Katya Soldak is a New-York-based journalist and the editorial director of Forbes Media’s international editions. Her strongest focuses are Eastern Europe and anything related to Post-Soviet territory.
Belarus Protests In Largest Numbers Yet: There Is No More Fear
Belarus, a European country of nearly 10 million people, said to be the ‘last dictatorship’ on the continent, now faces a point of no return. What started as a series of protests against fraudulent presidential elections seems to have turned into a grassroots, countrywide, decentralized movement, despite the government’s violent response, which has included mass arrests and the torture of thousands. Hundreds of thousands peacefully marched in Minsk on Sunday to protest against president Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
On August 9, following an election that saw tremendous turnout, the Belarussian electoral commission declared that incumbent president Lukashenka — who has been in power since 1994 — had prevailed with 80% of the vote, despite an abundance of evidence that the election process had been rigged.
Following the announcement of the electoral results, Lukashenka’s challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, released a video — presumably from Central Election Commission where she’d been held for three hours under pressure — in which she read a written statement calling for the Belarussian people to refrain from protests and violence.
Shortly after, she fled to neighboring Lithuania to be with her children, whom she’d sent out-of-country prior to the election. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, is a Belarusian YouTuber, activist and had been a presidential candidate hopeful but was denied registration by the election committee. He was jailed in May while collecting signatures for his wife’s candidacy and remains in custody.
In his latest response to the unrest caused by his reelection, Lukashenka has resorted to a common tactic of dictators: blaming the uprising on non-existent outside forces. “Today we see who’s behind this,” he said. “As we said earlier, the provocateurs and the organizers of all of this are people from abroad.” Lukashenka has accused Poland, Czech Republic and Great Britain of acting as “the puppeteers” who control Belurussian protestors, whom he refers to as “sheep.”
But the truth behind the events now unfolding on the streets of Belarus — based on interviews with people in Minsk I spoke with multiple times via phone and email for this article — proves otherwise, and reveals the beautiful, patient strength of the Belarussian people and an emerging civil society that has mobilized to protect the People’s dignity and take back the country’s stolen future.
To secure his 2020 presidential election win, Lukashenka neutralized most of the country’s serious presidential contenders: he had one arrested, forced others into exile and even refused registration to some. When Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, 37, emerged as his main competition earlier this year, he did not see her as a serious threat and allowed her candidacy to go forward.
Tsikhanouskaya — a housewife and a mother — had no political experience, but she projected honesty and charisma, and won voters’ trust. She declared that if she won, as president she’d guarantee an honest electoral system in Belarus and would hold real elections.
And on election day, it seemed a majority of people throughout Belarus voted for her. The estimated real election results — based on reports from polling stations that managed to calculate the votes prior to ballot boxes being taken off site — suggest that Tsikhanouskaya defeated Lukashenka with 60% to 70% of the vote. Many voters showed up to polls wearing white ribbons, demonstrating their support of Tsikhanouskaya.
For the first time since Belarus won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, voter turnout was so high that many people were forced to wait for hours in order to cast their vote. Vlad Ivanov, 19, a student who works as a system administrator in Minsk, was an independent observer at a polling station there. He was not permitted to see the ballots or to seal the ballot boxes. “Our votes have been buried,” he says. “I don’t know if the ballots were burned, tossed away, shredded or used as toilet paper.” According to international observers, elections in Belarus have never been free and fair, but this time, it seems, Belarusians could not accept the manufactured outcome and took to the streets.
The First Protests and the Brutality of the Crackdown.
When the government announced that Lukashenka had won with 80.1% of the vote to Tsykhanovskaya’s 10.12%, people demanded a recount. The response was that the ballot boxes were unavailable, gone, and that a recount was not possible. Protestors took to the streets, peacefully decrying what they believed were fraudulent results, and special police forces were dispatched to disperse them throughout the city’s center and in residential areas, and many protestors were attacked and arrested.
About three hours into peaceful protests on election night, people were attacked with stun grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons. “We are the generation that grew up without any real trauma,” says Anton Mishutsin, 27, a director at a children’s theater and a father of two. He was wounded during the first night of protest. “We kind of expected that the government would use force but we couldn’t have imagined it would be so cruel and violent.”
Mishutsin saw a man with a stomach wound; and witnessed a grenade explode at the feet of a young girl. Mishutsin’s wrist was injured, he suffered broken bones, and he was forced to flee. Nevertheless, he returned the following day. Multiple eyewitnesses interviewed for this article reported hundreds, mounting to thousands of arrests over several days following the election. Many of those detained, both men and women, were kept in overcrowded jails and detention centers, according to the reports, where they were tortured and savagely beaten by authorities.
“The people of Belarus don’t have any right to express their opinion and protest fraudulent elections,” said Nadya Myshelova, 32, an attorney, as she described disproportionally brutal attacks by riot police on small, peaceful gatherings at the very early stages of protests. “The government goes against the Constitution and we don’t have any means to stop them.”
Over several days, thousands of people throughout Belarus – in urban, rural and industrial places – came out to demonstrate and declare that they’d voted for Tsikhanouskaya. Lukashenka’s response was to block the internet, shut down access to social media and restrict access to the Google and Apple app stores. For three days people in the capital, Minsk, couldn’t connect to get information about what was happening, so they began gathering in the streets. Brutal crackdowns by special riot police units followed, but didn’t stop the people—they continue to pour out into the streets to voice their protest over the election and Lukashenka’s hardline response to public criticism. The violent crackdown, instead of scaring people, prompted even larger protests. Many state company workers throughout the country — Lukashenka’s most loyal supporters — went on strike in protest of the rigged elections.
