Un­free­dom day:

Why the break­ing up of Minsk protest ral­lies does not dent op­po­si­tion to Alexander Lukashenka in Be­larus so­ci­ety

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Siargei Pul­sha, Minsk

Af­ter a large demon­stra­tion was quite roughly bro­ken up in Minsk on March 25 and in other re­gions of the coun­try on March 26, some glee­fully and oth­ers sadly re­marked, “There was no Maidan in Be­larus.” And they would both be com­pletely wrong. First of all, no Maidan could have hap­pened be­cause no one was plan­ning one. Se­condly, even if the peo­ple did not win this time around, they’ve made the most im­por­tant step to­wards vic­tory.

MAY­HEM IN MINSK

It may seem strange to say that the forcible break­ing up of a protest in the cap­i­tal and the ar­rest of nearly 700 de­mon­stra­tors is a step to­wards vic­tory. But you have to be in Minsk and re­mem­ber the story of what led up to this protest, es­pe­cially on the part of those in pow­ered: they did ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to pre­vent peo­ple from com­ing out onto the streets of the cap­i­tal. Such a bom­bard­ment of pro­pa­ganda and po­lice of­fi­cers to “clear out the ter­ri­tory” was last seen dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. And there is no elec­tion hap­pen­ing now.

A week be­fore the demon­stra­tion, a hunt was launched against com­mu­nity ac­tivists who were in a po­si­tion to lead the protests in one way or an­other. The gov­ern­ment caught them wher­ever they could: on the street, at home and at the work­place. In or­der to catch a lo­cal ac­tivist in Molodechno who had locked him­self in his apart­ment and re­fused to come out, the po­lice set the en­trance area on fire, called the fire de­part­ment, and sim­ply smoked the per­son out as a sup­posed evac­u­a­tion.

All those who were de­tained were pinned with the ar­ti­cle on par­tic­i­pat­ing in prior acts of protest and sent them off un­der ad­min­is­tra­tive ar­rest. In this way, more than 300 peo­ple across the coun­try were al­ready in jail even be­fore the protest started.

Of­fi­cial Minsk also set the pro­pa­ganda ma­chine go­ing full-force. Ukraini­ans, for in­stance, know about the “at­tempt to break into Be­larus from Ukrainian ter­ri­tory with a jeep full of weapons.” Of course, this was just an en­act­ment for the repub­li­can tele­vi­sion chan­nel. Ukraine’s bor­der ser­vice im­me­di­ately re­ported that a car of that de­scrip­tion had not crossed at any of its check­points, so it must have been hid­ing on neu­tral ter­ri­tory.

Imag­ine you are this “smug­gling ter­ror­ist.” You had to avoid all the Ukrainian bor­der cross­ings us­ing se­cret paths in or­der to then drive out of the for­est and storm the bar­ri­cades on the Be­laru­sian bor­der cross­ing? Only a real id­iot would do some­thing like that! Of course, the “jeep full of weapons” did not ex­ist. It was one of the of the stag­ings for pro­pa­ganda pur­poses: to cre­ate an at­mos­phere of fear among Be­laru­sians and scream on every TV screen: “Don’t go to any demon­stra­tions! Ukrainian mil­i­tants from Praviy Sek­tor will be there!”

RAIN ON THE PA­RADE BE­FORE IT HAP­PENS

Sud­denly, just be­fore March 25, Pres­i­dent Ali­ak­sandr Lukashenka an­nounces that some ter­ror­ist group, sup­pos­edly fi­nanced by Lithua­nia and Ukraine, has been ex­posed in Be­larus and it’s pre­par­ing for mass un­rest. The noble Be­larus cops have ar­rested “a few dozen mil­i­tants” who had a “train­ing camp” in the for­est out­side the county cap­i­tal Osipovichi.

