It started with the arrest of one blogger in May 2020 and derailed in May with the arrest of another. In the meantime, an internal struggle has crossed the borders of Belarus, a distant post-Soviet country, and has reached the political agenda of major Western countries.
The United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and several other countries have canceled flights, frozen accounts, cut investments and publicly criticized the so-called “last dictator in Europe”, Aleksandr Lukachenko ( pronounced “lucachênca”) 1.
1 Former director of a Soviet collective farm, Lukachenko won the first – and last – free election in Belarus, in 1994, and has controlled the country ever since.
Follow what happened during those 365 days, according to the account of a resident of Minsk who saw the game of cat and mouse of those who oppose the Belarusian dictatorship (her name was omitted on request for fear of reprisal).
“Let’s say my name is Anna – this is the most popular name in Belarus, so that no one can identify me by it. I am 34 years old, I am a journalist and a “backyard activist”.
I started participating in… they weren’t even protests yet. She collected signatures from neighbors during the first half of last year because she wanted to be an observer in the presidential elections 2. It was a naive wish: they wouldn’t even let us into the polling stations. Until August 9, election day, I was on maternity leave – I have a little baby. On that date, I was waiting for the results near a polling station, but when the commission published false results³, my neighbors and I went to town to protest.
On May 29, 2020, famous blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky (pronounced “tirranófski”), a presidential candidate who called the Belarusian dictator a cockroach, was arrested during the election campaign. His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaia, until then a housewife with two children, took her place and led an opposition front, taking tens of thousands of people to the streets.
³ After blocking out independent observers, the dictatorship reported that Lukachenko won with 80% of the vote – the number was considered an insulting fraud and sparked a protest the same night
Then, at night, in the center of Minsk, I saw a terrible picture 4. You must have seen it in the photos. I still remember how we were on our knees and the riot police started throwing grenades. That same night I started filming everything with my cell phone and early the next morning I called my editor and asked him to go back to work. I was terrified of doing nothing.
4 In the first week, over 7,000 people were arrested, 3 people died and 450 cases of torture were documented. Political opponents have been exiled or arrested
I followed the main steps, but the first was a demonstration of women. The Belarusians wanted to raise their voices against the violence and made currents of solidarity. These images began to circulate and other girls left work, took a taxi, and joined us, forming a large spontaneous march. I walked next to them from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and more and more people were arriving.
When I was not working as a journalist, I participated in the protests as an ordinary person. It was an incredible feeling. It seemed like there was so much love out there that we were going to be flooding with violence with him. The authorities didn’t know what to do with so many women at the time, so none of us were arrested. Until terror also reached the steps of women.
I was arrested during one of the last women’s walks of the fall. A man in an unmarked hooded uniform simply grabbed me and pushed me into the van. There were so many of us that we had to sit on top of each other, and that was during the coronavirus pandemic.
They took us to the detention center, where I stayed for three days until the trial. We were 8 in a cell for 5; they shut off the water in the cell and we could not rinse or even drink the water. On the second night, they removed the mattresses.
I have been tried twice. At first, for taking part in marches. I have a ticket. The second time around, they accused me of resisting arrest. Witnesses said that I hit a policeman and kicked the police car. I heard this lie with a coldness that surprised me.
As soon as I got out of prison, I went to the next step. I didn’t want to give them a victory.
But each time, the repression made it more and more difficult to form a large column. Then the walks in the neighborhoods began. In our region, this intense carnival was no longer seen as in the central avenues. People understood that they should escape the police. And then it cooled down. If in the summer the water cannon was even fun, when it started to get – 10 ºC outside it became a problem.
By late fall there were already a lot of police cars on our streets, like a patrol above us, even though we live far from the center.
Then the “backyard marches” began. And it was an art! We had our scouts and sentries, traded in secret conversations, and stormed the streets. But the police arrived in an instant. Many of my neighbors have been to jail several times.
And what walls there were in our region! There were so many murals, photos, graffiti that we hoisted our own flags.
But lately we can’t even walk the sidewalks in a group, because the police are also in our yards. They circulate in groups of four, and when it rains, they have to hide in the playgrounds, as no one lets them enter the buildings.
Now we had the idea of making a nocturnal wave of protests. At 8 pm everyone opens their window and shouts “Live Belarus forever”, “We believe, we can, we will win”. Sometimes we even recite poems.
We live near a forest and when there are fewer patrols “we light up the night”. We all go to the edge of the forest and light our lanterns. When the police arrive, we run through the trees like real partisans.
5 Term used mainly in Eastern Europe to designate the guerrillas who participated in the resistance to Nazism or who fought against the Soviet presence in the region
We also organize Belarusian language courses for our neighbors. It’s not as epic as the steps, but we teach people to speak our language, which is also important. And we wrote letters to political prisoners, and we raised aid for their families.
I am not afraid of being arrested or arrested. 6. But I am terrified that my baby will be taken from me. This has happened to some militant mothers before. Their families were labeled as dangerous and threatened to separate them from their children.
6 As of this Saturday (29), human rights organizations counted 426 political prisoners in Belarus and recorded 15 deaths linked to the repression.
The Great Marches are unlikely to return now. But we hope there will be a new window of opportunity for other forms of protest. The reaction of other countries to our situation greatly affects Lukachenko’s attitudes. He felt like the king of the world before. The hijacking of plane 7 is just one more proof of his practice of always doing what he wants.
And now he only resorts to [o presidente russo, Vladimir] Putin, and Putin is the one who supports him 8. Or not. Putin is also difficult to read. Recently, a Russian propagandist said that Russia must save its regions (that is, they consider Belarus to be their region) from Lukachenko.
Last Sunday, the Belarusian regime intercepted a plane from Athens and Vilnius and arrested blogger Roman Protassevich, one of the founders of the Nexta channel, who played a crucial role in organizing the anti-dictatorship marches. The act drew criticism and further sanctions from the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. Lukachenko says he received a bomb threat and hijacked a flight to protect the population
Belarus is relevant for Russia geopolitically – because it is a territory that separates it from the European Union – and economically – because it is a transit zone for fuels exported by the Russians. For Putin, there is an advantage in weakening Lukachenko, who had resisted Russian plans to increase his political and economic influence over Belarus. On the other hand, the Russian president wants to avoid at all costs a victory for the demonstrators, which could reinforce the waves of protest in his own country.
Apparently Lukachenko no longer has a plan. He didn’t expect us to hold out for so long. We neither. But we have no other choice.