December 7, 2021

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How Belarus Has Changed Since An Election Ignited A Crisis One Year Ago

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On August 9, 2020, a bitterly disputed election threw Belarus into turmoil, casting a stark spotlight on a country at Europe’s heart that has often been caught in the middle of momentous events — but has rarely been the center of attention. One year after the vote, Belarus is in some ways almost unrecognizable.

In power since 1994, authoritarian former Soviet state farm chief Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory and a sixth term in a presidential vote that millions believe was rigged, sparking unprecedented protests and a brutal clampdown that shows few signs of flagging.

Day after day for months after the election, crowds of citizens took to the streets in the capital, Minsk, and other cities and towns across Belarus to join demonstrations, displaying defiance in the face of the frequently violent tactics of the police and security forces deployed to crush them.

More than 33,000 people have gone through police detention. Hundreds have been tried or are awaiting trial. Thousands have been beaten by police on the streets or in custody and accounts of alleged torture are common, particularly at the notorious Akrestsina prison in Minsk.

Police clash with protesters on election night in Minsk on August 9-10.

Most opposition leaders have either been locked up or forced to flee, including Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the accidental candidate who filled in when her husband, a popular blogger, was locked up on charges widely seen as bogus and barred from the election.

Tsikhanouskaya, who supporters contend would have won the election if the ballot count had been honest, has become the most prominent leader of Belarus’s democratic opposition, meeting with senior officials in Europe and, late last month, with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House.

One year after the vote, the mass protests have largely disappeared amid the decimation of democratic forces and the fear fostered by the crackdown.

Civil society groups and independent media have been prominent targets, particularly in recent months, and Lithuania has accused Lukashenka of “weaponizing” migrants, sending them in sharply increased numbers to punish the EU member state — and the West — for its vocal support of his opponents.

Amid the doom and gloom, glimmers of hope have emerged as well over the past year. Women, dismissed by Lukashenka as weak, have stepped forward in what remains a largely conservative country to take on leadership roles in the opposition movement, many paying a high price as a result.

Women in Minsk take part in a popular protest on August 13, 2020, days after a presidential election that is widely believed to have been fraudulent.

Women in Minsk take part in a popular protest on August 13, 2020, days after a presidential election that is widely believed to have been fraudulent.

Belarusians, many of whom long expressed little interest in the country’s pre-Soviet past, have reclaimed its symbols amid what some have described as a long-delayed national reawakening.

Here is a look at some of the changes that have taken place since the election a year ago.

Muzzling The Media

Soon after the disputed election, Lukashenka moved to control the narrative. No dissent was tolerated at state-run media, and journalists unwilling to toe the line were quickly fired, some of them replaced by editors from state-run media in Russia.

For Belarusians wanting to get unfiltered news, independent outlets were crucial and many turned to social networks such as Telegram for information including reports from the channel Nexta-Live, which also provided help coordinating the protests.

They have been targeted assiduously by Lukashenka, whose rubber-stamp parliament rammed through changes to the country’s Criminal Code, essentially making it a crime to cover unsanctioned rallies. That means journalists can be fined and even jailed simply for doing their job.

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

The crackdown on independent media intensified in July with a series of coordinated raids. The authorities arrested at least 11 journalists, conducted more than 20 searches, and blocked three news websites on July 8.

The first media outlet to be targeted in Minsk was Nasha Niva, one of the country’s oldest and most popular newspapers, which now only exists online. Also in the crosshairs have been online outlet Tut.by and the Minsk offices and reporters of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, among others.

Lukashenka has also moved to close down the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAZh), triggering calls from rights groups for the international community to take action.

“The last independent Belarusian journalists are being subjected to a roundup of an exceptional scale one worthy of the darkest hours in the country’s history,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of the Eastern European and Central Asia desk of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said in July.

Belarus is the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists, according to RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, ranking 158th out of 180 countries.

Weaponizing Migrants?

Lukashenka’s decision to divert a Ryanair flight between EU countries Greece and Lithuania to Minsk, where a blogger and journalist was arrested upon arrival, increased the outrage in the European Union and the United States over his actions.

On May 23, Belarus scrambled a fighter jet to intercept the civilian airliner and force it to land in Minsk, in what Western officials called a state hijacking. Authorities then detained Raman Pratasevich, co-founder and a former editor of the Nexta channel, and Sofia Sapega, his Russian girlfriend.

The EU, the United States, and many other countries swiftly banned flights of the Belarusian national carrier, Belavia, and most commercial planes now avoid Belarusian airspace. As part of a coordinated further round of sanctions announced in June, the EU targeted some sections of the Belarusian economy, including the potash and crude-oil industries, two cash cows for Lukashenka’s regime.

In response, Lukashenka vowed to send drugs and migrants into Europe. Soon thereafter, officials in Lithuania, which has offered sanctuary to Tsikhanouskaya and other Belarusians as well as hosting a Belarusian university that was forced out of Minsk, began recording a wave of migrants coming across its border with Belarus.

Belarus and Lithuania share a nearly 680-kilometer-long frontier that serves as an external border of the EU, less than 40 percent of it monitored by electronic surveillance.

RFE/RL’s Belarus Service was on hand as some 100 people deplaned on June 16 following a regularly scheduled Iraqi Airways flight to the Belarusian capital. The travelers, all male, were aided on arrival at a kiosk at the terminal by personnel from two travel agencies, Oscartur and JoodLand.

So far, some 4,000 migrants have crossed the Lithuanian-Belarusian border illegally, according to Vilnius.

“This is another example of the regime’s attempts to intimidate partner countries supporting opposition to his abusive regime — whether from outside Belarus or from inside. We call on the Lukashenka regime to end this irresponsible and dangerous practice immediately,” the U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in a statement on August 5.