The only prob­lem is that “Batska” [Be­laru­sian for Daddy] has an­nounced this to the en­tire na­tion while the “mil­i­tants” are so far nowhere to be seen. Their ar­rests be­gin only af­ter the Pres­i­dent’s state­ment. The tele­vi­sion chan­nels present the big story, show­ing the en­tire au­di­ence all the metal com­po­nents pre­pared and cached in the woods—why on earth go through all the bother of bury­ing stuff in the bush when any scrap yard in Minsk will cut it up for you by the tonne?—, as well as “weapons, grenades and ammo” that were sup­pos­edly seized from the mil­i­tant dur­ing a search.

Clearly, the plan had not been prop­erly worked up. Any­one who has been through mil­i­tary ser­vice could tell that the grenades were dummies, the ammo train­ing qual­ity—with long grooves along the sides to prac­tice fill­ing mag­a­zines—, and the weapons, also ei­ther dummies or hunt­ing ri­fles that the AK car­tridges that were seized,

even train­ing ones, would never fit. Could it be that the KGB de­cided that they could not risk putting real weapons in the hands of ig­no­rant Be­laru­sian pro­pa­gan­dists.

These video clips kept be­ing shown on tele­vi­sion for weeks. Mean­while, 26 in­di­vid­u­als had been ar­rested and were be­ing held in jail for the crime of be­ing in­volved in “mass dis­or­ders” that had never even taken place. Most of them were one-time mem­bers of the White Le­gion, a para­mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tion that was dis­solved 17 years ago, who teach in schools or sell books to­day, or mem­bers of the Youth Front, the for­mer youth wing of the Be­laru­sian Na­tional Front, which is still around. What con­nected the two groups? Last sum­mer, they all vis­ited a gov­ern­men­tap­proved sports camp! Maybe this is the “mil­i­tary train­ing camp” ev­ery­one was re­fer­ring to.

Those who were or­ga­niz­ing Free­dom Day tried to do ev­ery­thing strictly within the law, sub­mit­ting their per­mit ap­pli­ca­tion for a March 25 rally and march well within the stated time­frames. In the midst of these ef­forts to scare the pub­lic, the gov­ern­ment agency was at a loss and failed to make a de­ci­sion ei­ther way, in vi­o­la­tion of all leg­is­la­tion, un­til the very last mo­ment—the Fri­day night be­fore. This not only de­fied Be­laru­sian law but also gave the or­ga­niz­ers lit­tle choice: they ab­di­cated re­spon­si­bil­ity for the event.

When the news from all over talks about ar­rests, when, day af­ter day, the tele­vi­sion shows weapons that were in­tended to be used at the big ral­lies on March 25, when top of­fi­cials keep ex­pos­ing “mil­i­tants and ter­ror­ists,” when every day brings new ar­rests, when the event is not even al­lowed, af­ter all, who’s go­ing to show up at the rally? Es­pe­cially if it’s pretty much guar­an­teed that they will be trun­dled peo­ple off there…

“YOUR SCARE­MON­GER­ING ISN'T SCAR­ING US”

As March 25 drew near, all of Be­larus’s so­ci­ol­o­gists, po­lit­i­cal pun­dits and other “ex­perts” were unan­i­mous that there would never be any mass demon­stra­tions in the coun­try, ever. Why? Be­cause sup­pos­edly Be­laru­sians were very, very scared of a Maidan, of events such as Ukraine had seen, and they would not take part in protests be­cause they were afraid of all this.

On March 25 it­self, Be­larus’s lead­er­ship aban­doned the cap­i­tal to the riot po­lice and in­ter­nal armed forces. The gath­er­ing point for the rally, a small square in cen­tral Minsk not far from the Academy of Sciences, was sur­rounded by OMON, in­ter­nal army and other spe­cial forces for 1.5 kilo­me­ters on all sides. Wa­ter can­nons, armed car­ri­ers, paddy wag­ons and uniden­ti­fied jeeps with metal con­trap­tions on them were demon­stra­tively rolled out into the streets. Some spe­cial­ists said that the jeeps were ar­mored to break through any bar­ri­cades by the peo­ple and to quickly put up their own.

Not only was the Academy of Sciences sub­way stop closed, but the ones be­fore and af­ter it were also closed down. All the high­ways go­ing into Minsk were pa­trolled by high­way po­lice and sol­diers with ma­chine­guns. Every sin­gle car was be­ing stopped and checked.

