For more than three years, the authoritarian Belarusian government has been suppressing opposition and persecuting everyone who speaks out against the fraudulent 2020 elections, violations of human rights and the war in Ukraine. The voices of Belarusians striving for freedom and justice have been drowned out by the tumultuous events worldwide, leaving their struggle largely overlooked on the international stage. Yet Belarusians persist in their struggle for democracy and freedom from dictatorship.
How can the resilience and determination of Belarusians shape the country’s future? What is important to understand about the situation in the country and beyond? In a joint project, Voice of Belarus, the Human Rights Center Viasna and Malanka Media address these questions from a deeply human perspective.
Throughout history, Belarusians have faced numerous challenges in their quest for freedom and independence. The region that is now modern-day Belarus has been subject to foreign rule and occupation for centuries. During the twentieth century, Belarus endured major political upheavals and suffered greatly from totalitarian regimes and the devastating impact of two world wars. Soviet rule, and the Stalinist era in particular, was marked by political purges and the suppression of national identity.
The scars run deep and the legacy of this period continues to shape the country today. Following the Soviet Union’s demise and the emergence of an independent Belarus, the nation, still grappling with the aftermath, found itself captivated by a charismatic populist leader. Alexander Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994, swiftly revealed his authoritarian inclinations, quashing political dissent, curtailing the freedom of expression and assembly, and rigging elections to ensure his grip on power.
With all this said, let’s not forget that despite these immense challenges, Belarusians have also demonstrated remarkable resilience and managed to carry their language and culture into the twenty-first century. Over the past few decades, Belarus has witnessed numerous grassroots movements and initiatives aimed at promoting democratic change and challenging Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule. However, each attempt has been violently crushed, thwarting hopes and creating an atmosphere of fear.
The 2020 presidential election marked a turning point in the nation’s history, when the unexpected emergence of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as a candidate representing the democratic forces breathed new life into the pro-democracy movement. Tsikhanouskaya stepped forward to challenge Lukashenko’s long-standing rule, running in place of her imprisoned husband. She became a unifying figure for various opposition groups. Her campaign focused on democratic principles, human rights, and the need for fair and transparent elections.
Despite massive obstruction by the regime, Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign gained significant traction and support from the Belarusian people, who saw her as a symbol of change and a beacon of hope. Her rallies attracted large crowds, and her message of unity and freedom resonated with many. After Lukashenko declared himself the winner of the election, preposterously claiming 80.1 percent of the votes, massive protests erupted across Belarus. This time, the opposition devised an ingenious strategy to expose the electoral fraud: the Golos (“Voice”) platform processed election result reports from 1,310 polling stations and collected more than a million voters’ ballots. The evidence clearly demonstrated to both Belarusians and the world that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya had won 56% of the votes.
Belarusians at last felt each other’s solidarity and recognized the chance to build a better future for themselves. The peaceful protest movement has also gained significant international support, with many countries worldwide refusing to recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate president. In addition to the street protests, the pro-democracy movement has utilized social media and online platforms to mobilize and spread their message.
But autocrats around the world have been learning from each other and employ well-rehearsed tactics. In fact, members of the so-called “dictators’ club” lend each other considerable support. The case of Belarus is a vivid illustration of how this “collaboration” works. The Kremlin decided to back Lukashenko when it became clear that his regime was faltering and struggling to quell the massive protests.
Under the relentless pressure of both regimes, a noticeable shift started to take place. Months of inhumane brutality unleashed by the “security” forces took a devastating toll on the peaceful demonstrators. By November 2020, the protests gradually lost some of their initial momentum, leading to a fascinating evolution in the movement’s dynamics. Rather than large-scale demonstrations, it gave rise to a tapestry of small community-driven protest rallies and impromptu flash mobs, especially in different parts of Minsk. However, the ruthless persecution persisted, driving these acts of protest further and further into the underground.
There was one more time when a resounding chorus of dissent echoed through Belarus. On February 27, 2022, citizens took to the streets to protest the war in Ukraine. Again, the protest was met with a heavy-handed response: on this day, over 800 people were brutally detained for taking part in anti-war demonstrations. It was Lukashenko’s complicity that facilitated the large-scale expansion of Russia’s military presence in the country. This complicity also facilitated the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops across the southern border of Belarus. If the peaceful Belarusian revolution had succeeded, this devastating war might not have started at all. To this day, the crackdown in Belarus persists unabated. The regime’s loyalists spare no effort in their attempt to cling to power. Dismissing workers from their jobs, removing children from their families, beatings, arrests and torture are routinely used as instruments of oppression.
