this summer. Unlike in Ukraine, where the Maidan revolution took place in 2014, people do not express pro-Russian or pro-West sentiments, and do not carry any ideological slogans or symbols. Their demands are simple, coherent and clear: They demand Lukashenko to step down, the organization of new free and fair elections and the release of all political prisoners.
However, Lukashenko has not given into these popular demands yet. He has not only intensified the repression with a brutal crackdown on protesters and the press, he has also refused any dialogue with the opposition and international community. He still relies on the support of the riot police and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the only foreign leader he will talk with. Therefore, even if the peaceful civilians are powerful enough to stop the police violence, effective action by the international community, using instruments like the Magnitsky Act, will still be required to prevent bloodshed or another hybrid war staged by Putin and Lukashenko in Belarus.
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