Alexander Lukashenko has been in office as the head of state in Belarus since 1994, with only his first election having been deemed as credible by international monitors. After he was elected once again in 2020, anti-government demonstrations erupted, with widespread accusations of a result ostensibly based on political repression and vote rigging. The writer, an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, US, discusses her impressions of these protests.
I spent the majority of 2020 in Belarus, where I grew up. A few days ago, when I saw a policeman getting out of the car, I started to cry because the first thought that came to mind was: ‘Who are they going to arrest now?’. My country is very peaceful. But it is not free. People have no choices here: no choice regarding who to love, what to study, and where to live. If you want to be a regular well-paid professional, your life is determined for you - from cradle to grave.
There are no competing political parties. There is one person who owns everything and rules everyone. Before this year, I thought that this was normal, the way it should be. In places where people have too many choices, they are debilitated by indecision. People have to be controlled by the State, or anarchy will ensue. I thought it was okay if those from the professional class could not afford to go on holiday; okay to pay huge taxes without getting anything in return.
After I moved to the US, and then to Sweden, however, I discovered that it is nice to have an opinion I can voice, and it is even nicer when that opinion is taken into consideration. In the summer of 2020, I returned to Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko, who has been President for 26 years, was having his election on the 9th of August. I say his election because by the 9th of August the other candidates were either incarcerated or fleeing the country.
I remember the 9th of August like it was yesterday. I live in a town in Western Belarus and in the morning my best friend came from the capital. We were drinking coffee in silence because we knew that something would happen. By noon, the weather was disgustingly windy and rainy. I went to vote with my mother. The plan was as follows: those who disagree with Lukashenko’s regime should vote for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya - the candidate from the coalition formed by the people whose candidates were refused participation for a multitude of reasons.
This was a risky move since Tsikhanousakaya, though promising new elections if she wins, was just a regular housewife and not a lot could be expected from her besides organizing new elections. Still the voters were instructed by Telegram channels to take a picture of their ballot and submit it via a specially created platform. The noon of 9th August was the first act of protest I ever saw in my country. The cities were full of white bracelets - a colour which came to symbolise opposition. At my polling station, people looked happy and hopeful and voters were speaking Belarusian: another burgeoning oppositional symbol, as a language seemingly hated by our government. Belarusian is one of two official languages, alongside Russian, but according to a 2009 government study, it is used by only 11.9% of Belarusians, and this minority face discrimination. Russian is taught in schools and the majority of people still consider Russian as the official language. Though many do not mind speaking Belarusian, it is easier to study and work in Russian. Belarusian is nevertheless the language of opposition, because while Russian ties Belarus to Russia, Belarusian represents independence and originality.
On the evening of election day, I was walking my dog, and on my way home, a woman ran to me, her eyes wide open, face in tears. She took my shoulders and screamed in my face ‘RUN!’.
I ran, having no idea what was going on. Then the Internet disappeared for several days. Watching TV, I found out that Lukashenko had won again with over 80% of the overall votes. Minsk was full of protesters as people went out to show that the opposition was not merely the 3% that Lukashenko claims they were. When the Internet returned, the whole country was shocked by the news. Between the 9th and 11th of August, hundreds of protestors (and now, thousands) were imprisoned, beaten up, raped, and humiliated. Even some of Lukashenko's supporters joined the protests, since violence in our peaceful country was unprecedented and could not be tolerated.
It was assumed that people would be scared and refrain from going outside after the 11th of August, and certainly the following days were noticeably quieter, however women emerged onto the streets to save the country. Dressed in white with flowers in their hands, these women drew courage from the belief that the policemen would not touch them - and it worked for some time.
In big cities and small towns, women stood in solidarity chains from sunrise to sunset. The cars that were passing by were beeping, the passengers showing red and white flags and screaming ‘Long Live Belarus’. In a couple of days, men joined the chains and thousands of people went on strike, standing in these chains all day. This is how a new Belarusian identity was formed.
The new generation of Belarusians, unlike their Soviet-raised elders, do not associate Belarus with the USSR, but rather with Europe. In spite of Soviet propaganda, young Belarusians dream of being a part of the EU one day. Parading a white-red-white flag or the Pahonia (a coat of arms) doesn’t only mean protesting against Lukashenko, but signifies protest against the establishment as a whole, drawing upon symbols that are not part of Belarus’ affiliation with USSR history.
An interesting fact about Belarusian protests is that they did not have any sort of violence in mind. Every day was a celebration. People would wake up, dress up and do their makeup as if going to a party. Standing in these long chains, people would joke with each other and make friends. Since August was boiling hot, people with cars would constantly bring water, ice-cream, flowers, and balloons to the protestors. The amount of understanding and care strangers showed to each other was beyond anyone’s expectations.
However, soon enough, the government decided to take this celebration from us, indiscriminately arresting protesters. People were incarcerated and hit with prohibitive fines. They would be threatened, but nothing would make them stop. It’s been more than a hundred days and Belarusians are still protesting. Though the protesters cannot put up their flags in public or even red-and-white Christmas decorations in their own private homes without threat of arrest, the mood of the people has not changed. The phenomenon of Belarusian protest is the phenomenon of the birth of the Nation. We used to be Belorussians and now we are Belarusians. Retirees, people with disabilities, students, workers, women and others have united together in their respective forms of opposition.
The people of this country, both young and old, are speaking Belarusian, raising the red-and-white flags and more frequently identifying as Belarusians, not Russian.
Historically, Belarusians have been politically apathetic out of necessity. Now, as the president seeks to mould the population into Russians against their will, they are rising up. The resilience of the demonstrators is beginning to make a mark. The people of this country, both young and old, are speaking Belarusian, raising the red-and-white flags and more frequently identifying as Belarusians, not Russian. The protests have evolved into an ongoing celebration of the Belarusian nation, as all sections of society come together to assert their self-defined identities, rather than accepting what is imposed from above. In the absence of political change, protests have helped us find our pride.