The movement of ‘dreamers’ against the ‘one-size-fits-all’ propaganda
Belarus, from its capital and regional centres to its towns and villages, has now been engulfed in anti-government protests for 15 consecutive days. The peaceful March for a New Belarus on 23 August led to Lukashenka parading with a Kalashnikov in his hand and his press service claiming that the protesters ‘sort of stormed’ his residence.
This disinformation rhetoric is not new, with its methods imported from Russia. After the resignation of top Belarusian TV reporters and presenters, Lukashenka invited Russian propaganda experts to replace them. Lacking subtlety and knowledge of the Belarusian political landscape, they have already called Belarus ‘Byelorussia’ and become confused over the spelling of Lukashenka’s famous nickname ‘Batska’ (Dad in Belarusian) bestowed upon him by his supporters.
Video: Lukashenka’s official Telegram channel “Pul Pervogo”
Following the example of Putin’s rallies, the regime’s advisors have tried to demonstrate its own loyal base. For all its absurdity, stories date the extravagant use of taxpayers’ money has not paid off.
Komsomol and party gatherings 2.0
In an attempt to show the undying love of the people on government TV, local authorities were ordered to gather state employees on the main squares. Most of them were threatened with losing their jobs or promised a bonus. Some went out of their own conviction that the demonstrators were willing to ‘destroy the country’ with another ‘Ukrainian scenario’.
Starting with Minsk on 16 August, a historic day for the country that saw the largest peaceful protest in its recent history, the government assembled its own not-so-protesting crowd. Asked whether the gathered supporters want any changes, they would categorically respond ‘No!’, as well as replying ‘None!’ in answer to the reforms they would like to see implemented. Eclipsed in numbers tenfold even by conservative estimates, this rally seemed more like a caricature in comparison to the sea of people marching with their eyes full of hope for change.
The pro-government gatherings have continued in other cities, starting with the east regional centres – Homel’ and Mahilou – possibly trying to imply an imaginary divide within this culturally homogeneous country. The authorities have recreated the same scenario throughout the country: people have been transported by bus from the regions, a massive flag has been hung on the local administration building, while a helicopter with a smaller flag flew over the crowd. In Vitsebsk, the creativity went even further and a hot-air balloon became part of the ‘celebration’. TUT.by has estimated that the stage and sound equipment alone would have cost around 5 thousand EUR to the local administrations, with other expenses also adding up to thousands of euros.
Demonstrators’ behaviour has been far from spontaneous: with the dutifully rehearsed chants ‘For Batska!’ they waved flags and held posters provided by the organisers, leaving within a couple of hours by the same buses on which they arrived. The use of Soviet flags and Saint George’s ribbons seemed to be intentionally evoking images of Eastern Ukraine and thoughts of ‘anything but war’ in the minds of TV viewers. The tour continued in Barysau, Babrujsk, Brest, Hrodna and other towns.
‘Dreamers’ or do-nothings?
What about the demonstrations on the other side? Women formed the backbone of the second wave. Outraged by accounts of torture in police custody and loss of life among protesters, they showed once again that the protests were peaceful by using the colour white and flowers as their main symbols, undeterred by the fear of repression.
The movement has been extremely diverse in age and background, comprising factory workers, intellectuals, artists, business people and the wider civil society. ‘One for all, all for one’ has been their common slogan. While this was made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers, the Belarusian ‘musketeers’ are also a mixed bunch. These days to show the unity of the people, some are using both the historical white-red-white and the current red-green flags. Whether they will be able to agree on the intricacies of domestic or foreign policy is yet to be seen. However, they are certainly against violence and in favour of free and fair elections.
While Lukashenka calls these protesters alcoholics, ‘sheep’ following the orders of foreign puppeteers and drug addicts who cannot hold down a job, the protesters have been turning these words used in an abusive context into another protest chant. At the gatherings, there are now recurring ironic roll calls to check whether all of the above groups are present. The demonstrators have also been known to take off their shoes when stepping on benches, collect up rubbish after the gatherings, and cross the street when the light is green.
