The Birth of a new civil society in Belarus vs. a “Euro­pean North Korea”

Foto: Shutterstock, qwret
Foto: Shut­ter­stock, qwret

While vio­lence thrives in silence, it has no chance to persist if brought to public atten­tion. Inter­na­tional atten­tion and support to the people in Belarus are now more crucial than ever before. Aksana Lut­skaya, an inde­pen­dent researcher and activist reports from Belarus.

Belarus has made plenty of head­lines since the protests against fal­si­fied elec­tions started in August 2020, but most of the pop­u­lace in the country and abroad did not really antic­i­pate that the protests would even­tu­ally trans­form into such a pro­tracted resis­tance. Hopes for a quick win were very high back then, given the amount of pain and frus­tra­tion Belaru­sians had already suf­fered prior to the elec­tion day and in the days fol­low­ing it, as August 9–11 became the days when people in Minsk and in many other cities saw and expe­ri­enced count­less beat­ings being inflicted, shots fired, grenades thrown. Peace­ful pro­test­ers were severely injured and even mur­dered. In Feb­ru­ary 2021, Belaru­sians are still here, fight­ing for their freedom and basic human rights they have been long deprived of. So what has been hap­pen­ing within the country that has seen the biggest polit­i­cal unrest in its inde­pen­dent history and what are the prospects for the future?

Mul­ti­ple state-con­trolled media in Belarus and their ide­o­log­i­cal com­rades in Russia have been happily claim­ing for a while that the protests have died down and peace and quiet are reestab­lished under Lukashenka’s rule. But while there are indeed no marches of hun­dreds of thou­sands weekly now, as there were time ago, it’s far from true that pro­tes­tors have stopped and given up. Rather, Belaru­sian upris­ing, appraised by so many for its per­sis­tent peace­ful­ness in the face of horrid police bru­tal­ity, has evolved and changed its form, adapt­ing to new conditions.

Ever since the second wave of Coro­n­avirus hit in the autumn, which was also marked by secu­rity forces at times arrest­ing demon­stra­tors in thou­sands in a single day, detainees are being sub­jected to a kind of torture pre­vi­ously unheard of. The acting author­i­ties started packing cells with inmates twice and three times the number they’d been designed for and rotate them end­lessly, so that every­one would inevitably come into contact with as many others as pos­si­ble, effec­tively making those who had taken to the streets con­tract Covid.

Another reason is the winter cold, which has made it impos­si­ble to march as we used to, but has instead caused spiking cre­ativ­ity as Belaru­sians dec­o­rated cities and towns with white-red-white imagery, forcing riot police and com­mu­nal ser­vices statewide to lit­er­ally deal with snowmen and flags frozen into sur­faces of lakes, rivers and even small puddles. Last but not least, thou­sands of active pro­test­ers had been driven out of the country fearing crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion or other repres­sions. This winter has been marked with short local marches and sol­i­dar­ity chains, which, as opposed to initial mass gath­er­ings in city centres, have become com­pletely decen­tralised and happen at any day and time here and there in Minsk and other Belaru­sian places, effec­tively uniting locals of various dis­tricts into com­mu­ni­ties that under­take civil action at their own ini­tia­tive and develop vast support net­works that help survive the wearing toll of resistance.

 The law does not work unless it works against you

However, even though the deter­mi­na­tion hasn’t gone any­where, the sit­u­a­tion becomes graver and graver, as Lukashenka’s grip tight­ens. As observers turn their atten­tion away from Belarus and events unfold­ing here, Belaru­sians are left alone with the regime. Having crossed all pos­si­ble lines that pre­vi­ously made his rule seem at least some­what plau­si­ble, now he has no reason to even pretend he has been treat­ing people in a humane way. The leg­is­la­tion is being abused by the gov­ern­ment to jail and intim­i­date pro­test­ers (threat­en­ing them with prison terms, taking their chil­dren away from them, ruining their busi­nesses and sacking them from jobs they depend on to support their fam­i­lies), and no one is safe anymore. One critic said, “I was born and raised into implicit under­stand­ing that the law does not work unless it works against you”, and this is the reality. Kid­nap­pings from the streets at random are hap­pen­ing in broad day­light, includ­ing of 13-year-olds. The country has closed its borders trying to prevent cit­i­zens from getting out should they get on the radar of “secu­rity forces”. Workers who went on strike fol­low­ing the elec­tion get real prison terms for exer­cis­ing their con­sti­tu­tional right, and a con­cen­tra­tion camp for active pro­test­ers against the regime (read: nearly every­one) is planned to be estab­lished, repur­posed from a former detox centre and having already held about 100 pro­test­ers back in August. Belaru­sian philoso­pher Tat­siana Shchyttsova has elab­o­rated on the sit­u­a­tion, char­ac­ter­iz­ing its recent devel­op­ments as “parafas­cism”.

