What's Going on in Belarus?

Belarus’ president, Aleksandr Lukashenko is no stranger to controversy.  Often touted as Europe’s ‘last dictatorship’, the post-Soviet country has been under rule from its first and only president since 1994.  As the result of the election become known yesterday, few were surprised to see Lukashenko won with over 80% of the vote.  However, there is no doubt that these results were fraudulent and not representative of the increasingly indignant country, weary of the president’s iron-fisted rule.  I spoke with Kate*, a Minsk native and self-described ‘veteran’ of the anti-Lukashenko protests, just before the elections to find out why this year is a turning point in Belarus’ history.  Could this be the beginning of the end for Europe’s longest serving leader?

“There were always protests,” Kate tells me, “they first began in 1996 after Lukashenko launched a referendum to change and expand the presidential power.  But usually the protests were after the elections.  The Central Election Committee would announce that Lukashenko has 115% of the vote and then people would go into the street (to protest) because it was not true.”  2010 marked the most recent major anti-Lukashenko demonstrations and the last time the elections were so heated.  Kate recalls being able to vote for the first time and the optimism surrounding the strong candidates, who looked like they may be able to oust Lukashenko.  Nevertheless, the rigged elections sparked huge rallies in the aftermath of the results, prompting Kate to join in, along with 40 000 other frustrated citizens.

However, this year was different.  Instead of protesting after the election, people took to the streets months before.  What changed?  “The stupidity of the whole situation started long before the election,” Kate explains.  “They arrested a blogger who wanted to run for president (Sergei Tikhonovsky who was barred from running), but he wasn’t even a registered candidate yet!”  Previously Lukashenko’s opponents would be arrested only after being officially registered, on charges such as money-laundering, tax evasion and unlawful protest.  “Now you throw everybody in jail before the election day.  That’s different and that’s why people are going out and protesting.  They understand the sheer stupidity of what is happening.  Are they going to put all the candidates in jail?  Is the ballot only going to have one name?”

Another major factor was Lukashenko’s coronavirus response, or lack thereof. Kate points to an infamous interview with the president at a hockey match; when asked about the pandemic he responded, “Do you see the virus?  Well neither do I!” “Oh my God,” Kate hysterically exclaims, “he didn’t do anything for the country.”  However, whilst the public may have accepted this rhetoric a decade ago, technology and internet access has become far more prolific in the last 10 years; a lifeline in a country with one of the worst freedoms of press ratings in the world.  The amount of information Belarusians are now able to access is a perspicacious breath of fresh air, shifting the mind-set of the people.

“People go on social media and see what is happening in the world.  During the corona-crisis, they learned what people in the UK, Italy, Germany and China were doing.  They learned about the lockdowns in the USA; the government giving money to people; people not working and staying at home- and here?  What is happening!  It can’t be that it is happening everywhere else and not in Belarus.  People were shocked, even people who are not really into politics.  It destroyed this facade, especially for those people who didn’t care or know the scale of the actual problems in Belarus.”

One of the main hangovers from the Soviet Union is the consumption of government-run TV channels, which is particularly popular amongst the older generations.  Kate informs me that this is also changing.  “Now there are (social media and instant messaging) channels where people leak information, and they reveal what’s going on.  The previous generations now have smartphones so people forward this to their parents and their grandparents.   Some of them use that technology to notice certain discrepancies between what they see, what is happening and what they are told.”  To counter its surging popularity, the government responded by condemning social-media in the news as some kind of malicious, corrupting platform, although this “senile” response has had little effect. “The government is so old school, they live in Soviet times,” Kate emphasises.  As people step out of Belarus’ shadowy bubble, the rust eating away at the system is clearer than ever.  Younger citizens are not only spreading crucial information but have taken it among themselves to improve the country; creating projects and platforms that reveal the extent of Belarus’ issues and offering alternative solutions to the government’s failures.

Compared to the election five years ago, Belarusians have become more active and hopeful.   Morale was low after the anti-climax of the 2010 protests.  “I think the interests and desires of people fizzled” Kate remembers, “because nothing was happening in 2015.  Everyone knew the results.  People didn’t see any strong candidates in that particular race.  They were not bad but they were not strong enough to create a following.”  Yet this year saw a surprise twist.   After the previously aforementioned blogger, Sergei Tikhonovsky, was arrested, his wife, Svetlana signed up to replace him instead, and surprisingly she was successfully registered, becoming the face of the opposition.  She has the support of a bank manager, Viktor Babariko, another jailed rival of Lukashenko with a large following, which has helped increase her popularity and her rallies attract thousands of people.  “This is something that has never happened before.  So that gives us hope,” Kate mentions.  Moreover, for the first time in Kate’s memory, protests are happening in towns and cities all over the country, rather than being confined to Minsk.  Yet hope is amalgamated with exhaustion.  “I think people are tired of the same picture, same things, same scenario.  It’s Groundhog Day,” she says.  However, this has also forced protestors to get angrier and instead of taking the beatings from the police, they are now fighting back.  

