August 18, 2020
August 14, 2020 is the sixth day of protests after the falsified presidential election. The city has woken up, and people have gone out into the streets to form a human chain of solidarity and to peacefully protest, all before I was even able to open my eyes after last night’s perpetual reading of the news, the tears, the hatred, and the inability to fall asleep without a sleep aid. It is impossible to fall asleep in a city where thousands of people remain behind bars for no reason, where they are humiliated, beaten, and mutilated with full impunity. It is impossible to fall asleep in a city overflowing with security forces, where you can be beaten or have your arm or leg broken, simply because you are waiting for information about your husband, brother, or daughter near the walls of a prison. In a city where small children stand with signs that read “Return our father to us,” where there is still no information available about many of those who have been detained.
Yet entirely peaceful protests and demonstrations continue in this city for the third day. They start in the morning. You must see it for yourself. It is an obligation. The atmosphere is indescribable; words cannot do it justice. Those bright faces, the sun, the flowers, the balloons, the national flags, the smiles, the unceasing honking of car horns, the hands raised in a gesture of victory. When you see it for yourself, when you stand holding flowers on the streets of the city, when you talk to strangers as if they are old friends, it can seem like there is hope. Your city overflows with love and freedom. You feel happy to belong to such a people, to form a part of it! But you understand deep within you that they don’t touch you only because the order hasn’t been given. You return home and remember that everything remains in the future, that victory is still far off, that this is not the time to relax. That we must do everything we can, every day and every hour, to overthrow this criminal regime so that the country becomes free.
After all that has happened over recent days, there is no choice. Even the introverts have come out into the streets. Those who were once afraid have come out. The entire country is in the streets: from the IT crowd to the paratroopers; the doctors, the teachers, and the workers; from the musicians to the Minsk metro employees; from young mothers with kids to emergency medical personnel. The most important thing is that not only has a general strike been called: it has become a reality. The Minsk Automobile Factory, the Minsk Tractor Factory, Hrodna AZOT, the Minsk metro, MAPID (the largest construction company in the country), Naftan, and many others have all joined the protest movement. Unprecedented mass gatherings are happening in factories across the country. Miners from Belaruskalii are with the people! Workers are demanding the holding of new and honest elections, the release of political prisoners, and an end to the wave of violence. People stand along the avenues and streets not only in the largest cities but in Maladzyechna and Vawkavysk, Baranovichi and Smarhon, Lida and Zhlobin, Lyepyel and Sluck, even in small settlements. And Lukashenka continues to pretend that the situation in the country is not critical, that the servants are merely playing a prank. “I wouldn’t say it is some kind of catastrophe or that the situation is overly tense.” You might think that “some twenty people” have not gone to work, let them fail. Having declared a strike and marched through the entire city, the workers of MTZ responded with a sign: “We are not sheep, we are not beasts of burden, we are not just some people! We are the workers of MTZ and there aren’t twenty of us, but 16,000!” Yet, as before, it is clear that Lukashenka does not or cannot understand the extraordinary situation and his declarations are obviously not meeting the moment: “Those gallivanting in the streets don’t understand a thing. They are being manipulated. They are being paid.” “The situation in the country is being destabilized by provocateurs from Russia, Ukraine, the Netherlands, and Poland,” everything is directed from abroad. No! I myself, my friends and acquaintances, along with millions of people in the country don’t need directions to come out to protests. We have had it up to here with life in Lukashenka’s totalitarian state. We don’t need a director to show us where and when to go and what to do. We CANNOT remain at home when the fate of the country is being decided. Yes, the violence has subsided somewhat in recent days. Protesters in the streets are no longer touched. Thousands of people gathered yesterday on the central square in Minsk near the House of Government waiting for representatives of the authorities. No one emerged, apart from the security services who took up positions around the building, defending the authorities. They lowered their shields, however, which many took as a good sign. Girls in the front rows rushed over to the police, hugging them and offering them flowers. (Let’s not take this gesture as anything but as a sign of Belarusians’ desire for peace.)