Be­larus had not seen such a con­cen­tra­tion of sol­diers in a sin­gle part of Mi­nak since March 2006. Nor had any­one seen sol­diers in hel­mets with riot shields or pump-ac­tion tear gas grenade launch­ers. It looked like every last po­lice and in­ter­nal forces unit was dragged into Minsk that day. All this ef­fort, just to scare peo­ple. The cal­cu­la­tion was that, see­ing the mas­sive prepa­ra­tions to stop thing, peo­ple would be scared and scat­ter to their homes. But they were very wrong. Both the ex­perts and the troops. Peo­ple saw it all, but they weren’t afraid. What­ever fears they might have had, about be­ing ar­rested, about be­ing de­tained, about sol­diers armed to the teeth, about a pos­si­ble Maidan, had some­how evap­o­rated.

WORSE THAN THE WAR IN DON­BAS?

Close to the po­lice bar­ri­ers an un­ex­pect­edly large num­ber of peo­ple showed up. And they were not afraid. The po­lice would go on the at­tack from time to time, grab­bing the most vis­i­ble of those in the crowd, who­ever they could get their hands on. Who­ever they could, the de­mon­stra­tors fended off. Those who were not re­cap­tured were not wor­ried. “In the paddy wag­ons, the new peo­ple who came on board passed on their fare to the driver,” was the way one de­tained re­porter, Art­siom Shraib­man, de­scribed the mood on the TUT.BY por­tal.

What’s more, the de­mon­stra­tors did not en­gage in any ag­gres­sive re­sis­tance with the law en­forcers. With this kind of demon­stra­tive non-ag­gres­sion, the po­lice was ob­vi­ously at a loss and be­gan to grab any­one they could. Even peo­ple who had just gone out to buy a loaf of bread and found their build­ing bar­ri­caded with shields when they re­turned. But even these peo­ple seemed unperturbed by what was hap­pen­ing.

“There are a cou­ple of teenagers in here with us, a farmer from Zhlobina, and an HR spe­cial­ist from EPAM,” wrote Shraib­man. “A lot of folks were taken by ac­ci­dent just be­cause they hap­pened to be walk­ing by in the gen­eral area. Many of them were gen­uinely sur­prised to see a jour­nal­ist locked up. ‘Isn’t that against the law?’ they asked me. And I asked if they weren’t for­eign­ers, to be ask­ing some­thing like that!”

Cer­tainly, what was go­ing on at the po­lice sta­tions re­minded peo­ple of the Gestapo. For in­stance, a Bri­tish re­porter for FSRN, Filip War­wick, was de­tained in Minsk. When asked where he was be­ing kept, at which sta­tion, the an­swer was al­ways the same, in Minsk, and the po­lice of­fi­cers iden­ti­fied them­selves as “Ivan Ivanovich,” mean­ing John Doe. He was beaten and hogtied af­ter he sat on the floor and said he wouldn’t get up un­til they al­lowed him to con­tact his em­bassy.

War­wick was only able to re­turn to the hos­tel where he was stay­ing at nearly two in the morn­ing, where he woke up his French col­league and asked her to hold his hand— they were not ac­tu­ally close friends—while he whis­pered in­ter­mit­tently to her about what had hap­pened to him. More than a week later, he was still talk­ing in a whis­per and it ap­pears he is suf­fer­ing from PTSD now. Shocked, he im­me­di­ately changed his re­turn ticket for an ear­lier flight and re­fused to leave the hos­tel. The French­woman smiled, but ad­mit­ted that she had never felt so scared her­self.

War­wick is ac­tu­ally known to many Ukrainian read­ers be­cause he trav­eled the length and breadth of Don­bas at the height of the con­flict in 2014. So it’s hard to be­lieve that such a young man would be eas­ily un­nerved. Yet it seems that Minsk on March 25 was scarier than the war.

But even this didn’t scare Be­laru­sians.

