Lukashenka’s war against his own people

Foto: Natalia Fedosenko /​ Imago Images

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, “”, 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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