The popularly chosen president Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is now in neighboring Lithuania, declared that her camp is ready for dialogue with the authorities, and announced the creation of a “coordinating council to ensure the transfer of power.” (I won’t respond to questions like “What has that lady done for the country that made you vote for her?” If there is time, I’ll write a separate post.)
Against this background, the Central Election Commission of Belarus declared the final results of the presidential elections. According to the official announcement, 80.10% of voters supported the current president, and 10.12% supported Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. But no one believes these figures. People are tired of the lies. The whole country is in the streets, the whole country is protesting. The whole country is getting information from trustworthy Internet-portals, unofficial Telegram channels, and social media sites, where there are plenty of open testimonials from people taking part in events, from election observers to protest participants. On the streets there are plenty of journalists and photographers, even though they are being arrested and beaten, while their video and photo equipment is being damaged and their flash drives are being taken. The police are stopping cars and inspecting phones. Lukashenka: “These are all staged video clips, they are fakes.” But when large numbers of people see the massive protest gatherings with their own eyes, they see the brutal beatings, and they witness the well-attended protest marches from large industrial enterprises, they cannot be deceived. Yet the state media and television continue to lie just as they always have. And this is not even funny anymore.
Today Minsk is full of honking horns. Olha Chemodanova, press secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD): “In Belarus, the monthly republican festival of car horns is taking place. The situation is normal.”
The Minister of Health Karanik brazenly lies about the lack of injuries from beatings in the ROVD and Okrestino prison, lies to the faces of doctors, who have already been treating these injuries for days.
The MVD of Belarus reported that 121 policemen have been injured during the protests. Yet to this point not a single statistic has been reported about injuries among the peaceful protesters! Only two deaths have been officially acknowledged, and they have even tried to malign these victims, calling one a criminal and the other a drug addict (the bodies have not been released to their parents, so that they cannot see the mutilations). Medics are outraged that forensic medical experts are not allowed to document the injuries of patients that have been beaten if they are held in detention or are hospitalized, including in intensive care. Yet the Internet is awash with videos that depict police brutality against protesters and ordinary bystanders. Lukashenka announced that he had no criticisms of the police: “They behaved themselves in a dignified manner.” Presumably they will all be given bonuses.
From the prison walls, deputy minister of the MVD Barsukov said there was no torture, that he had received no complaints from prisoners, and that bruises were merely an incidental result of “disciplinary measures.” And he said this to people, who have been standing for hours near the prison listening to the cries of their loved ones. Knowing that in just a few hours those people will meet their loved ones, who will be covered from head to toe in bruises, with terrible injuries. Doctors are no longer in fear and give interviews. A doctor from an emergency department: “I don’t know how the fascists [i.e., the Nazis—ed.] tortured, but I know how our riot police do! People with missing eyes, without teeth, with cracked skulls, injured genitals… they brought one with a truncheon in his rear.”
The people are united as never before. Doctors are taking shifts at prisons, offering urgent medical care to those walking through its doors. Volunteers are bringing food, offering rides home to the newly released, because they are being kicked out of prison (Minsk, Zhodzina, Barysau) without their personal effects, at times in the middle of the night. Many private medical centers have announced free medical care to the injured, car repair shops have offered services to drivers with damaged cars, psychologists have offered care to those leaving prisons and hospitals, florists are handing out flowers to protesters for free or at large discounts… one could extend this list without end.
At the main KGB building on Independence Avenue one sees the red-and-white flag, candles of remembrance, and hand-written signs: “We will not forgive!” What we have suffered through for 26 years will not disappear in a day or a month, of course, and most people understand that. For this reason we will come out into the streets every day, we will go on strike, we will express our demands, and we will achieve our aims! Long live Belarus!
The article gives the views of the author, not the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).