An extra strain on women

It’s hard to give any certain account of the general mood since inde­pen­dent soci­ol­ogy was pushed out of the country quite some time ago (with Lukashenka noto­ri­ously shut­ting down even media polls that were trying to get a general grasp on polit­i­cal pref­er­ences pre-elec­tion). A study of the sit­u­a­tion and needs of women par­tic­i­pat­ing in the protest, con­ducted by Fem Group of the Coor­di­na­tion Council of Belarus (an inde­pen­dent body estab­lished with encour­age­ment and support of Svi­at­lana Tsi­hanouskaya), has con­cluded that women face plen­ti­ful extra pres­sures having to deal with lots of extra house­work and child care, addi­tion­ally per­form­ing loads of emo­tional labour to somehow mediate immea­sur­able fury, pain, occa­sional hope­less­ness and despair that might at times get over­whelm­ing for all their family members and often even local com­mu­ni­ties. Yet, despite the emo­tion­ally-drain­ing and costly process of fight­ing for freedom and ability to make their own choices, every­body is gath­er­ing strength for round two of active protest­ing as spring arrives. The next pos­si­ble mass protest is likely to happen on Feb­ru­ary 11–12, as a response to a staged event called All-Belarus National Assem­bly, ini­ti­ated by Lukashenka himself in an attempt to calm down both the Belaru­sian public and the Russian pres­i­dent promis­ing some con­sti­tu­tional changes that would limit his powers. His rhetorics regard­ing the event has since changed rad­i­cally, as he now openly states that there is actu­ally no need for change and strong pres­i­den­tial author­ity is the thing needed to protect Belaru­sian sov­er­eignty. No regular cit­i­zens have been allowed to even nom­i­nate them­selves as del­e­gates for the event, the latter chosen care­fully from loyal members of the state apparatus.

Follow the money — to Russia

Still, while Belaru­sians are respon­si­ble for the lib­er­a­tion move­ment to succeed, inter­na­tional support has never been more vital. Support by Russia is com­pli­cat­ing to chal­lenge the regime, which was the first to recog­nise Lukashenka’s victory and con­grat­u­late him on his sixth term as elected pres­i­dent. Later, as protests proved to be much more trou­ble­some for his coun­ter­part to handle, Putin has taken a more cau­tious approach, backing him behind the scenes and pub­licly crit­i­cis­ing the states that have not recog­nised Belaru­sian elec­tion results for inter­fer­ing with the affairs of an inde­pen­dent state. Fur­ther­more, Russia still keeps up finan­cial support the acting gov­ern­ment, pro­vid­ing it with loans to cover gas-related inter­est pay­ments to itself and only recently pushing the term of repay­ing another multi-billion loan. Addi­tion­ally, Russia peri­od­i­cally sends mes­sages of pos­si­ble mil­i­tary support to the author­i­ties in Belarus in an attempt to scare people off the streets. Although the Russian state might now be dis­tracted with its inter­nal affairs for some time, it still proves to be a pow­er­ful sup­porter of the fellow autoc­racy. Unless it’s seri­ously swamped with its own protests within, its grip on Belarus is unlikely to get loose and even delay­ing Lukashenka’s finan­cial oblig­a­tions can take a lot of pres­sure off his shoul­ders and allows him to con­cen­trate on inflict­ing further torture on the Belaru­sian people.

