What It’s Like on the Streets of Belarus
When I traveled to my home country shortly after the presidential elections, I found myself at the center of the Belarusian protests and was able to witness the events on the ground. What I saw there is both inspiring and unsettling.
The capital Minsk has changed a lot. It is as if the city that used to be so dreary and desolate has now awakened from sleep and filled with the spirit of change. Its streets are full of life, people, and police. It feels like people have become more interconnected, everyone thinks and talks about the same thing, and everyone is in anticipation of something.
The protests in Belarus have been going on non-stop for more than three weeks now and have become part of the daily routine in many cities. In the early morning, before the start of the work shift, demonstrations are held at large factories to support the striking workers. In the afternoon, doctors, teachers, scientists, IT specialists, and artists take to the streets to protest the authoritarian regime and its violence. People form human chains, sing Belarusian songs, show performances in public places, paint sidewalks and invent more creative ways to safely exhibit their rebellion. At night, there are big rallies on Independence Square with at least several thousand participants. Weekly protests on Sundays are huge, about 200,000 people in Minsk, about 5,000 in regional centers—unprecedented crowds for Belarusian cities. The diversity of participants is stunning—the mass protests are attended by people of all ages, all professions and social groups, who in any other context would never have come together. By contrast, rallies in support of Lukashenka organized by the state authorities are mostly attended by seniors and employees of state-run organizations, who read the national anthem on paper, shout slogans learned by heart, and quickly disappear if it starts raining.
The level of self-organization and solidarity is incredible. The Belarusians go to demonstrations in large groups, together with their colleagues, whole families, friends, and neighbors. Entrepreneurs and volunteers give water, food, flowers, and white wristbands (a symbol of protest) to the protesters for free. People also unite to organize medical aid to victims of police violence and financial assistance to people fired for political reasons, write petitions, and collect signatures on appeals to MPs. There are huge number of grassroots initiatives, and no clear leaders. Cynically rigged elections, horrific police violence, and disregard for any human rights by the government have left no one indifferent. The more severe the repressions are, the more people are affected, the stronger popular protest and solidarity become. Most opposition leaders were either imprisoned or exiled, so ordinary people took the initiative and self-organized within a matter of days. Now when civil activists and initiative coordinators are detained in Belarus, someone else takes their place—this is the strength of decentralized resistance.
A few months ago, Belarusians started to follow the news and became familiar with politics—which used to make no sense in Belarus in the past. Telegram is now the main and most important channel of communication and source of information, as online media is massively blocked, the few independent newspapers are no longer available, and journalists are detained and massively denied accreditation. Mobile Internet in Belarus is blocked almost every night. In small towns and villages, where the population in general is older and the Internet is used less, people are often unaware of the scale of protests and believe the myths about the unrest in Minsk organized by the West—the result of the TV state propaganda.
The contrast between the military rhetoric of state propaganda and the peaceful protests is striking. Riot police, army, water cannons, and even military vehicles are on the streets. Wartime music is played in the center of Minsk. The state TV channels show Lukashenka carrying a rifle. Meanwhile, the people take to the streets wearing white clothes, bringing flowers and singing folk songs.
The only source of violence and disorder in Belarus is the repressive state apparatus that massively arrest, maim, and torture people in prisons. The inherent patriarchy and misogyny lead to the detention of almost exclusively men, so that women deliberately become at the forefront in every sense—they coordinate most grassroots initiatives on site, volunteer to help victims of repression, fearlessly take to the streets, and even literally protect men from the police at the protests.
The protests in Belarus are a marathon. At this stage, people are on the edge of great enthusiasm and excitement, but also emotional and physical exhaustion. Side by side, protesters shout, "every day," and each of them knows that they must continue tomorrow and the day after, despite the fear of losing their jobs, being detained or beaten. It is this sense of unity, belonging, and solidarity that helps to overcome the fear.