In general, the waves of protests throughout the nation are joyful, steadfast affairs, in which participants gather or march through the wide streets of the cities or in parks, chanting in unison. During the daytime, hundreds of thousands of women, dressed in white, crowd into the streets, to impress upon the riot police the need for compassion and solidarity, stressing that all are of the same nation. “We would love it if the police supported the people,” said Elena Dobrovolskaya, 41. “We are asking the police to treat the young kids nicer.”
By the end of the first week of the initial protests, Dobrovolskatya noticed a change in Lukashenka’s tactics – after the first brutal crackdowns, the police began toning down the violence. They also released many detained people – an estimated 7,000 in Minsk alone, many of whom suffered broken bones and body-bruises from vicious beatings at the hands of the police.
So far, among the protestors currently pushing back against Lukashenka’s rule, there are no big political messages. It’s not about West versus East, the EU versus the Kremlin—unlike in some other post-Soviet countries that were openly torn between a European future and the familiarity of an economic and political union with Russia. At first, Belarusians demanded fair elections, and then at least an honest recount. But it’s become clear they want the recount because they are fed up with Lukashenka’s rule and want him to resign.
While Belarus has very close ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia — the country’s neighbor to the east — and a very limited relationship with the US and Europe, Lukashenka has, over the past few years, tried to improve his cooperation with the West. The country’s economy is largely state-controlled and there has been a rather successful attempt to court the IT industry, with the government offering tax incentives and favorable conditions for the IT sector in order to attract investment from foreign companies.
Belarusians frequently travel to European countries for tourism and for contract work (it is surrounded by Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — all EU countries — in the north and northwest, and Ukraine in the south); many young people study in Poland. In general Belarusians, especially those in cities, are educated, respect rules, and have a culture that values hard work.
But over the past few years the quality of life in Belarus has gone down. The minimum monthly salary is $139 while the prices consumers face in everyday life have gradually climbed higher following the country’s latest currency reform, and now are comparable to those of EU countries, if not higher.
Lukashenka presents himself as a strong ruler, providing stability; he is a “batka” (“father of the nation”). But over the years, Belarus has stagnated, suffocated with bureaucracy, outdated institutions and a lack of modernization. Lukashenka began to lose his appeal, not only to a younger and freer generation but also to farmers and the working class.
Earlier this year, before the protests erupted, the COVID-19 pandemic quietly activated and hardened a spirit of unity among civil society in Belarus. “There was a nominal social contract between the government and the people,” says Dmitry Dosov, 48, an IT entrepreneur in Minsk. “The government provided some minimal benefits and salary, and people obeyed”.
When COVID-19 spread to Belarus, Lukashenka denied the pandemic’s existence, and didn’t offer any support to the people. Juxtaposed with the reality of the virus and the number of sick patients in hospitals, his stance seemed like a breach of contract. People and businesses began helping each other in lieu of government assistance.
Civil Society Turns On Lukashenka
“There is no more fear!” wrote Elena Molochko in her email to me. For 26 years of Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime, his crackdowns on opposition as well as rounds of arrests, kept Belarusian citizens locked in a prison of fear and self-censorship. Molochko, 63, a journalist with the newspaper The Will of the People, says her publication was constantly under pressure from the government—it was fined, banned from publishing, and had no means to fight back in court. This past week has changed the mood of the nation, she says. “People openly discuss news, cursing the OMON (riot police),” Molochko explains. “This is the first time we feel such solidarity with each other, we feel this great cathartic happiness from this new feeling.” In Minsk, she says, residents of multi-storied buildings leave their doors open for the protestors who need to hide from the police. They leave medical supplies outside, and taxi drivers give free rides to protestors.
Vlad Dobrovolsky, 28, a marketing professional with an IT company, has been volunteering since the protests began. When we spoke, he was moving extra water and food supplies from outside of the detention center where people waited and searched for missing loved ones, to hospitals for medical personnel and injured protestors. He said the screaming of those being tortured in the isolation center was unbearable.
“Right now Belarus has developed its civil society like never before, even 30 years ago, when we got our independence from the Soviet Union,” said Dosov. “Belarus was given its independence, it didn’t fight for it. Right now people come outside with national symbols.”
Several sources say there are no organizers or sponsors of the protests. People have created a foundation and donate money to support injured and wounded protesters. “This is classic blockchain,” Dosov says. “There are multiple spontaneous meetings throughout the city, numerous human chains—everyone with white ribbons.”
Belarussian people are not counting on help from the West, although there is hope that the UN and the European Parliament will somehow address the mass torture and brutal abuse protestors have experienced at the hands of the police. While some people hope for harsher sanctions on Lukashenka’s government and expect that the world will determine he is an illegitimate president, others understand that would leave Belarus isolated. And isolation would only push the nation further into the hands of the dictator, and would invite unwelcomed assistance from its neighbor, Russia and the Kremlin.
“We need to continue the protests,” Molochko thinks. “Ideally, to get Lukashenka to resign voluntarily.”
Dobrovolsky is sure, “The change is imminent.” Some people are still afraid that Lukashenka won’t leave, he said, but he, himself, is positive that this oneness and solidarity in the Belarusian people will result in something good.
“We have two ways out of this situation right now,” says Dosov, the IT entrepreneur. “Either to negotiate, to figure out how to have honest elections, or the alternative would be oppression of the people and violence.” He added: “Lukashenka is very vindictive, he will crush anyone. Belarus is a peaceful country and it needs to go all the way, hopefully, peacefully.” Either way, the continuing protests and the will of the people make it clear that Belarus has passed the point of no return, and it looks increasingly likely that the nation will not move forward with Lukashenka at its helm.