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What is happening in Belarus? We explain the historic pro-democracy protests

Belarus demonstrators borrow tactics from Hong Kong protests as they rally for democracy

Since Aug. 9, thousands of pro-democracy protesters across Belarus – a European country a little smaller than Kansas – have taken to the streets every day to demand the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, following national elections that his opponents and international governments widely consider fraudulent. 

Since the protests began, around 6,700 people have been arrested. Two people have died in police custody. In a clampdown on press freedom, the government recently withdrew the accreditation of 17 journalists working for foreign media outlets. Three of the leading members of the opposition-led Coordination Council have been abducted. According to local media, they were kidnapped by unknown people in the center of Minsk

Russian President Vladimir Putin says that "reserve" forces are ready to back Lukashenko if "the situation gets out of control" sparking concerns about the similarity with Russia's actions in 2014 – after a popular revolution in Ukraine, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. Putin also agreed to provide an emergency loan of $1.5 billion to Lukashenko's administration after meeting between the two leaders in Sochi.

Where is Belarus on the map?

Belarus is located between Russia and other members of NATO. Lukashenko has ruled there since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Bush administration called him 'Europe's last dictator.' During the pandemic, Lukashenko repeatedly downplayed the danger from the disease advising Belarusians to visit the sauna and drink vodka to avoid falling ill. More than 700 people have died in Belarus from COVID-19.

This month, he claimed his sixth term as president.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko listens to the head of the Investigative Committee Ivan Naskevich during their meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on Sept. 7, 2020.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko listens to the head of the Investigative Committee Ivan Naskevich during their meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on Sept. 7, 2020.
Nikolai Petrov, AP

Lukashenko emerged with about 80% of the votes, according to official exit polls after voting ended Aug. 9. His main rival, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, won about 7%. She is the wife of imprisoned blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, and ended up running for office participating in the election in support of her husband.

"Lukashenko lives in the 90s. He arrested male candidates and left women because he thought that they were not a threat. But the entire opposition united around these women," said Franak Viacorka, a Belarusian journalist and pro-democracy activist who is currently in Minsk.

According to Viacorka, rigged elections and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic drove people into the streets. The scale of the subsequent protests has been unlike anything Belarus had seen.

Map of the protests

Protests have been held in more than 30 cities – the rally in Minsk drew over 200,000 people. According to Viacorka, rallies continue after 20 days of protest, from big cities to small villages.

Up to 250,000 people took to the streets of Minsk in the biggest rally in the history of the country on Aug. 23.
Up to 250,000 people took to the streets of Minsk in the biggest rally in the history of the country on Aug. 23.
Franak Viacorka

The major symbol of the Belarus uprising became the historic white, red, and white flag as opposed to the official green and red flag.

The famous Soviet perestroika-era song "Peremen!" (Changes) became a protest anthem. The song can often be heard during rallies. Originally, it was performed by Russian 1980s rock star Viktor Tsoi and his band Kino shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union. In some rallies, protestors also sing folk songs.

"This is the end of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which began in the ’80s and which ends now," Viacorka said. "As soon as Belarus becomes democratic, it means the end of Russian-Soviet colonialism."

Police brutality

“We Belarusians are peaceful people,” states the country's national anthem. The protests have been mostly peaceful, but riot police and military forces have responded with tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and stun grenades. According to BBC News, Belarus police also shoot live rounds at protesters.

Riot police were recorded using ambulances, reportedly using them to apprehend people. Riot police could be seen pummeling unarmed protesters with their boots and batons alongside law enforcement officers in civilian clothes.

Police detain students during a protest in Minsk, Belarus, on Sept. 1, 2020. Several hundred students gathered in Minsk and marched through the city center, demanding the resignation of the country's authoritarian leader after an election the opposition denounced as rigged. Many have been detained as police moved to break up the crowds.
Police detain students during a protest in Minsk, Belarus, on Sept. 1, 2020. Several hundred students gathered in Minsk and marched through the city center,... Police detain students during a protest in Minsk, Belarus, on Sept. 1, 2020. Several hundred students gathered in Minsk and marched through the city center, demanding the resignation of the country's authoritarian leader after an election the opposition denounced as rigged. Many have been detained as police moved to break up the crowds.
AP

"From Aug. 9 to 11, I saw how the police attacked people and beat them to meat with sticks," Viacorka said. "They attacked and arrested my friend, 16-year-old Miron Vitushko. His 16-year-old friend was beaten literally to the point of blackening his skin."

The first death of a protester was reported on Aug. 10. Officials said that Alexander Taraikovsky was killed when an explosive device that he intended to throw at police blew up in his hand. 

However, videos shot by Euroradio and an Associated Press journalist show Taraikovsky wasn't holding an explosive and was shot by the police. Officials also confirmed the death of a 25-year-old man who died in police custody. 

In Vaukavysk, the body of the 29-year-old director of the local museum Kanstancin Shyshmakou was found. He refused to sign off on final vote counts. Another Belarus protester, Mikita Kraucou, was found dead in a forest in Minsk with evidence of beatings.

A report by Amnesty International found that many of those arrested are being “stripped naked, beaten, and threatened with rape.”

Nikita Telizhenko, a journalist with the Russian online newspaper Znak.com, was arrested on the evening of Aug. 10.  He recalled in his article: “The most severe beatings were going on around us: blows, screams and groans were heard from everywhere. It seemed to me that some of the detainees had broken arms, legs and spine because at the slightest movement they screamed in pain."