A DATE TO RE­MEM­BER

“I’m go­ing to re­mem­ber this day for the rest of my life,” says Face­book ac­tivist Raman Lievkovskiy. “No, not be­cause they ar­rested me or took me away, but be­cause I DIDN’T see any fear! When a dozen or so of us ac­ci­den­tal passers-by was pressed into the Akian store by a sea of black uni­forms and spe­cial equip­ment, I saw no fear.

Five me­ters from us they were push­ing peo­ple into buses. One, a sec­ond one, a third, but the young peo­ple were sim­ply laugh­ing their heads off! And I was even an­gry my­self, think­ing, ‘What’s there to laugh about?? You’re go­ing to be next!’ But they weren’t afraid. And when I was sit­ting in the dark, crowded paddy wagon, I would toss out “Wel­come aboard!” and, in­stead of fear, I heard back, “Hey, your­self!”

Lievkovskiy went on: “We got into a fight with the cops, who were pretty scared and couldn’t man­age to take a phone away from some­one, and kept call­ing for their higher-ups un­til they fi­nally set­tled for an en­sign! We ar­gued with the ‘co­work­ers’ in a long queue at the district po­lice de­part­ment. My eyes swam when I be­gan the process of fill­ing out forms, and peo­ple said firmly, ‘I went to a rally on Free­dom Day.’ I didn’t see any fear. Not in peo­ple’s eyes, not in their souls. I’m proud to be from Minsk!”

Af­ter it was all over, stand­ing at a bus stop, I heard one demon­stra­tor say to an­other, nod­ding to­wards the riot po­lice with their shields and ba­tons who had bar­ri­caded the av­enue: “To­day, we came out peace­fully. If we de­cided to come not peace­fully, even those won’t help them.”

And that is why Free­dom Day, March 25, 2017, was also Vic­tory Day. Vic­tory over fears. Over the Maidan, spe­cial forces, and armed young janis­saries. The only fear that re­mains is what will hap­pen when the peo­ple, driven to de­spair, de­cide to come out “not peace­fully.” Strangely enough, I fear for Be­larus’s OMON…

WHO'S AFRAID OF WHOM?

Who re­ally lost in this sit­u­a­tion was Lukashenka. He showed that he’s afraid, and mostly afraid of his own peo­ple. Why did he do this? It wasn’t nec­es­sary to whip things up. He could have just let peo­ple rally in the cen­ter. Or even not in the cen­ter, to just give or­ders for City Hall to di­rect the sit­u­a­tion and per­mit the or­ga­niz­ers to use an al­ter­na­tive site on the edge of town.

In­stead, Lukashenka stupidly got scared, es­pe­cially af­ter a se­ries of protest ac­tions against his poli­cies, es­pe­cially eco­nomic ones, in the prov­inces. Batska has al­ways been proud of the peo­ple’s sup­port and here he sud­denly saw that he was los­ing it. More than once in the past, he said openly, “I will leave when the peo­ple ask me to do so.” Now he could see that Be­laru­sians were ca­pa­ble of do­ing just that—on March 25. Even if the event only ral­lied 1015,000 peo­ple from the city of Minsk, with its pop­u­la­tion of 2 mil­lion.

First of all, Lukashenka has no safety blan­ket. Ear­lier, large-scale demon­stra­tions only took place dur­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, where he was typ­i­cally touted as the win­ner, with 83-85% of the vote. He could, of course, claim, “The ma­jor­ity are on my side. These folks on the square are a mi­nor­ity.” But there is no elec­tion in the wind to­day, so there is no one to ap­peal to.

Se­condly, he can only blame him­self for driv­ing him­self into the trap of pop­ulist rhetoric. The Pres­i­dent can­not say that some fifth col­umn has come out on the streets of Be­larus be­cause he ap­par­ently jailed them all even be­fore the event. Af­ter all, some 300 Be­laru­sians had al­ready been charged un­der ad­min­is­tra­tive and crim­i­nal ar­ti­cles of law and ar­rested. So Lukashenka was left to face his own peo­ple.

And the main thing that he hears from them to­day is “Go!”