According to the Human Rights Center Viasna, more than 46,700 people suffered from repression in the past three years. As of October 17, 2023, more than 3,550 people have been convicted in politically motivated criminal cases, and at least 1,487 political prisoners are incarcerated in horrifying conditions.
The number of unreported cases is very high because NGOs do not always receive information about repression and persecution. Human rights activist and former political prisoner Volha Harbunova emphasized at the OSCE conference:
The currently known number of political prisoners represents only a fraction of those who have faced freedom restrictions by the regime on political grounds. Many victims of the regime fear such ‘recognition’, and international approaches often lack flexibility, failing to consider all the nuances of the Belarusian context.
Subscribing to a Telegram channel, expressing opinions on social media, keeping a white-red-white flag at home or even simply wearing white and red clothing can cost you months or years in prison. In a recent incident, musician Katsiaryna Shapavalava was detained for singing the Belarusian religious hymn “Mahutny Bozha” on the steps of the Minsk Philharmonic in 2020.
Artsiom Vaitsiakhovich, 15 years old, is the youngest political prisoner in Belarus. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison as an act of retaliation for his brother moderating a Telegram channel of Belarusian railway workers, an act declared “extremist”. The oldest political prisoner, 75 year-old Natallia Taran, was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for what the court saw as “slander” and insulting Lukashenko.
Belarusians are detained for any manifestation of support for Ukraine. At least 1,630 people were arrested in Belarus during the first year of the full-scale war for participating in anti-war rallies, railway sabotage or making anti-war comments on the Internet. Of these, 56 people received prison sentences of up to 23 years. Dozens of criminal proceedings have been initiated in relation to photos and videos of Russian military equipment and information about its movement in Belarus.
Belarusian prisons are notorious for their appalling hygienic conditions and overcrowding. However, the suffering endured by political prisoners extends far beyond that. These individuals are subjected to a range of repressive tactics aimed at suppressing and subjugating them, including humiliation, abuse, sleep deprivation, and beatings. The conditions in which political prisoners are held are freezing, overcrowded, and unsanitary. Their contact with the outside world is severely limited, and many spend weeks, or even months, in solitary confinement, enduring a prolonged state of isolation. Families of political prisoners Maria Kalesnikava, Viktar Babaryka, Ihar Losik and many others are left in the dark with no updates on the condition of their loved ones for months on end.
In the harrowing conditions of the Belarusian penitentiary system, even the chances of survival are uncertain and precarious. Activists Vitold Ashurak and Mikalai Klimovich, as well as renowned artist Ales Pushkin have all tragically died in Belarusian prisons. Ashurak succumbed to fatal beatings inflicted by the guards, Klimovich and Pushkin were denied access to essential medical care until it was too late to save them.
The regime’s ongoing crackdown on the freedom of speech, expression and assembly has all but decimated civil society. The authorities continue to target peaceful protesters who took to the streets in 2020, using absurd pretexts to justify searches and detentions. The ensuing trials lack due process and the accused are denied proper legal representation. Within this legal void, the verdicts are predetermined, leaving next to no hope for a fair outcome.
“Some are thrown into prison, others are pushed abroad, the rest are subjected to intimidation, and we get a ‘distilled’ obedient society that can be endlessly manipulated at whim. This is a classic scheme that almost every dictator follows when their rule is threatened by the protests of an outraged populace. In this regard, Lukashenko is no different from his numerous predecessors,” writes Viktar Bahdzevich for Radio Svaboda.
However, despite the eerie Orwellian reality surrounding them, Belarusians find innovative ways to voice their dissent. Viasna member Natallia Satsunkevich notes:
Peaceful assemblies continue in Belarus. In 2022, we documented at least 375 gatherings. It’s evident that widespread repression reduced the number and significantly changed the character of such gatherings. In 2022, photo or video flash mobs became the most common form of civil disobedience, replacing the large marches or rallies we were more accustomed to earlier. A group of people gather for a few minutes, bring flags, posters or other visual aids to convey their message. They quickly assemble, make their statement, and then disperse.
According to Barys Haretski from the Belarusian Association of Journalists, people living in Belarus continue to seek information from independent sources, follow the agenda of independent media in exile, and rarely discuss the stories served by the propaganda.
The Political Sphere institute estimates that no less than 180,000 people have left Belarus in the past three years. According to the PACE estimates, between 200,000 and 500,000 Belarusians were forced to leave the country during this period. Most of them fled political persecution from the Lukashenko regime. It is as if one of the largest cities in Belarus – Hrodna, Brest, or Homel – disappeared from the face of the earth.
