“My friends and I were illegally detained yesterday when driving on Peramozhtsau Avenue in Minsk. The riot police forced us to unlock our phones; they checked our photos and videos as well as our messenger applications. After the police found videos taken at earlier protests on our phones, we were brought to the Tsentralny district police station in Minsk. Two of us, including myself, were beaten by the police. We were forced to stand in “растяжка” for about two hours. Throughout this time, the police and the riot police denigrated us verbally. They forced another of my friends to perform very difficult and painful physical movements. After about two hours, we were released. We did not receive a detention protocol or any legal document concerning our detention.”
The policemen who detained Aliaksandr and his friends told them that this was a “prophylactic measure” to ensure that they did not participate in protests again.
Marci Shore: Can you describe the streets in Minsk?
Aliaksandr Bystryk: During the day, the streets have seemed normal, although there are many “closing early” signs on shops and cafés. Today, however, there were several “solidarity chains” in Minsk, Hrodna, Baranavichy and other towns. These were organized by women in protest against police brutality. The women are dressed in white, which is one of the symbols of the ongoing protests. Beginning at 11 am I began to hear cars honking in support of the protesters.
MS: What demographic do the protestors represent? Are there noticeable generational splits?
AB: The demographic of the protests is very diverse and depends on the time of day and the place.
Usually the demographic is most diverse early in the protest: young and old, families with children. As the protests go on into the night, it is mostly young and middle-aged people without children who remain.
MS: Are people wearing protective gear?
AB: I haven’t seen many protestors wearing protective gear; people don’t want to confront the police. They choose rather to disperse and gather in another place.
MS: You grew up in a small town in western Belarus. Your mother is still there, while you’re now living in Minsk, in the capital. Do have a sense of what the critical differences are in how Belarusians in the city versus the provinces perceive Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, respectively,
AB: The differences between Minsk and the provinces are mostly economic. People in smaller towns are more likely to work in government jobs (teachers, doctors, government-owned enterprises, civil service, etc.) and therefore more fearful of losing their jobs if they take part in protests, which is a very real possibility. Sometimes there is also a lack of information in smaller towns. However, judging by Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign events, which gathered unexpectedly large crowds in many cities and towns across Belarus, support for Tsikhanouskaya is widespread throughout the country. People in Minsk and people in the provinces share the same grievances against the government: a stagnant economy, an absence of political freedoms, the incompetence and corruption of the authorities (as seen, for instance, in their response to Covid-19), the propaganda and constant lies in the national media, and now police brutality against peaceful protestors.
MS: When we spoke by phone, you mentioned that the protests have fallen into a rhythm of beginning in the evening. Is that intentional? Is there a strategy, a logic?
AB: The first protest after the election started even earlier, since many people were gathered around the polling station to see the official protocols of the election results. On the following days, the popular Telegram channels have directed people to start the protests at 19.00—that is, after work.
MS: Lukashenka has been in power for some quarter-century, essentially your whole life. Why now has a mass opposition mobilized? Was there a particular moment of disillusionment, or simply an accumulation? What caused people to tolerate Lukashenka for so long, and why has that tolerance now been exhausted?
AB: People have definitely been getting tired of Lukashenko for a long time, especially as they have seen the unsatisfactory economic progress. In the late 2000s, Lukashenka promised to raise the median wage to 500 USD; and he still has not fulfilled this promise. People are also angry at the whole governmental system; they feel like the bureaucrats are there to serve the “vertical of power,” not the people.
The government response to Covid-19 also revealed the current system’s inadequacy. Rather than being open and up-front about the epidemic, the official sources—beginning with Lukashenka himself—consistently downplayed the scale and severity of the problem. People began to mobilize on their own to assist the doctors. There was widespread skepticism towards the official mortality numbers.
Another important factor was the rise of social media, especially YouTube. Over the last couple of years, several vloggers critical of the government emerged. They were not connected to the existing opposition political parties, which had previously tried to challenge Lukashenka’s power. These new vloggers became very popular; their videos reached hundreds of thousands of subscribers. One of the more popular political YouTubers was Siarhei Tsikhanouski. After the authorities arrested Tsikhanouski on trumped-up charges, his wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, became Lukashenka’s main challenger in the presidential election.