Police officers kick a demonstrator during a mass protest on Aug. 10, 2020, following the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus. Thousands of people have protested in Belarus for a second straight night after official results from weekend elections gave an overwhelming victory to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, extending his 26-year rule. A heavy police contingent blocked central squares and avenues, moving quickly to disperse protesters and detained dozens.
Police officers kick a demonstrator during a mass protest on Aug. 10, 2020, following the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus. Thousands of people have protested... Police officers kick a demonstrator during a mass protest on Aug. 10, 2020, following the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus. Thousands of people have protested in Belarus for a second straight night after official results from weekend elections gave an overwhelming victory to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, extending his 26-year rule. A heavy police contingent blocked central squares and avenues, moving quickly to disperse protesters and detained dozens.
AP

One of the factors driving violence is the influence of state propaganda on police, according to Viacorka.

"When you are in the Army, you are closed from the world, you are in the barracks, you do not have the internet, you read only the pro-government sites every day. I imagine that these special forces and riot police are sitting in the same barracks, and when you are in such a brainwashing atmosphere, you stop thinking critically, therefore the soldiers will never join the side of the people," said Viacorka, who served in the Armed Forces of Belarus.

Experts from the U.N. reported that there are at least 450 documented cases of torture and ill-treatment of people arrested after Aug. 9. According to the U.N., most people reported missing have been accounted for, but the whereabouts and state of health of at least six individuals remain unknown to their relatives. There have been reports that more than 70 people are still missing. 

"What happened after the elections is a national tragedy," Viacorka said.

Women lead protests

Dressed in white and carrying flowers, thousands of Belarusian women have taken to the streets across the country to call for an end to the brutal crackdown by government forces on protesters. 

Women opening the protest on Aug. 29.
Women opening the protest on Aug. 29.
Franak Viacorka

Lukashenko has stated that women cannot run Belarus. “Our constitution is not for women,” he said earlier this year. “Our society has not matured enough to vote for a woman. This is because by constitution the president handles a lot of power.” He also suggested that the female opposition leader, Tsikhanouskaya, should focus on cooking dinner for her children.

"I think this is a revolt against humiliation and the most humiliated ones for all these years were women," Viacorka said. "They never made decisions."

The crowds of mostly men in work clothes followed women into the streets as state-owned enterprises and state broadcasters began to strike. Hundreds of organizations and enterprises around the country have joined the protests.

Workers from these companies have joined protests

Students have been holding massive rallies starting on Sept. 1 and coinciding with knowledge day, a holiday where students celebrate the start of a new school year. Many have been beaten and arrested since.

Many people claiming to be members of the police and security services filmed themselves throwing out their uniforms in protest. Workers have continued to hold rallies despite threats of criminal charges and the detention of their leaders.

Protest playbook

Belarusians have been following Hong Kong’s “Be Water” tactic – a flexible protest strategy that avoids direct confrontation with police. At the beginning of the protest movement, protests were mainly decentralized. However, Hong Kong hasn’t been the protesters’ only inspiration, according to Viacorka. He says that women's marches were inspired by the U.S., and women in white was originally a Cuban idea.

According to Viacorka, the events in Belarus can be compared with Polish solidarity strikes, and with forms of protest in Hong Kong. He compares the situation in Belarus to other European nations.

"In this situation with Lukashenko, as it was with Yanukovych in Ukraine. He is hated by the people and supported by Putin. The accidental leader of the people (of Belarus) is similar to Armenia's. Tsikhanouskaya is like Pashinyan (the prime minister of Armenia.)"

There is no single leader organizing the protests. Gatherings have been taking place spontaneously, and the participants, other Belarusians, and people living outside the country often find out information about what is happening through Telegram channels. Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, has become Belarus’ leading source of information due to a government-imposed internet blackout. 

Learning from Hong Kong's protests

NEXTA, the largest telegram channel (meaning “someone” in Belarusian) promptly publishes videos and photos from the protests and serves as the movement’s virtual headquarters. The number of subscribers nearly quadrupled over three days, from 300 thousand to more than 1 million. Now, it has more than 2.1 million. The population of Belarus is around 9.4 million. 

Lukashenko has been trying to undermine protesters by disrupting the country’s internet access. In turn, Belarusians turned to offline applications – which enable users to communicate without an internet connection – and VPN tools.

In another form of protest, people have been avoiding the purchase of merchandise made by state enterprises and delaying payment for utilities to state companies.

What's next?

Three countries have implemented sanctions against Belarusian officials, so far. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia imposed travel bans on Lukashenko and 29 other Belarusian officials. The sanctions target officials they accuse of having a role in vote-rigging and in violence against protesters since the election. EU foreign ministers agreed to prepare a list of Belarusian officials to target with sanctions. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States and European partners are together reviewing targeted sanctions on anyone involved in human rights abuses in Belarus. However, Viacorka expressed concern that sanctions should have been implemented much earlier.

"In Belarus, everyone constantly followed the U.S. and waited for what Americans would say. There is always more expectation from Americans than Americans can imagine," Viacorka said. "American leadership is very needed in such moments. It's a shame that there is a lack of this leadership now."

According to Viacorka, there is no going back for the regime. The majority of the population of Belarus is set against Lukashenko, and even his supporters don't back him anymore after seeing violence against peaceful protesters.

"There was a blow to the regime, there is a big fracture, but this is not the collapse of the system," Viacorka said. "There are two options now: either this fracture will continue to crack little by little or there will be another blow to the regime and then it will all fall apart."