Even in exile, many Belarusians maintain ties to their home country, working tirelessly to raise awareness about the human rights abuses happening in Belarus. They continue to advocate for change and support those who are still living under the oppressive regime. A survey by the Center for New Ideas has shown that a typical representative of the Belarusian diaspora is under 40, has a strong educational background and above-average income. The survey also notes that both the diaspora and Belarusians within the country understand that exerting pressure on the regime and bringing about change can only be accomplished through joint efforts. The main forms of assistance to Belarus that exiled Belarusians plan to focus on are investing their own knowledge, skills, and abilities into projects that benefit Belarus, crowdfunding for civil society in Belarus, and contributing financially to educational and cultural projects in the country.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya emerged as a prominent figure during the Belarusian protests and has since become a vocal leader of the opposition in exile. Over the course of three years, she has presented compelling and insightful accounts of the plight of Belarus on the international stage. Through her advocacy efforts, Tsikhanouskaya has shed light on the plight of political prisoners and exiles, working tirelessly to garner support for their cause. One of her key messages is the fundamental distinction between the Belarusian people and Lukashenko’s authoritarian government. Tsikhanouskaya provides evidence that the actions of the regime do not reflect the will or aspirations of the majority. It is imperative to foster a clear understanding within the international community: the fight for change in Belarus is not a battle against the people, but against a cruel and corrupt system of personal rule.
In a recent attempt to exert pressure on Belarusians abroad, Lukashenko has issued a decree that prohibits them from obtaining new passports and other official documents at embassies and consulates. This poses a legal conundrum for thousands of people whose passports are about to expire. But Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the democratic forces of Belarus are working on an innovative solution to this problem, dubbed the Passport of New Belarus. It could serve as confirmation of citizenship and be used as a travel document. Valery Kavaleuski, the foreign affairs representative of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus, said that at least 62,000 Belarusians “are in dire need of a new passport”. He added that dozens of countries have expressed interest in the concept but would not identify them for the time being. The highly anticipated issuance of the passports could begin in early 2024.
Numerous events across the globe demonstrate the commitment of Belarusians abroad to preserve and promote their cultural identity. Belarusian activists across Europe and North America, even as far as Brazil and Japan have spearheaded a wide array of captivating cultural and educational initiatives, from art exhibitions and music festivals to language classes and leadership workshops. In September 2023, the First Congress of Belarusian Culture in Exile took place in Warsaw, bringing together hundreds of authors, artists and musicians. In Munich, the festival of independent Belarusian culture Minsk x Minga presented the diversity of Belarusian modern culture, with renowned Belarusian artists offering their perspectives on the resistance of Belarusian society against repression and political terror. Every year, the diaspora holds numerous events worldwide to commemorate “The Night of the Executed Poets”. On October 29, 1937, Stalin’s executioners shot 108 Belarusian poets, novelists, translators, critics, state figures and scientists. The event serves as a reminder of the vicious repression and censorship that Belarusian culture has faced throughout history. In this very moment, 134 cultural workers are incarcerated in Belarus for political reasons.
In summer, over 20 Belarusian media outlets in exile organized a 12-hour online solidarity marathon “We Care!” to raise funds for political prisoners and their families. Prominent activists, bloggers, politicians, athletes and musicians participated in the live broadcast. Independent media outlets participated in organizing and conducting the marathon. A staggering amount of 574 thousand euros was raised through over 14,000 donations from individuals and businesses in 86 countries. The funds raised through the marathon are being utilized by trusted Belarusian NGOs to help those in dire need. This includes providing legal aid and support to the unjustly imprisoned, retraining courses for former prisoners of conscience, helping their families, providing psychological assistance and more.
A dynamic collaboration of Belarusian research centers has given rise to the Ideas Bank platform, where future reform and development projects are discussed, laying the groundwork for transformative initiatives within Belarus. The project founders advocate “reforms owned by people”, emphasizing that the citizens of Belarus should be the driving force behind the transformation towards a new, democratic Belarus. They firmly believe that by actively involving the Belarusian people in shaping the future of their country, a clear and inclusive vision can be established, leading to real and meaningful change.
In the face of injustice, hardship and uncertainty, Belarusians have proven that their greatest strength lies in their unity. While delivering the annual Westminster Lecture at the UK Parliament, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said:
Given all this harshness and hardships, I sometimes hear that Belarus is a lost case. But it’s not. Let me assure you: Belarus can be a success story. Why am I so positive about it? Because I know the Belarusian people. A pensioner from Minsk called me some time ago. She told me that she and her female friends gather regularly to discuss politics and support each other. “Aren’t you afraid?”, I asked her. “We’re simply tired of being afraid,” she told me. “There are too many of us. They just can’t arrest everyone.