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