Pock­et­ing Euro­pean cash

As money is one of the pillars the regime will crumble without, it’s extremely impor­tant to cut off the supply that comes from the EU, the country’s second-largest trading partner. While the Euro­pean Union has already intro­duced three pack­ages of sanc­tions against indi­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies sup­port­ing the regime, Peter Stano, EU Spokesper­son for Foreign Affairs and Secu­rity Policy, has admit­ted they would need more time to work. Rumours say that some rich and pow­er­ful allies of Lukashenka (e.g. tobacco magnate Ali­ak­sei Aleksin) had been taken off of the list at the last minute. This clar­i­fies that the process has to be much more trans­par­ent to avoid lob­by­ism of eco­nomic inter­ests that jeop­ar­dise human rights. One of the main trade part­ners of “Belaruskali” enter­prise, the Nor­we­gian company Yara Inter­na­tional, is still con­sid­er­ing signing another con­tract with the plant, effec­tively sup­ply­ing the ille­git­i­mate gov­ern­ment it belongs to with lots of money to further pay the people who beat, imprison and torture Belaru­sians. While they’ve been doing their best to put pres­sure onto Yara Int., sending mul­ti­ple appeals remind­ing it what the money would be used for, some addi­tional pres­sure from the EU cit­i­zenry would prove even more per­sua­sive, even though Norway is not a part of the EU. Same goes for other coun­tries and busi­nesses that prefer to keep dealing with the regime quietly to gen­er­ate revenue at the expense of the Belaru­sian people. More media atten­tion and pres­sure from civil society in the EU towards busi­ness inter­ests inside their coun­tries could make a huge difference.

Per­sis­tence with no end in sight

While many would like to set some kind of a dead­line for the rev­o­lu­tion to win, such a wish would prob­a­bly do more harm in the long run. Because, as many Belaru­sian thinkers have put it, their final aim is not to merely replace the person running the country, but to learn to see one another and come together to make deci­sions about their lives rather than pas­sively del­e­gat­ing it to some­body who has grad­u­ally usurped the priv­i­lege and suc­cess­fully atom­ised the Belaru­sian society for a quarter of a century. So it should instead be seen as a process with no clear end date and Belaru­sians should adapt to living with this to avoid burnout at some point, all the while working together to build the society every­one would be happy to live in. Despite all opti­mism, in reality, one cannot overnight dis­man­tle some­thing that has been built and strength­ened for 26 years. Or over a few months even, unless blood being spilled would be deemed accept­able, which it absolutely is not.

The birth of a new civil society

There­fore, the key part of the Belaru­sian rev­o­lu­tion is the birth of the new civil society where people feel free and can act to bring change at all levels, both indi­vid­u­ally and together, without being over-reliant on the gov­ern­ment. One might recall that against the back­ground of the government’s inac­tion to deal with the COVID-pan­demic, it was the Belaru­sian civil society, which took things into its hands. Now it is aiming at nothing but empow­er­ing it, simply because there is no going back. The new Belaru­sian society that has been quite lit­er­ally forged in flames of mil­i­tary fire used against itself will no longer accept what was hap­pen­ing during the pre­vi­ous 26 years. The alter­na­tive is the police state, which many already call “Euro­pean North Korea” since there is no way Lukashenka will just let every­thing get back to the way it was without holding a deadly grudge.
Svi­at­lana Tsi­hanouskaya has declared Feb­ru­ary 7th to be a Day of Sol­i­dar­ity with Belarus, with a big number of events like round tables, con­fer­ences, street-art actions and Belaru­sian dias­pora actions planned in many coun­tries around the world. Belarus would be grate­ful for its friends every­where to not forget what has been hap­pen­ing and keep speak­ing about it over and over again on all levels. A good example of this would be the domes­tic vio­lence going public nation­wide. While vio­lence thrives in silence, it has no chance to persist if it is brought to public attention.

While the sit­u­a­tion here does not seem to make a click­bait head­line anymore, we do need every­one world­wide to know and remem­ber that the state vio­lence has not become any more tol­er­a­ble and less cruel. Further keeping Belarus in the news of as many media outlets as pos­si­ble is vital. People in other coun­tries putting pres­sure on busi­nesses and gov­ern­ments is vital. Signing a peti­tion, writing a letter to your rep­re­sen­ta­tive, donat­ing to funds sup­port­ing Belaru­sians or joining a protest/​showing support in dif­fer­ent ways is vital. All of this will help us to finally become the country every­body would love to see at the EU’s doorstep.

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