Natalia Gumenyuk, 10 August 2020, 17:00
Translated from Ukrainian by Katherine Younger
It took stun grenades, water cannons, barricades and street blockades, but ultimately – after several hours of street confrontations, already late into the night – the Belarusian OMON special police forcefully dispersed the thousands of Minsk residents who took to the streets, not believing the official declaration of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s victory in the presidential elections. Thus ended election day in Minsk, which started out reminiscent of a holiday. Opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was greeted at her precinct with applause. And despite widespread violations during previous elections, there were hopes that this sixth presidential election would be different. Suspilne’s correspondent was in Belarus to track events.
“Because of the elections they’re only letting people with a Minsk residence permit into the city,” the taxi drivers at the airport tell me, quoting me eye-watering fares. I don’t ask to see their documents. My driver tells me quite openly, “I voted, but not for…” (that is, not for Lukashenka). There’s a military Humvee stationed at the city limits. Across Belarus the internet is cut off. Even if there are some services that are still working that morning, like payment terminals and specific websites, all messenger services are already blocked, and they’re basically the only way for people to coordinate with each other.
At School Nr. 137, the polling place of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, who wasn’t allowed to register as a presidential candidate and was arrested, she brought together representatives of two more unregistered opposition leaders. Tsikhanouskaya has no intention of running the country; if she wins, she has promised to hold new, fair elections.
“What annoys Lukashenka the most is that he’s being challenged by a 37-year-old housewife,” the common refrain goes. The women running the polling place are wearing masks and gloves. Several dozen TV cameras are on site. Tsikhanouskaya is held up by a downpour. One of the journalists, who acts like the ringleader among her colleagues, complains incessantly that Sviatlana “just doesn’t want to ruin her hairdo.” A good hundred people, clearly not party activists, chant “Thank you” and “Well done!” when the politician appears. She’s dressed informally, in a stylish suit and sneakers, with a fanny pack draped across a shoulder. The cafeteria ladies working at the polling place take pictures of her with their cell phones.
Tsikhanouskaya’s election rallies drew thousands of people, but in the week leading up to the election they were basically shut down by the authorities. On the day before the election and on election day itself, opposition candidates’ staff members and observers were detained. “Don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet,” Tsikhanouskaya jokes, as she’s escorted back to her car surrounded by applause. She emphasizes that the most important thing is to insist on a fair vote, even if the president wins. The number of violations reported is already so huge that all anyone is talking about is a protest that evening.
“We expect a victory; today is already a historic day for Belarusians,” says Maryia Kalinouskaya, a spokesperson for the team of Viktar Babaryka, a businessman and the former head of Belgazprombank. He’s also behind bars; previously he was seen as one of the most serious opponents of the Belarusian president, who has single-handedly governed the country for 26 years now.
“Of course I supported Sviatlana. Sure, I voted for Lukashenka wholeheartedly the first two times he ran, but then I stopped voting,” a 70-year-old retired construction worker tells me with a smile. “You know perfectly well who people are supporting here,” says an 85-year-old Minsk woman.
“Actually, this time I don’t totally know,” I tell the woman, explaining that in contrast to my other visits to Belarus, when people were generally afraid to talk about politics, this time over the course of the several hours I spend at the polling place I can’t find anyone who supports the sitting president.
I ask again: “Will you trust the results from the Central Election Commission?” The old woman laughs and hugs me.
Opinion surveys and exit polls not run by the state are banned in Belarus. So there’s practically no way to get a handle on the true level of support for the various candidates. All you can do is ask people. Maybe not young people, but maybe a group of working-class men or an older married couple. Might they be Lukashenka voters? Even if so, they also talk about how change is needed. Two more old ladies cautiously show me the white wrist bands they’re wearing as a sign of protest. Finally a dignified elderly woman says, with little enthusiasm, that “Belarus doesn’t need any of that Ukrainian chaos.” At the same time, the woman complains about her small pension and sky-high prices, but still, she doesn’t believe that Tsikhanouskaya will come up with money to fix things. Where would she find it? So in that case, is there any sense in taking the risk?
The opposition camp planned to launch an online platform called Golos (“vote”, “voice”), where people could log whom they voted for, but once the internet was cut off, there was no way to do it.