In essence, as more and more Belarusians have begun to rely on internet and social media for information, the official propaganda, which relies on television and newspapers, has become less effective.
The other potential challengers to Lukashenka for the presidency were Viktar Babaryka, former director of Belgazprom bank, and Valeryi Tsapkala, formerly ambassador to the United States and head of Belarusian High-Tech Park. Both of them suggested very positive and constructive programs for Belarus’s development, in a way that differed significantly from the political opposition’s usual rhetoric. Both of these men mobilized many previously politically inactive members of the middle- and creative classes, especially in Minsk.
In short, there was a convergence of many factors, the most significant being Lukashenka fatigue, the Covid crisis, and the emergence of new political forces including popular Youtubers and successful liberal entrepreneur-friendly politicians.
MS: I’m thinking of the Maidan six and a half years ago. In November 2013, when people first came to the square, they were not expecting violence, no one was expecting to die there. I only watched the Maidan from afar, but my sense is that by late January 2014 a fundamental existential turn had taken place, and a critical mass of Ukrainians was willing to die there, if need be. Even from afar, that turn was almost palpable. What is your feeling now: is there a critical mass of protestors prepared for violence?
AB: The overwhelming majority of protestors seem to reject violence even when provoked. It seems that Belarusians do not want to go through a Maidan-like revolution; they hope to change the system through massive popular protest. The brutal reaction by the police is thus even more outrageous to the people. It is hard to say whether the police violence will mobilize more people.
MS: And is there a critical mass of military/militia/police/riot police prepared to engage in violence in support of Lukashenka?
AB: So far, all of the police, riot police and military seem to support Lukashenka. There were singular cases of police officers removing their helmets and walking away from the protests. The riot police (АМАП/ОМОН) are probably the most violent of the units.
MS: What unites the protestors?
AB: People have the feeling that they won the elections and that their election victory was stolen from them. The basic demand is that Lukashenka be removed from power and that elections be free and fair.
MS: What role does the fact of female leadership play?
AB: I think it is very important. A lot of people are portraying the Lukashenka-Belarus relationship as a domestic violence situation: Lukashenka is the abusive husband who beats his wife when she wants to leave, and then tells her that it is her fault.
Many Belarusians responded positively to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She is seen by people as an archetypal Belarusian woman, who possesses almost superhuman powers amidst desperate conditions, especially when “her man” has been taken away. This recalls a trope from Belarusian folkore: women ploughing the field themselves after their husbands go off to war.
I think Belarusians responded very positively to her seeming honesty, sincerity and loyalty. She has repeatedly claimed to be not a politician, but only a symbol, which makes it easier for people with very different political orientations to support her.
MS: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s husband is in prison, and you mentioned that he was subject now to particular abuse there. With her husband in prison and two young children to take care of, Tsikhanouskaya is particularly vulnerable. Does she have any protection?
AB: As you know, she currently fled—or was forced to flee—to Lithuania after the authorities released a video of her calling upon Belarusians to stop protesting. [In the video, filmed during Tsikhanouskaya’s detention by the authorities on 11 August, she is reading from a prepared text and is clearly under duress.—M.S.] She seems safe now, but it is unclear what her next steps will be. Most of the online reactions to her remain positive, people are thanking her for what she has already done, and seem understanding of the difficult choices she was forced to make.
MS: You said that you felt quite isolated. There must be overdetermined reasons for that: the West has never paid very much attention to Belarus; the coronavirus pandemic has made travel especially difficult; the whole world is in a state of crisis and its attention is focused elsewhere. . .there are almost no Western journalists in Belarus now, if any. There are, though, Polish and Ukrainian journalists in Belarus. Is there a feeling of support, material or moral, or at least understanding, from Belarus’s neighbors—Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine?
