“And what is it, what is it that they want / Centuries despised: those deaf, blind ones? / To be called people.” These words by Janka Kupala, Belarus’s national poet, published in the early 1900s, have come to mind in recent days as protests have rippled through the nation. Twenty-six years after Alexander Lukashenko came to power in the Republic of Belarus’ first and last democratic elections – almost immediately stripping the country of any ambitions to recover its national language, democratic process or historic myths and symbols after more than 70 years under the Soviet yoke – Belarus and Belarusians are seeing for the first time a fighting chance at meaningful politics and civic rights. Make no mistake, a people once described as the “dark, despised ones” (ciomny, pahardžany narod) have crossed a point of no return.
Olga Shparaga, a leading Belarusian political philosopher (whom I work alongside at the European College of Liberal Arts), described the emotions of fellow protesters in a phone conversation last Wednesday morning: “People are completely infuriated, ready to go wherever they need. This is not the time to think, but to act.” The protests followed the sham election on 9 August: the election commission gave Lukashenko approximately 80% of the vote when in all likelihood the main opposition actually won by a landslide. Unable to take these lies any longer, Belarusians took to the polling stations and streets in peaceful protest, only to be brutally attacked, gassed and shot at by riot police.
I asked Olga about the protesters’ goals: “Everyone is united for the first time ever: left-leaning Belarusians and the more traditionalist-oriented opposition of the past. They are fighting for basic human rights, rule of law and the constitution.” Indeed, the aims of the current protests are both modest and all-encompassing: end violence, topple dictatorship, demand real election statistics and have the true president-elect, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, call for new, fair elections.
Like Olga, many Belarusians have organised into neighbourhood-based groups on the basis of individual polling stations (uchastki). Local observers demanded the posting of the non-falsified election results (international missions such as the ODIHR were not invited to monitor the election, supposedly due to the Covid-19 pandemic). In many cases, polling station workers could be spotted fleeing the scene. In at least one instance, they even pre-emptively locked the station, forcing Belarusians who had just voted to climb over closed gates.
Still, a significant number of stations in Minsk and smaller areas posted the true results, suggesting a convincing victory for Tikhanovskaya. This moment of no longer perpetuating the totalitarian lie – to carry out the surprisingly radical act of telling the truth – is clear in one widely shared video of a polling station that captures the staffers posting the true election results. A middle-age woman tapes the results to the door of the uchastokbuilding and smiles nervously through her mask, seemingly holding back tears and fear. She proceeds to hug the other workers to the cries of a crowd of Belarusians: “Job well done! Thank you!” Shaken, they can hardly comprehend what they have done.
The digital component of the revolution mirrors the local protest cells that Olga and others describe. Groups and channels on the messaging app Telegram, run in part by central European news resources as well as popular bloggers, securely spread information, agitational posters and crucial protest guidelines, all while Lukashenko and his political machine have blocked off internet access across swathes of the country after the first nights of protests. Larger Telegram channels splintered off into local ones for grassroots organising, reminiscent of the wide net cast by Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo during their campaign tour in the weeks leading up to last Sunday’s election.
A number of sceptics in the west and countries in the region have been wondering whether Russia might simply come to Lukashenko’s aid; if “little green men” portending annexation might soon appear as they did in the aftermath of Viktor Yanukovych’s ousting in Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution. But the Maidan parallel is shaky at best. Belarus does not see a west-east split like its neighbouring Ukraine or even Poland. This is likely a good sign, because it means the vast majority of Belarusians – Russian and Belarusian speakers, conservatives and liberals alike – are united in their immediate anti-dictatorial goals. A powerful rallying cry has been accusations of “genocide against the Belarusian people”. Many evoke Belarus’s proud history of defiant partisans, likening the inhumane actions of the riot police to the Nazi occupation. If the Maidan revolution started as a movement envisioning Ukraine as a part of Europe, the Belarusian revolution-in-progress strives for the Belarusian people, having little to do (for now) with intended geopolitical allegiances.
Speaking in a simple accessible language and limiting existing political and cultural divides, the new Belarusian opposition – with a female face – has been able to foment protests with a clear, palatable anti-state-violence and anti-police message. Growing from small night-time protests to general strikes and the gathering of several hundred thousand peaceful protesters during the day, they are already making Lukashenko squirm. Most telling was a message of solidarity with protesters made on Saturday by Belarus’s ambassador to Slovakia, Igor Leshchenya: “According to the constitution, the people of Belarus are the only source of power in the country.” With more representatives of Lukashenko’s regime – including state TV propagandists, police officers and politicians – choosing truth instead, the dictator’s end is almost certainly nigh.
Belarus, perhaps for the first time ever, has a chance to become a “normal” European nation-state. Even under dictatorship, Belarusians have always placed themselves at the centre of Europe. This time, they finally stand a chance.
- David Kurkovskiy teaches at the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus. He is currently based in San Francisco.