“According to our internal data, Lukashenka has somewhere around 30% support. His numbers dropped during the pandemic, when he started acting as if there was no coronavirus,” Siarhei Cherachan explains. He is another presidential candidate who describes himself as representing a constructive opposition. Cherachan describes Tsikhanouskaya as a very good person, but he doesn’t believe she can win, “because the military, the siloviki (“strongmen,” i.e. officials from the security services or military), the nomenklatura won’t back a young woman.” But, he observes, Belarus is finally experiencing a “nomenklatura crisis.” Cherachan thinks that the people propping up the regime are ready to cede to a strong candidate, but they are afraid to take risks right now, because the penalty is too severe.
In Siarhei’s view, Lukashenka’s greatest blunder is “the lack of an economy in the country.” The one thing he agrees with is the regime’s critical stance towards the Kremlin and its refusal to deepen ties with Russia, which would cause the country to lose sovereignty. But, in a bitter irony, Russia profits from a Belarusian president who breaks up protests, doesn’t allow elections, and thus remains persona non grata in the West. Cherachan recognizes the population’s sincerity, even if protesting doesn’t bring the desired result, because “in no way is Tsikhanouskaya a street protest leader and she doesn’t direct people.” He himself doesn’t plan to take to the streets, explaining that according to Belarusian law, politicians are held responsible for organizing protests, and that means seven years in prison. Belarusian opposition figures have gone down that path during previous elections.
At 20:00 the polling places are meant to have closed. Near the school at 18 Kamaiskaia Street, on the outskirts of Minsk, there’s a line 500 meters long of up to a thousand people who are still waiting to vote. The Central Election Commission allowed voting to continue. People are standing in line for 5-6 hours.
Larysa worked in a bank before she retired. During the last election, this same polling place was empty. “What do you think, are people going to wait for five or six hours just to vote for the president a sixth time? It’s obvious who everyone here is for. For change!” she says, learning that I’m from Ukraine, and emphasizes that Belarusians are a patient and peaceful people, but “enough is enough,” so everyone will fight for their rights in a legal manner.
It’s already after 21:00 at another polling place on another side of town, where voting has also been held up; hundreds of people, ordinary citizens, are standing around. ‘We want to see the results,” explains Sasha, a 25-year-old programmer. In Belarus, after the votes are counted, the tallies are posted on the door of the polling place. How long they’ll have to wait is unclear, there’s no plan as such, but most likely people will start moving towards the center of town. Back when the messenger apps were still working, the obelisk on one of the squares in the city center was named as a probable gathering point. People are already getting arrested there. Sasha tells me that in the past few days the IT companies who have employees in Belarus pulled them out of the country, because they couldn’t work without internet. At the same time, their bosses let it be known that they would turn a blind eye if some employees stayed behind. His girlfriend says the tipping point when people turned on Aliaksandr Lukashenka came when he refused to acknowledge the pandemic, thereby disregarding his citizens’ safety. The older people waiting outside this polling place say they’re positively surprised by the engagement shown by their compatriots and add that these are new residential districts where a new generation of Belarusians lives.
The “official exit poll” has now been published, and it says that Lukashenka got 79% of the vote and Tsikhanouskaya around 6%. Later, journalists for the local radio station explain that this lone official exit poll is controlled by the authorities and is even less trustworthy than the Central Election Commission’s results. People cite other “foreign” exit polls, where the results are almost the opposite: Tsikhanouskaya got almost 70% of the vote. Then, later still, journalists from the independent Belarusian station Euroradio confirm that there are polling places where the residents demanded a fair vote count. At one of these, Tsikhanouskaya got 1225 votes to 315 for the president.
Taxis aren’t running, again because the internet is cut off. The central metro stations are shut. Still, people from the outskirts are making their way to the center. “This whole trolley is headed for change,” shouts a young guy. The song “Khochu peremen!” (“I want change!”) by Viktor Tsoi is the anthem of sorts for this election. Almost the entire trolley empties out at the stop closest to the city center. Chanting “Zhyve Belarus’” (“Long live Belarus”) and “We believe, we can, we will win!” a joyful, enthusiastic crowd fills the streets, while passing cars honk their horns in support and let the protesters cross in front of them. At the next stop light the trolley passengers join up with the passing crowd. Solidarity, a sense of confidence, and unity are in the air.
