Western media have long written about Belarus using the cliché “the last dictatorship in Europe,” but this phrase has wholly lost its relevance over the course of the past week. Although the presidential election held on August 9 was neither free nor fair, Belarusians offered the entire world a model of courage, strength, solidarity, and social mobilization in defending their civil rights. The countdown for dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who has been clinging to power since 1994, has begun.
Lukashenko’s strongest opponents, Sergei Tikhanovsky and Viktor Babariko, were arrested earlier this summer, while Valery Tsepkalo left the country, before any of them could even register as a presidential candidate. The representative of Babariko’s campaign headquarters, Maria Kolesnikova, and the other two candidates’ wives, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, formed an alliance, managing to register Svetlana as the candidate. Their program, which consists of two positions — release of all political prisoners and holding a new fair election — mobilized and united the entire country. After numerous reports of election fraud, the official numbers stated that 82% voted in favor of Lukashenko. The majority believe that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has won, although the real numbers may never be known, as the ballots in some polling stations were destroyed.
Veronika Tsepkalo, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and Maria Kolesnikova
The post-election turmoil that ensued included a three-day internet blackout, massive civil unrest, and the military usurpation of power. On August 10, after an unexpected meeting with security forces officials, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya mysteriously fled the country and is now exiled in Lithuania. Thousands of peaceful protesters spontaneously took to the streets all across the country. The regime responded with an unprecedented level of brutality by deploying riot police, militia, and the military, who used rubber bullets and stun grenades against peaceful protesters and arbitrarily beat and arrested bystanders and passing drivers in the vicinity of the protests. Within two days, two were murdered, hundreds were wounded, and more than six thousand were incarcerated. Ninety-eight people are still missing, and there is a growing number of reports and accounts of torture taking place in the jails.
By the end of the week, the representatives of all strata of Belarusian society joined the national strike announced on August 11: doctors, cultural figures, journalists, and workers of industrial plants. An ensuing cascade of civil solidarity actions included a movement of women calling for a stop to state violence, musical performances on the streets, a prayer of the three confessions, as well as mass resignations of police, military, journalists, and state functionaries across the country. The Belarusian National State Broadcasting Agency — the country's main propaganda channel — issued an ultimatum on Saturday, August 14, demanding a stop to the violence, the freeing of political prisoners, and fair elections. The following day, they broadcast Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet instead of Lukashenko’s speech at a pro-government rally, which was stocked with several thousand state employees bussed in from across the country. Later that day, the Belarusian revolution culminated in the biggest rally in the history of the country, with a rough estimate of 200,000–350,000 people marching on the streets of Minsk and up to 600,000 people gathering across Belarus. The crowds chanted two new slogans: “Let them go!” and “Lukashenko, lock him up!” That last chant could even be heard among children playing in the capital’s suburbs. The Belarusian government resigned on Monday, August 17.
Rally in Minsk, August 16, 2020
The largest protest in Belarusian history
During the three days of the internet blackout, Minsk, with its wide boulevards, was overtaken by state sadism, which was broadcast live on a handful of Тelegram messenger channels, which, thanks to anti-censorship protections, were able to operate steadily. Video emerged of a red bus, full of people in black, patrolling the streets and randomly stopping to allow its occupants to attack passersby. Drivers were taken out of their cars at gunpoint, their car windows smashed. A car in Gomel was rammed by a police vehicle; a five-year-old girl sustained critical injuries and her father was detained. Another blood-chilling account describes the riot police beating a nine-year-old during their raid on a grocery store in a Minsk suburb. One particular Telegram channel, Nexta, live was instrumental in coordinating the decentralized and spontaneous protests and keeping people informed about developments across the country. In Belarusian, Nexta means “someone,” and the idea of the anonymity of this effort alludes to the Belarusian historical experience of guerilla warfare against the Nazis. Nexta’s founder and managing editor, Stepan Putilo, is now facing criminal charges.
If bombs and bullets were last seen in the streets of Minsk during World War II, the levels of cruelty applied to political prisoners are straight out of the Stalinist 1930s. The testimonies of those released from jails include accounts of arrests of minors and seniors, overcrowded jail cells, use of torture, blood-stained floors, and lack of food, water, and medical aid. Released medical protocols include accounts of rape and organ damage. Testimonies published in the Belarusian and Russian media report that certain warders imitatated the practices of Nazi concentration camps by releasing gas in jail cells and police transportation vehicles, assigning numbers to prisoners, and marking those due for extra-violent beatings with yellow paint and those who have already been tortured with red. Relatives of the arrested and volunteers are gathering in crowds by Okrestino jail in Minsk, listening to the moans of the tortured as snipers aim at them from the roof. The Belarusian historian of Stalinism Irina Romanova characterizes the state’s actions as a large-scale punitive operation and identifies the following parallels with totalitarian terror: violence used to intimidate and suppress individuals; a complete lack of rights among victims and their relatives; a random selection of victims as a method of terror; dehumanization; the state’s self-assessment of its activities as a fight against the enemy; complete anonymity and impunity for the executioners.
In the wake of the unfolding humanitarian crisis, the leaders of Russia, China, and a dozen over authoritarian states congratulated Alexander Lukashenko on his victory. The European Union, Great Britain, and Canada, however, did not recognize the results of the election, and the EU is planning to hold a special summit dedicated to Belarus on Wednesday, August 19. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has expressed his support for the people of Belarus, pledging to ensure their freedom. On August 17, the oppositional leaders published the roster of a new Belarusian Coordination Committee to oversee a peaceful transition of power. This list of 35 people includes the Noble laureate Svetlana Alexievich, representatives of the intelligentsia, human rights activists, doctors, lawyers, economists, and prominent figures from the business sector. The struggle of the Belorusian people is far from over, and the country’s future is at stake. Another pending danger comes from its Eastern neighbor, Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014 and is engaged in an ongoing hybrid war in the east of Ukraine. Foreshadowing American elections in November, the events in Belarus are a lesson in fighting election fraud and resisting state violence through internal solidarity. Yet overcoming the region’s geopolitical instability will be impossible without support from the international community.
Belarusian Rally in Hollywood, August 15, 2020
Sasha Razor holds a PhD in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures from UCLA. Her dissertation focused on the screenplays of Russian prose authors in the 1920s and 1930s.