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