“There was this huge fight in a town not far from Minsk.  Six police grabbed one little teenager, people were watching and screaming, and then suddenly some people ran towards the police.  The police started using force and people thought, ‘OK if you beat me, I will beat you’, so they began fighting back.  Which I don’t think has happened before, even in 2010.  But now you see people fighting back and standing in groups and if the police try to grab one person, the whole group is together in solidarity, which forces the police to leave.”

Yet police violence hasn’t eased and Kate is concerned for the protestors, particularly younger people who didn’t experience the demonstrations in 2010. She describes a “romantic view” held by the social-media generation, which she believes can be dangerous.  “You come into the brutal reality and you think maybe you will scare the police off and be a hero, but the reality is that the police grab you, beat you and throw you into the riot truck.  They make you sit on your knees and spend the whole night standing against the wall, and you’re lucky if nobody beats you or breaks your arm. (…)  The thing is you need to be realistic about what is happening and what can happen to you; what are the consequences because otherwise it looks like entertainment and its not and it shouldn’t be. Because that was me in 2010- I was there partly because of the excitement to struggle against the system and feel like a revolutionary.  When you go into the street there’s so many people around you, which ignites more passion and the power of being together.  But then the riot police come and the next day you see the photos of the square and the traces of blood and you think thank God they didn’t smash my head.”

Instead of taking responsibility and addressing Belarus’ issues, Lukashenko instead blamed outside interference.  In another unprecedented twist, the government claimed to have intercepted and arrested a group of mercenaries that planned on “destabilising the country”.  Whilst this alone is not an unusual narrative for Lukashenko to take, Kate mentions that in previous years “there were always some revolutionary groups trying to come in to the country before the elections”, the real twist comes with who he blamed- Russia.  “Russia is a long term colleague and ‘friend’, depending on the president’s mood; he dances between Europe and Russia, but Belarus is heavily dependent on Russia in terms of gas and money.”  The announcement surprised many and Kate, along with other experts, doubt the authenticity of these claims.  “I think they are trying to scare people and create this aura that something evil is happening.  That you have to be careful and not trust anybody.”  Kate goes on to stress that her concerns lie in the fact that people may start to believe that the protestors are being funded by Russia, which will hinder the support from the general public in the long run.

The Belarusian government is no stranger to lying and manipulating.  Kate harks back to an event during the 2010 protests, when official news outlets aired footage of alleged protestors attacking the parliament building.  Kate believes this “was carried out by the government to encourage a mob mentality so that riot police could be brought in.”  Many other protestors also believed it to be a trap laid by Lukashenko, and thus a violent mob never materialised.  Four years later, the bloody Maidan revolution in neighbouring Ukraine shocked Belarus and it seems this year Lukashenko is determined to quell the violence using outright force, lest he suffer the same fate as the now exiled former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.  Arrests have numbered in the thousands, even though many protestors are peaceful and acting within the fullest extent of the law, whilst the Maidan is being used as a scare tactic to discourage demonstrations.  However with these warnings being ignored, Kate is apprehensive that the government could start shooting.  Considering that clashes and fights with authorities have only intensified since the results were announced, this is a likely possibility.

Kate’s final concern lies in the fact that protestors may be too hopeful.  “The more hope you have towards something, when it doesn’t happen, the harder you fall.”  Instead she suggests the fight needs to be a marathon, not a sprint.  “If you want success you need to keep fighting, not just once every 5 years but every single day, setting up tents with people coming into the city and sitting on the street; they take you away, you come back and do it again, because otherwise nothing will get done.  You can’t sit there and wait for the regime to die out.  So don’t lose hope, don’t get distracted, realise you need to fight every single day because otherwise its pointless.”  Even so, like many veteran-protestors Kate is tired.  She recognises that the country is slowly waking up and can see the direction it needs to take in order to successfully overthrow Lukashenko.  But she doesn’t say whether or not she thinks this will be achieved.

The result of the election was known from the start, but for the first time in 10 years, Belarusians have tasted the scent of change.  On social media, election commission officers have been posting the true results of the elections, clearly showing that Tikhanovskaya won.  In turn, the Internet was blocked on August 9th whilst peaceful protestors returned to the street in the evening, only to be greeted by violent riot police.  The fact that they are continuing to fight back suggests that people believe ousting Lukashenko is possible and the current unpredictable climate across the world is certainly more charged and unexpected than 2010. For many young, zealous activists, who are demonstrating for the first time, this may provide the much-requited energy to push through.  For the rest of country, it may be a different story.  Kate shifted between optimism and despondency throughout the interview.  Despite her great ardour at times, she clearly didn’t want to allow herself too much hope in case the reality turned out different.  The failure of the 2010 movement has made her cautious and like with many Belarusians, this has clouded her optimism.  Whether or not this will be the end of Europe’s ‘last-dictator’ is to be seen.  One thing is for certain though; this election has changed the country and will forever be remembered.

*Full name and identity not mentioned for privacy reasons.