The tide of change laps the political shoreline, but is a Tsunami on the way?
By Chiara Castro: Politics Columnist
A white and red stream has been flashing the streets of the major cities of Belarus for almost two weeks now. The colour of opposition. The hallmark of independence. It is painting the main newspaper covers around the world with hope of many in the troubled country.
All united, Belarusian rioters are marching at the pace of the chant “Leave”, holding flowers onto their chest. Big placards healing on the air read “Freedom for political prisoners”. Others spell out “Free election”, “Change”. In a perfect harmony under the banner of bravery, thousands of people are gathering together fighting in the name of democracy. It seems that Lukashenko’s reign, thought to be the last dictatorship remaining in Europe, is finally shaking. But this is just the beginning. Belarus protests are not over, yet. The power of unity has just started to ignite.
For who is not familiar with how life under Lukashenko’s regime looks, it is worth perusing. Europe’s longest serving leader, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the country for over 26 years. A chasm of terror, suppression of opposite voices and economic stagnation has left scars on the Belarusian psyche. During his five terms as president of Belarus, Lukashenko has jailed countless of opposition leaders, taken control of the national TV for his dogmatic political propaganda and reportedly rigged several elections. According to experts, the last free and fair presidential poll occurred as far back as 1994. Although he managed to keep his authoritarian grip for so long, now, after the umpteenth flawed election, Belarusians are not willing to abide anymore. Worn out by unemployment grievances and a hilariously mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis (Lukashenko actually advised a therapy based on vodka and sauna as possible Coronavirus cure before contracting the disease himself), citizens decided to join forces and raise their voices.
hundreds injured, over 6700 arrested and at least 2 dead…
The Orwellian plot of the last election campaign is, so, just the most recent representation of Lukashenko oppressive conduct. An absurd storyline that seems to have been generated by the best minds behind the scripts of our favourite dystopian TV series. Sadly, we are not watching a movie download this time. It is real life, news. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, believed to be favoured among the voters was just a teacher and stay-home mum before running for the presidency. She had no intention of competing for the role since her husband, a famous blogger who was about to face Lukashenko at the pool, got arrested at the end of May. Siarhei Tsikhanouski is currently in jail accused to be a foreign agent. While following the elections, she had to escape to the near Lithuania after being detained for seven hours by the CEC (Central Election Commission of Belarus) as well as receiving threats against her daughters.
The same copybook has also seen the philanthropist Viktar Babaryka dealt with similarly, in addition many democracy activists, rioters, journalists and bloggers have reportedly been detained. It has been estimated that during the demonstrations that took place between May and August over 1,300 people had been restrained. Some even faced jailed just because they were waiting for the results near the polling stations after having left their vote. Plus, at midnight of August 9, an internet blackout occurred, quoted as being “multiple cyber attacks of varying intensity” by a telecom spokesperson, for which the digital shutdown lasted for 61 long hours. As Wired reported, there is evidence indicating that the government could have used deep-packet inspection tools for blocking some popular news websites. After internet got restored, the poll results (80.23% for Lukashenko and 9.9% for Tsikhanouskaya) had already been made public, triggering the public rage.
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The March of Freedom, the biggest demonstration in the history of Belarus since its independence, is just one of the latest act of the apparent Revolution that, since May has been mobilising thousands of democracy fighters. The Sunday after the election protesters filled the streets and squares of Minsk and other major cities, such as Brest, Gomel, Grodno, Mogilev and Vitebsk. Kilometre-long human chains and millions of workers on strike seemed to be without apparent guide though.
With many opposition leaders either in jail or in exile, who is the mind behind the rallies? As happened before during the Colour Revolution in Armenia and Ukraine, social media platforms are using their gathering force mobilising an entire nation. For instance, the channel NEXTA Live and its founder, a 22-year-old blogger named Stsiapan Sviatlou who lived outside the country and has been posting on his platform political information since 2015, reportedly helped orchestrate the demonstrations. Belarus is the best example that using social media for producing social change is actually possible.
Peaceful demonstrations, adorned with flowers, folk song and independence flags, have been facing a ruthless police violence since the outbreak. Tear-gas, “flash bangs” and rubber bullets have been used on rioters at close distance. Even people joining the chant of protest from their balconies encountered the same treatment. First estimations suggest hundreds injured, over 6,700 arrested and at least two persons dead. The brutality of the riot police, a last resort for keeping authority, produced a high sense of outrage among many Belarusian citizens. Some police officers throw their uniforms in the bin, publishing the act on their social media platforms as well as several journalists of state media outlets giving resignation.
Despite these efforts, the President remains steadfast, as he said on a visit to a tractor plant last week, the BBC reported “We held the election. Until you kill me, there will be no other election.” While from abroad, he could be hoping military support from the near neighbour, Russia. Is Putin going to really intervene?
It is still not clear whether or not the Russian army will support the Belarusian regime in suppressing the political riots. Belarus is an important pawn for Putin geopolitical chessboard. For this reason, he cannot risk to turn the democracy movement against Russia as well. However, any interference from NATO or EU leaders could lead to a departure from Russian sphere of influence. Something that the Russian president is trying to avoid at all costs. At the moment, European leaders reaction was limited to process new sanctions against the state. Yet, it is since 1997 that the European Union has been placing penalties against Belarusian regime.
Even though international leaders reactions appeared not to be ineffective, a supportive sentiment is steamrolling out of Belarusian borders. Many countries around Europe felt obliged to participate to the scream for democracy launched by their neighbours. More than 50,000 Lithuanians joined a human chain long 32 kilometres, from Vilnius to the Belarus border, in solidarity with the Belarusian fight. Also in Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Czech Republic and Romania social activists took over the main squares and streets on their behalf. The power of unity has been initiated and it does not have frontiers anymore.
Last but not least, Belarusian women are sending a powerful and touching message throughout the demonstrations. Concatenations of women, wearing white clothes and ribbons as a sign of support for the opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya, have been stretching among the streets since August 9 elections. With flowers on their hands follows by a chorus of honking cars, demanding the end of police brutality. A significant peaceful movement, a revolution of love for condemning violence with flowers rather than with bullets. This is probably the best expression of unity that is going to be hard to forget.
After years of despair, Belarus is still fighting against its oppressor. Its population is facing violence, blood and pain. All this because citizens dared to claim back their dignity and legitimately demand for the truth. Lukashenko and his army are trying to scare rioters with the force. Bullets, threats and torture are just some among the preferred techniques. But Belarusians do not seem ready to lease the grip, yet. To get scared. This is their time to stay together. They cannot surrender to the crash of the government’s brutality as happened in the past. They are aware that it has to be now the moment to show to the regime the real power of unity. To demonstrate that if enough powerless people fight alongside each other, they can make the difference. That united they could crack the last dictatorship of Europe. Loudly, without return.
MACKAYAN: THE BELARUS PROTESTSTweet