The protesters stop traffic, but a few hundred meters down the road they’re stopped by an OMON blockade. The ever-growing crowd standing along the slope of the hill turn on the flashlights on their cell phones, and it becomes clear that on the other side of the OMON line is an even bigger group of people who’ve also turned on their flashlights. There’s applause and whistling. The protesters decide not to let the police transport trucks pass and block the road with one of them. Some young guys try to climb onto it. The truck forces its way through, but they catch it. There are chants of “The police are with the people” and “Put down your visor.” The column of protesters is led by a young guy dressed in black holding a megaphone; he seems to have taken on a leading role spontaneously. Someone calls for people to get down from the slope, so there would be more people in the street. Others insist that they’ve “been holding the hill for a long time,” so the siloviki can’t get past. A few of the most active participants ask the many thousands of people to be quiet, so they can address law enforcement.
The police truck steps on the gas and hits several people. The police throw stun grenades. One man is wounded and unconscious; an ambulance comes for him and the paramedics help rebandage another man’s legs. Later the Belarusian human rights organization Viasna will report that one person died. The Ministry of Internal Affairs will deny this.
Several people are deafened. The celebratory mood instantly turns into a spirit of resistance. Garbage cans are used to build a barricade. OMON moves silently forward. A few more stun grenades. The barricade is broken. People run away. A new barricade is built with whatever materials are at hand. OMON takes another hundred meters. In addition to the stun grenades they’re using a water cannon.
Standing in the windows of the surrounding multi-story buildings are people holding white and red flags, considered a sign of opposition. The protesters cluster to let the ambulance past, stopping those who, let’s say, want to tear down a street sign, trying to head off vandalism. This is a peaceful protest. Within two hours Prospekt Masherova is “cleared.” The crowds shrink as people are pushed towards the neighboring street. Somewhere people come up with huge hunks of stone, and the protesters stop a bus so they can use it to block the police’s path.
“There are too few of us, we have to take risks, we have to throw rocks, you see how they’re forcing us out, we have to push forward!” a young guy shouts indignantly. Another insists that it’s impossible to fight against heavy equipment without means of defense.
“What sense does it make to go at them, what we have to do is keep gathering like this every day – tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, as long as we have the strength. To go right into their water cannons now doesn’t make any sense,” a woman argues. Another explosion. We run. Running to the corner and catching my breath, I ask who she is. “You won’t believe it, but I’m an accounting assistant. I’m 50 years old. But I’m here. I really don’t know what to do, I should be here, you see that people are ready to do something, but we don’t know what.” Others have roughly the same thoughts. The people at the very front are mostly young guys in hoodies and masks, but there are also girls with dreads and older men in unremarkable clothing.
It’s almost 2am. Only phone connections are working. A few media outlets manage to publish videos and photos from the street clashes, to show the wounded. If the internet were working this would have had a big impact. Moving through courtyards and parks, it takes me an hour to reach the premises of one media outlet in hopes that they might have some sort of connection there. The locals know very well that it’s better not to walk through the city center, because you could be detained without cause. Along the way I see flashes and hear the sounds of explosions. I call my colleagues, who confirm that similar street clashes have been taking place around the entire city center.
One more OMON blockade, and one more empty avenue. Next to the car is a group of special forces in non-standard outfits, khaki t-shirts with orange ribbons and rifles in their hands. At “home base” it turns out there’s no internet there either. The gigabytes of videos and photos that would let people see what happened this night in Minsk will remain unpublished. The only hope is that tomorrow, Monday, a workday, the internet will start working again. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya announced that she is ready to negotiate with the authorities and called for everyone to refrain from violence. The next morning Minsk remains under an information blockade, and it’s ascertained by phone that there’s no internet in other cities either. The main story on the news is about Lukashenka’s victory. On Monday morning the president appears in public for the first time since the election began. He visits an agribusiness company and says, “Politics should be about one thing: people.” Sviatlana Tsikahnouskaya and her staff release a statement that they do not recognize the election results and demand a new election.
On the streets, from time to time you can catch a snippet of Viktor Tsoi singing “I want change” coming from a car stereo.
Natalia Gumenyuk is an Ukrainian journalist.