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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