On the same day a Polish official accused Belarus of sending a growing number of migrants over their border, asserting that Minsk was “waging a hybrid war with the European Union.”

Women Rise To The Challenge

Tsikhanouskaya was virtually unknown to the public until her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, a poplar vlogger whose YouTube channel A Country For Life exposed corruption in Belarus, was arrested in May.

Soon afterwards she agreed, with apparent reluctance, to run in his place. And unlike several of the men who sought to become candidates, she made it onto the ballot — possibly because Lukashenka, who had described women as “poor things,” did not see her as a credible threat.

Tsikhanouskaya addressed rallies that swelled in size, usually flanked by Veranika Tsapkala, who headed the derailed presidential campaign of husband Valer, a former ambassador to Washington and founder of Minsk’s Hi-Tech Park, and Maryya Kalesnikava, who led the stymied campaign of Viktar Babaryka, former board chairman at Russian-owned Belgazprombank.

Using gestures that would later become iconic opposition symbols, Svatlana Tsikhanouskaya clenches her fist, Maryya Kalesnikava makes a heart sign, and Veranika Tsapkala signals V for victory while campaigning ahead of Belarus's disputed presidential election in 2020.

Using gestures that would later become iconic opposition symbols, Svatlana Tsikhanouskaya clenches her fist, Maryya Kalesnikava makes a heart sign, and Veranika Tsapkala signals V for victory while campaigning ahead of Belarus’s disputed presidential election in 2020.

Tsikhanouskaya clenching her fist, Kalesnikava making a heart sign, and Tsapkala signaling a V for victory quickly became an iconic symbol of the election.

“This female trio were a contrast to what Lukashenka represents,” Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in the United States, told RFE/RL. “They were kind and empathetic and listened to people. Their goal was to hold new and fair elections. To give people a chance to have a real chance to choose. They stepped forward instead of men and risked a lot, and clearly society appreciated that.”

A female demonstrator who'd been beaten by police sits on the street in Minsk during the first postelection protest on the night of August 9-10.

A female demonstrator who’d been beaten by police sits on the street in Minsk during the first postelection protest on the night of August 9-10.

Today, Tsikhanouskaya lives in exile in Lithuania, and Tsapkala has fled as well along with her husband and family. Tsikhanouski is on trial and Babaryka was sentenced in July to 14 years in prison on corruption charges that few doubt are politically motivated.

Kalesnikava was arrested on September 7 in the center of Minsk by masked men and taken to the Ukrainian border the next day along with two associates. Ordered to cross the border, Kalesnikava refused, tearing up her passport instead. She was then taken back to Minsk and jailed.

Kalesnikava went on trial with another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, in closed-door proceedings in Minsk on August 4. Facing up to 12 years in prison for an “attempted coup” and “creating an extremist organization,” Kalesnikava was filmed smiling and dancing inside a glass-enclosed cage.

On the streets of Belarus, women have stepped forward, marching on their own and organizing chains of solidarity with the protesters in the early stages of the demonstrations.

“Thanks to them, attitudes in society toward women are changing,” said Liubakova.

‘National Awakening’

Another sign of defiance, fluttering in the air at opposition rallies and protests, is the white-red-white Belarusian flag that has long been a symbol of opponents of Lukashenka, who had it dropped in a controversial referendum in 1995 and replaced with a nearly identical version of the Soviet-era republic flag.

Over the past year, the flag has been unfurled like never before. It has been a particular poignant symbol in the hands of Nina Bahinskaya, a frail, 74-year-old great grandmother who has not backed down from confronting police seeking to snatch it from her.

The red and white colors have also been displayed on everything from clotheslines and haystacks to apartment-bloc balconies and stairwells.

Police and security forces under Lukashenka, who called the opposition flag a “banner of fascist hirelings,” have moved to pull down or destroy almost any public display of red and white, sparking surreal scenes at times. Wearing red-and-white socks has resulted in fines.

A sea of protesters waves red-and-white flags at an opposition rally in Minsk on August 23, 2020.

A sea of protesters waves red-and-white flags at an opposition rally in Minsk on August 23, 2020.

Also hoisted aloft by protesters has been the Pahonia coat of arms, a centuries-old symbol of Belarusian lands depicting a white horseman on a red background.

By embracing these symbols, Belarusians have been reclaiming the pre-Soviet past of a country that was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a major regional power in Europe from the 14th to the 18th century, much of that time in a commonwealth with Poland, said British historian Norman Davies.

“The historic flag had a white eagle for Poland, and the rider, the Pahonia, for Lithuania,” Davies, who has authored scores of books on European history, told RFE/RL in a recent interview.

When demonstrators carry it, he said, it means “‘We are not Russians, our ancestors came from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.'”

Magutny Bozha, a religious hymn that was composed in the 1940s and proposed as the national anthem in 1993, has also became a symbol for the pro-democracy movement in Belarus over the past year, sung at Minsk metro stations and shopping malls.

Never before have Belarusians so widely embraced the red-and-white flag and the Pahonia coat of arms, said Hanna Baraban, a Belarusian commentator and analyst.

“This, coupled with the revived public interest in the Belarusian language, history, and music (e.g., numerous concerts of the Belarusian musicians in the streets of Minsk), demonstrated the growing awareness among Belarusians across the social spectrum that, in fact, they are the same nation,” Baraban told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.

“Keeping in mind that in the past Belarusians had a quite passive attitude towards their history, language, art — not to mention national ideas — the events triggered last August can definitely be called a ‘national awakening,'” Baraban added.

“In my opinion,” she wrote, “after a series of brutal repression against civil society, independent media, and NGOs, the various groups of protesters became even closer in terms of the vision of Belarus as a nation, as well as its place in the world.”

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