Video: Darya Mustafayeva
Branded naive, the opposition Coordination Council’s members have stood their ground and referred to the movement as ‘dreamers’. Given the solidarity within the country and the support by the diaspora from all over the world, a great number of initiatives have been created to help those in need of legal, medical and financial aid.
Two camps or one nation on the verge of change?
On occasion, heated debates have ensued between demonstrators from the two sides, most being rehearsed statements or pure provocation by the authorities, with others being genuine discussions based on years of propaganda. Is it a sign of division within the country? Let us not forget that Belarus is a place where no political debates are held on TV or in parliament. The National Assembly is a rubber-stamp institution, whose members are appointed rather than elected through the spectacle of parliamentary voting.
Since the instruments of representative democracy have been crippled and the votes have been stolen before even being cast, this could allow people the opportunity to express political opinions outside their kitchens. Autocratic regimes rely on the apathy of citizens who see no need to express their views, thus it is a misstep on Lukashenka’s side which no one could have imagined two weeks ago.
The Coordination Council urged the authorities not to divide Belarusians into those carrying white-red-white or red-green flags or into Belarusian-speaking and Russian-speaking, since they are one people who want change.
Though the anti-government and pro-Lukashenka camps disagree on many issues, both chant the same slogan that is difficult to dispute ‘While we are united, we are invincible!’ If Belarusians manage to see beyond the not-so-subtle disinformation and start a constructive dialogue, this mantra may prove to be true.
The sixth time was different: a revolution unfolds in Belarus
Belarus stands before a critical chapter in its history. Following a rigged election in which the incumbent claimed an absurd 80% of the vote, thousands took to the streets demanding free and fair elections and an end to repression. This is an unprecedented show of support for democratic values in a country that has experienced just one competitive election – in 1994, bringing President Alexander Lukashenka to power for the next twenty-six years.
The scale of the protests is remarkable given the risks Belarusians face: at least 6,700 were arrested after the election; at least two protesters were killed; gruesome stories of beatings during and after detention abound. The broad-based opposition is united in a desire for change. Their resolve only strengthened following an internet blackout and police brutality. Mass actions have spread to the smallest towns and villages and encompass diverse segments of society. Demonstrations remain orderly – protesters even pick up their trash.
Citizens coordinate via an encrypted Telegram channel NEXTA (meaning “somebody” in Belarusian), which currently has over 2 million subscribers. NEXTA announces main protest events, cheers on occasional defections from the regime side, posts inspiring images and videos, and publicizes protesters’ horrific stories of torture and rape by the security forces. The channel is manned by a small team of professional journalists who do their best to verify stories and weed out “fake news” and, importantly, warn about provocations.
Dozens of state-owned factories are on strike, a remarkably effective strategy given the degree of state ownership in the economy. The size and strategic importance of the striking enterprises, which include Belaruskali, Belarusian Automobile Plant, Minsk Tractor Works, and many others, facilitate organisation and put workers directly in confrontation with the state. The workers are joined by doctors, teachers, artists, and transport workers. Even CEOs of Belarus’s top IT companies have called for an end to violence and new elections in an open letter.
How Belarusian society has matured
The scale and the nature of civic mobilisation show how much Belarusian society has matured in the past decade. The majority of the population lives in urban areas (78%) and is connected to the Internet (79%). The regime dominates TV and print media, but Belarusians have access to other sources of information – not only in Russian and English-speaking media, but also in home-grown Telegram and YouTube channels that rely on user-generated content. Incomes have risen, enabling Belarusians to travel, work and study abroad. Belarus has an active 1.5 million diaspora, socialized in democratic states and ready to support mobilization in Belarus financially. A new generation, no longer moved by scary stories of the post-Soviet transition, has grown up. This well-educated and tech-savvy society can hardly be ruled by a corrupt and misogynistic 65-year-old president, who came into politics after managing a collective farm.
Belarusians honed their organisational skills in the face of Lukashenka’s inaction during the coronavirus epidemic. They organised innovative crowdfunding campaigns to provide medical workers with protective equipment; publicised the rising number of cases and authorities’ cover-up of the fatalities, and made informational videos about the virus. They self-isolated, wore masks, and worked from home voluntarily. They searched the internet to learn more about the virus, getting more and more convinced of Lukashenka’s incompetence.
