The Belarusian Awakening: Looking Back on 2020

Chronicle from Belarus
Alex Kazharski

Now, looking back everyone knows what will follow the 9th of August: the first protests, the horrible “three nights of terror” during which large numbers of people were beaten, tortured, and some lost their lives, and, finally, “the solidarity of the shaken” that followed. Mass peaceful protests against violence were also apparently a shock to the regime which simply had not anticipated such political mobilization. For some time, it had to stand and watch as hundreds of thousands of Belarusians poured into the streets.  In August 2020 it might have seemed that Belarus was going through its own annus mirabilis, over three decades after 1989, when Central European nations cast off their yokes of dictatorship.

The situation took a very different, non-velvet turn in Belarus, however. Instead of collapsing, the regime used Russian support to regroup, and then launched a systematic campaign of revenge against the dissidents. The count of political prisoners in Belarus is presently over six hundred, and tens of thousands of people have been arrested since August. The regime propaganda is promising to “find everyone” and to exterminate the protestors like vermin, making some draw horrific parallels with the notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda. The people detained last summer for protesting are now being summoned by the police, and their DNA samples and finger prints are being taken. There are reports of a special camp having been built for the protestors.

As some remark, after twenty-seven years, the mask is finally off. Yet, as others are quick to point out, there was never any lack of indications about the true nature of the regime. Political opponents were disappearing without a trace in the late 1990’s. In 1995, several MPs who on went on a hunger strike in protest of Lukashenka’s first referendum, were beaten and kidnapped right in the parliament building. The brutality with which the 2010 post-election protests were crushed was also shocking, and tortures, beatings, and broken limbs had certainly happened before, even if on a smaller scale. Rather, for many in Belarus it was a matter of choosing not to notice these things. It is also fair to say though that many of those who faced repression in 2020 had barely come of age, having been born years after Lukashenka crushed the feeble Belarusian democracy. In that instance, literally, the sons were paying for the sins of their fathers.

So, is it a black day for Belarus in the end? There are certainly some voices here and there, regretting what happened in 2020, regretting having “provoked” the regime and “pushed” it into this display of its monstrous nature.  Back in the old days, it seems, life was okay. You could travel, you could publish books, you could even do a bit of politics if you stayed within certain limits. The personal freedoms were there. The room for political freedom that the regime left to its people was always very limited, but hey, Belarusians were never spoiled and were always known for their patience and silent stoicism. In bitter irony somebody once suggested that Belarus’ equivalent of the Manneken-Pis in Brussels should be the Manneken-Non-Pis. He is holding it in.

Was protesting a tragic mistake then? For starters, this question makes no sense because the protests themselves had no real center and no single organizer whom you could charge with making a “mistake.” They were a spontaneous mobilization in a critical juncture that no politician or established political expert could have either anticipated or stopped. After all, as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya herself rightly said, she became a symbol of the protests not its leader. The fact that practically a random person could so easily become such a symbol is also telling.  In retrospective, you could say that trouble had been brewing for some time. Belarus’ society had clearly outgrown the authoritarian regime it inherited from the 1990’s.

2020 was unprecedented, above all, in terms of the number of people that suddenly became involved in politics. If political repression was anything but new to this land, mass participation on this scale arguably was. This splendid array of creative and brave individuals who are entering politics has been truly fascinating. Unprecedented is also the new international visibility. We no longer have to explain some of the most basic things about Belarusian history. It seems like the world finally discovered Belarus on the map; there is general interest and a thirst for knowledge around. Prior to 2020, submitting a conference paper or an article proposal on Belarus gave you pretty good chances of being rejected. Now I see that people writing about Belarus can hardly find the time to do another text for somebody.

However, both the international visibility and domestic politicization are coming at a price all too horrible. If we are to understand the nation as a political community rather than just a bunch of people who speak the same language and eat the same food, Belarusians started paying in blood for their nationhood. The 1918 anthem of the Belarusian Democratic Republic, the first attempt at independence, contains the following words: We'll bring to birth from anguished torture, For our republic a new life! Sadly, “anguished torture” is too accurate a description of what is happening now.

In Belarus, political participation became a truly existential choice. It very rarely is in democracies. If you are living on the right side of the figurative Berlin Wall, you can easily take your freedom for granted. Few if any in the West would risk their lives today for the sake of politics. Back in 2014, when the second Ukrainian revolution erupted, and people on the Maidan were being exposed to mortal danger, I wrote that this was a fascinating if at the same time unwilling display of soft power on the part of the European Union. How many inside the EU would risk their lives for the EU?

As opposed to Ukraine, in Belarus, the geopolitical theme was absent from the protests. But in essence, its citizens stood up against those very things that European integration was meant to overcome. Dictatorships do not only repress their own people; they can also threaten their neighbors, as the developments around Belarus have demonstrated. In this sense the 2020 events in Belarus and their aftermath are also firmly a part of the common European story. Furthermore, they become particularly important in a climate, where the value of liberal democracy is increasingly questioned, disappointment with post-Communist transitions is widespread, and various “alternatives” are looming on the horizon.

Alex Kazharski – Researcher, Charles University (Prague). 

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).