AB: We definitely feel support now from all our neighbors. We are grateful to Poland for raising the issue of Belarus on the EU level, and we know of the suggestions to mediate a roundtable between the society and the regime. We are also grateful to many Russian public figures who have expressed their support for the protestors. Russia remains quite influential culturally, which makes support from Russian society for the Belarusian protests especially important.
MS: What arguments is Lukashenka using to draw people to his side—stability? I’m also thinking of Jaruzelski’s attempt to justify declaring martial law in Poland in 1981: is there fear that the Kremlin could intervene if the protests go too far?
AB: The main propaganda tactic of Lukashenka’s regime is to scare people with threats: of a return to the 1990s; of the eruption of an internal violent conflict like in eastern Ukraine; and, of course, of the nebulous “foreign intervention,” in this instance by Russia. The pre-election government propaganda posters contrasted the Belarus of the 1990s with Belarus today. (This was mocked excessively on social media).
Basically, Lukashenka claims that only he can “preserve,” and protect from internal and foreign enemies, what Belarus allegedly has accomplished under his rule. “Internal enemies” are, of course, all paid by the foreigners because “real everyday Belarusians” can by definition only support him.
MS: Nineteen sixty-eight was a revolutionary year across cultures, languages, continents. Each place was particular, but at the same time not unrelated to the others. More than seventy years later, the world has become much smaller and our ability to know what’s happening in far-away places in real time is incomparably greater. There have been huge protests against Putin in Russia, against Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (the Peace and Justice party) in Poland, against the Trump administration in my own country. Do these other protests have significant resonance in Belarus? Are people on the streets learning from one another? My husband and I were both struck, for instance, by how the “Wall of Moms” and “Wall of Veterans” in Portland, Oregon were reminiscent of what happened in early December 2013 on the Maidan, after the first Berkut attack on the mostly student-age protestors. It was also striking to see the ambiguously-defined federal agents in camouflage appear in Portland, no one knew exactly who they were, they were apparently outside the constraints of American law—that is, they were our very own зелёные человечки— “little green men”—a phrase for which there is no real equivalent in English.
AB: The international dimension of the Belarusian protests is hard to define, since very different people participate in them. For some protesters, Ukraine is the best example; for others, the model is Armenia, or Poland in 1989. There is a common feeling however, that because of Lukashenka, Belarus is an outcast in the modern world, and people just want to be “normal;” they want to have the same rights and freedoms as people have in the European Union or even in Ukraine. Just a few years ago, many Belarusians would not have said that “they want it to be like in Ukraine.” Now they do say that. I think there has been a realisation that political freedoms are directly tied to economic prosperity, and that the alleged “stability” offered by Lukashenka is not worth the price.
MS: Early this summer, after George Floyd’s murder in late May by the policeman in Minneapolis, when—despite the pandemic—Black Lives Matter protests began attracting more and more people, I started to feel some kind of hope that this could be the “to je ono!” the this-is-it moment in the United States: Trump tried to use the possibility of calling out the military against the protestors as a threat—and failed. The military leadership came out more and more vocally against the president. This is unprecedented in the States. Trump’s approval ratings began dropping. The mainstream has been shifting its support to Black Lives Matter. Nearly all of those Republican senators and Trump appointees made a Faustian bargain—which is to say, they’re not real believers—and I’m cautiously but desperately hopeful that the moment supporting him no one appears to be to their advantage they will disappear like the opportunist apparatchiks in 1989, rats fleeing the sinking ship. . . Is there a chance for this kind of 1989 scenario in Belarus: if most of Lukashenka’s supporters don’t really love him, might they start to defect the moment it no longer seems safe and advantageous to remain on his side?
AB: This last question is the toughest. We are striving to reach the moment when people in Lukashenka’s circle will begin to defect, and that will be the end of him. I think it is possible, since a lot of people in his regime despise him. But right now it is hard to predict.
Aliaksandr Bystryk is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Central European University.
Marci Shore is associate Professor of History at Yale University and a recurrent Visiting Fellow at the IWM.