The solidarity and connections generated as a result of the epidemic soon expanded into the political sphere. Belarusians created not one but many online platforms to count votes independently and register electoral irregularities. Their ability to self-organise is illustrated by the success of the civic initiative, Honest People. The initiative was started by the campaign of Viktar Babaryka, whose presidential candidacy was foiled by the regime, but quickly evolved into an independent operation. The initiative urged voters to photograph their ballots and to report electoral irregularities on the online platforms Golos (translated as Voice).
Before the authorities shut down the internet on election day, 1.2 million out of 6.8 million eligible voters had registered their votes with Golos. Of these, just 1% were for Lukashenka, according to the intermediate results. The accounts of electoral falsification were also numerous, verified for a third out of 989 verified polling stations, in all of which Lukashenka claimed over 75% of the vote.
No more inevitability around Lukashenka
While no one doubted that every post-1994 was falsified, the precise scale of manipulation had always remained a mystery. With independent surveys banned and media controlled by the regime, Lukashenka managed to create an atmosphere of inevitability around his rule. Even the EU and the US grew tired of imposing sanctions and adopted a pragmatic policy vis-à-vis the Belarusian regime, particularly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This year, the West was distracted by the coronavirus epidemic, looming recession, and democratic backsliding in its own backyard. The changing mood in Belarus was easy to miss; civic activism on such a massive scale seemed improbable just a few months ago.
In fact, President Lukashenka himself seems to have underestimated the revolution unfolding before his very own eyes, possibly because he banned independent polling and surveys. He made one misstep after another, starting with mishandling the coronavirus epidemic and ending with uniting the historically fragmented opposition by repressing some serious challenges and underestimating another, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. These mistakes proved decisive in turning latent mobilizational capacity of Belarusian society into street protests.
Women against the dictator
The authorities denied registration to blogger Sergei Tikhanousky and two other promising opposition candidates, Babaryka and Valery Tsepkalo, and arrested Tikhanovsky and Babaryka. Then their electoral campaigns united behind Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who decided to register in her husband’s place. Registration allowed Tsikhanouskaya to hold sanctioned rallies and maintain the momentum of mobilisation in the run-up to the elections, despite the arrests of the most promising candidates.
A 37-year-old teacher of English turned stay-at-home mum, she was an opposition candidate unlike any other. Her campaign was immediately supported by two other women, Maria Kalesnikava, campaign manager for Babaryka, and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of Valery Tsepkalo – he fled the country to protect their children. Competing against three women was terrible optics for Lukashenka, who is known for his misogynistic statements. The incumbent may have genuinely underestimated Tsikhanouskaya because of her gender, claiming that Belarusian society “was not mature enough to vote for a woman.”
Tsikhanouskaya played up the traditional female image, claiming that she did not want to be president and preferred to be at home making cutlets for her family. She positioned herself as forced to stand up to the regime in order to support her spouse and to ensure a better future for her children, something many Belarusians could relate to. Her promise to hold another, free and fair election, if she won, united a broad range of groups across society. Her campaign lacked anti-Russian or nationalist rhetoric, which has divided the opposition and alienated some population groups in the past.
What happens next
As a revolution unfolds in Belarus, it is difficult to predict what the country will be like in a few months. Streets can remain full for only so long, and Lukashenka still remains in power. Belarus is in a union state with Russia and remains geopolitically important for Russian president Vladimir Putin, who may be tempted to take advantage of the instability. The success of a bottom-up protest movement in unseating the incumbent would be unsettling for Moscow, given the unrest in its eastern regions.
It is clear that Belarus’s political system and society will not look the same when the dust settles. People have gained crucial organisational skills and motivation to stand up for their dignity. Belarus also has many of the structural preconditions for democracy, including the educated, homogeneous, and relatively well-off population. At the same time, Lukashenka has all the incentives and tools necessary to rule by force. Now is the time to show solidarity with Belarusians who are risking their lives to live in a more democratic country.
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