Lukashenka’s war against his own people
Since the protests in August 2020, the illegitimate leadership of the Republic of Belarus sees itself at war against the “collective West”, but it is waging the battle against its own citizens.
Two years later, photographs taken in the summer of the unfinished Belarusian revolution seem like images from another era. The white-red-white of the peaceful marches of August 2020, the euphoria of the colourful protest against the obvious falsification of the presidential elections and the chains of lights of improvised neighbourhood festivals in the backyards of the capital Minsk remind of the awakening of a society that was itself surprised by its strength and united in the conviction that it could shape its country on its own. The clarity of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who had run against the authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenka in place of her husband Siarhei, who had already been arrested in May 2020 and sentenced to 18 years in prison, and the determination of Maria Kolesnikova, who supported her candidacy together with Veronika Tsepkalo, represented the possibility of a different future that seemed within reach for a few weeks.
By 2020, both the protesters and the masked representatives of state power had understood that something had changed. The horizontal solidarity of women, the decentralised self-organisation of the protest and the dynamics of collective action were clear signs that a diverse, creative, and responsible society had grown up within three decades from the rather accidental disintegration product of the Soviet Union, in which there had been one single free election in 1994. In August 2020, it entered Europe’s present as a subject and shouted loudly: We!
This call for self-determination, which is at the core of sovereignty, impacted Alexander Lukashenka so comprehensively that he had no answer at hands for weeks, because in his perception Belarusian people are the object and not the subject. When propaganda specialists sent by the Kremlin took over the programme after a spontaneous wave of denunciations on state television, it became clear that Lukashenka’s rule is based on comprehensive dependence on Russia instead of self-determination. Only after the demonstrative closing of ranks of the dictators did Lukashenka once again find the strength, together with his uniformed henchmen, to speak the language of violence against all those who took up an independent position within the Republic of Belarus: journalists and lawyers, artists, and activists. He and his faithful representatives from the KGB and the Interior and Justice Ministries had something in common with Vladimir Putin: in the worldview of the siloviki – toxic ministerial masculinity in uniform – women in white dresses on the edges of the arterial roads of Belarusian cities were as much a threat to their rule as the band Irdorath, laughing loudly on the Prospect of Independence, the central Minsk boulevard, playing Viktor Zoi’s Perestroika anthem “Peremen”. The consequences are well known: Flutist Maria Kolesnikova as well as bagpiper Yulia Marchenko and her husband Piatro are among the more than 1,300 political prisoners today , because their symbolic power poses a real threat to Lukashenka. And all independent active journalists are now either in prison or abroad. The central media portal of the Belarusian society, “Tut.by”, and its archive have been offline since May 2021 and five former employees are still in prison.
The summer of 2020 has also become a distant prospect because it is no longer possible today to take a closer look at Belarus for oneself in order to piece together a picture on the spot from the fragments of information. Even the digital traces of the revolution, which changed the symbolic field but not the real power relations, are disappearing because organisations have been destroyed, expelled, or forced to practice self-censorship. The contradiction remains that the self-empowerment of the citizens in social networks caused an explosion of information from very different parts of the country, but the digital legacies of which now help the men in uniform to persecute still systematically the most active people with a gap of two years.
But even courts that produce long prison sentences non-stop, the biggest migration wave since the end of the Second World War and the establishment of a regime of fear are not able to reverse that change in consciousness of being a society that has the power to take its future into its own hands. Those who fled to escape persecution are already doing so – in the youth hub at Warsaw’s Plac Konstytucji, at Razam, the association of the Belarusian diaspora in Germany founded in 2020, and on Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s staff in the Lithuanian capital, they are practising a different form of social cooperation that remains focused on the future in Belarus.
Alexander Lukashenka and his masked henchmen know that their model of rule in 2020 has lost the last vestiges of legitimacy. The imagined collective with which he had concluded the stability-versus-loyalty contract for over two decades no longer exists. That is precisely why the level of symbolic and physical violence against its own citizens is still increasing in 2022.
If Lukashenka had not hijacked a Ryanair aircraft in May 2021, everyday arbitrariness and violence against his own people would probably have been overlooked by the world public opinion because they are directed inwards and not outwards. State terrorism on camera – with the sole aim of arresting a blogger and his girlfriend – changed something in Western Europe. The sanctions, introduced for the first time by the European Union in unison, now for the first time also affected important export bans on economic sectors such as the potash and chemical industries, with the profits of which the distribution keys of state power in Minsk were served. Their internal redistribution stabilised the rule of the siloviki, as did indirect subsidies from Russia. Both mechanisms are currently ceasing.
Since then, the Lukashenka regime has considered itself at war. The 80th anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union was reinterpreted in the summer of 2021 as an “attack by a collective West” in response to the sanctions, in which “collaborators from all over Europe” are said to have fought together against Belarus. The Prosecutor General’s Office in Minsk was tasked with rolling out German mass crimes against the Jewish and Slav civilian population in the occupied Soviet Union in a trial for genocide against Belarusian people, the sole aim of which is to defame its own citizens who had protested under the white-red-white flag – the popular symbol of the pro-democracy movement since 2020. The historical-political sabre-rattling was mainly directed against Poland and Lithuania, which, unlike the Federal Republic of Germany, consistently supported the Belarusian diaspora created by the exodus of hundreds of thousands with generous visa and residence regulations, but also with direct financial aid.
Putin took advantage of joint troop manoeuvres by Russian and Belarusian forces to lead the Russian attack on Ukraine from the north as well, starting on 24 February. The advance on Kyiv took place from the territory of the Republic of Belarus in early March. Cities in western Ukraine are still being bombed from launch pads in the southern part of the neighbouring country. The regular involvement of Belarusian infrastructure in the open war of aggression and annihilation proves that Alexander Lukashenka finally traded the independence of the state in 2022 in return for the violent support of his regime by Russia.
The fact that Belarusian troops are still not directly involved in combat operations in Ukraine demonstrates Lukashenka’s struggle for political survival, who even in times of war tries to retain a residual room for manoeuvre vis-à-vis Moscow. Since spring 2022, however, it has also been obvious that the suppression of the protest movement throughout Belarus was part of Russia’s comprehensive preparations for attack, because the call for self-determination and the situational self-empowerment of an entire society are not only a threat to Lukashenka, but also to Putin. The war in Ukraine, like Lukashenka’s campaign, is directed against its own citizens and against the sovereignty of an entire society. The future of both men, whose regime is based primarily on arbitrariness and violence, depends on the outcome of the war. Putin is waging this war in Ukraine, Lukashenka against the population in his own country.
Dr Felix Ackermann is a scientific employee at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. His doctorate focussed on the Sovietisation of the Belarusian-Jewish-Polish city of Grodno. He wrote a book about his work at the Belarusian exile university in Vilnius, called “Mein litauischer Führerschein. Trips to the End of the European Union”, which was published by Suhrkamp-Verlag.
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