In the end, the peo­ple now stand on one side of an in­vis­i­ble bar­ri­cade while Lukashenka and his cir­cle, sur­rounded by his shield-bear­ing po­lice, are on the other. The peo­ple have al­ready tested those shields once. “A Maidan in Be­larus? Never heard of it”

Mikala Statke­vich, ex-can­di­date for pres­i­dent, the main street fighter of Be­larus’s op­po­si­tion, sat in jail for five years for the 2010 elec­tion. Statke­vich took re­spon­si­bil­ity on him­self for or­ga­niz­ing March 25 but was un­able to carry it out, in the end. On March 24, he found him­self in the KGB iso­la­tor, from which he was only re­leased on March 26. In­ter­est­ingly, the KGB did not ac­tu­ally say why they had ar­rested him and some Be­laru­sians re­mem­bered the ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings and dis­ap­pear­ance of Luka­henka op­po­nent in the early 2000s.

A week be­fore, he was asked if Be­larus would have a Maidan. “There won’t be any Maidan in Be­larus,” said Statke­vich with a smile, “be­cause the Be­larus lan­guage has no such word.”

Right now, it’s un­likely that any­one is ready to pre­dict what will be in Be­larus. An econ­omy can’t be fixed us­ing billy­sticks. The Lukashenka regime des­per­ately needs money but has shown the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund clearly where their loans are go­ing: on wa­ter can­nons and APCs. In short, talks with the IMF may not be frozen, but they are cer­tainly sus­pended, for now. A Be­laru­sian gov­ern­ment del­e­ga­tion flew to Moscow the day be­fore March 25, the lat­est in a se­ries of at­tempts to agree about nat­u­ral gas and oil sup­plies. Noth­ing came of the talks. Rus­sia has stopped giv­ing out cred­its, not just to Be­larus, but to any­one.

In Europe, there’s al­ready talk of re­new­ing sanc­tions against Lukashenka and his cir­cle, if Be­larus be­gins jail­ing po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. If the two dozen or so “mil­i­tants” aren’t re­leased soon, the pris­on­ers of con­science cer­tainly will be.

With the econ­omy in a tail­spin, pub­lic protests are only likely to grow. The night be­fore March 25, Statke­vich said that a sin­gle demon­stra­tion would not re­solve any­thing, that the gov­ern­ment needed to be “squeezed as though by a python, tight­en­ing the cir­cle every time and press­ing harder and harder un­til it agrees to real talks.” Statke­vich un­der­stand­ably cau­tious. “We could take down this gov­ern­ment with a sin­gle protest, but the dan­ger there is that Rus­sia will in­ter­vene,” says the politi­cian. And no one wants to lose their in­de­pen­dence.

That’s why peo­ple came out on Free­dom Day in Minsk, to cel­e­brate the an­niver­sary of the first Be­laru­sian state in modern his­tory, March 25, not to “take down a bloody regime.” And that’s why the rally was peace­ful from the very start for its par­tic­i­pants. Un­for­tu­nately, the coun­try’s econ­omy is de­clin­ing so much that soon there might not be enough money even to pay the en­forcers. “At that point, this bloke (Lukashenka – Ed.) will be brought out al­ready tied up,” said Statke­vich.

The Be­larus op­po­si­tion’s next planned rally, the Chornobyl Way, is for April 26. More likely, how­ever, street ac­tions are only likely to be vis­i­ble in the fall, when things get even tougher.

THE LUKASHENKA REGIME DES­PER­ATELY NEEDS MONEY BUT HAS SHOWN THE IN­TER­NA­TIONAL MON­E­TARY FUND CLEARLY WHERE THEIR LOANS ARE GO­ING: ON WA­TER CAN­NONS AND APCs

An un­likely vic­tory? The break­ing up of a protest in Minsk and the ar­rest of 700 de­mon­stra­tors hardly looks like a step to­wards suc­cess. Yet, it is im­por­tant to bear in mind that ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble was done to pre­vent peo­ple from com­ing out onto the streets in the first place

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