Пятница, 12 февраля 2021 15:52

There are 9 million New Year’s wishes in Belarus

By Philippe Schockweiler, Lex Kleren Published on 03 Feb. 2021 

There are 9 million New Year’s wishes in Belarus (Lëtzebuerger Journal) 

Belarus, the landlocked state between Poland and Russia, has been struck with unprecedented six months of permanent peaceful protests and strikes against its autocratic self-proclaimed president, Alexander Lukashenko. We spoke with activists in Belarus but also in Luxembourg about what they expect from the new year.

Lukashenko declared himself the winner of what independent observers and pollsters had called a close race for the first time in the history of the country. After massive election fraud, disappearing ballots, and the immediate blackmail and expulsion of the top contender Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, peaceful protests formed all over the country. The protesters have been persecuted and chased by police and militarized forces ever since. Nearly 100,000 people have been detained in six months, with widespread reports of torture, rape and violent beatings in jails, police stations and prison vans, now confirmed by independent human rights organizations outside Belarus. A new low even for Lukashenko’s standards was reached last week when his top security chief publicly and shamelessly explored the idea of building a concentration camp. However, the protest in Belarus continues, not only inside the country but outside the former Soviet republic as well. In Luxembourg, they gather each Saturday on Place Guillaume draped in white-red-white pagohnia banners.

Only a few hundred Belarusians live in Luxembourg. Some of them work with institutions or in finance – but all of them follow the revolution in Belarus from the comfort of their new home. A new home, where you don’t fear to be arrested first thing in the morning after leaving the house. A new home, that is eerily quiet until a sharp noise from a smartphone notification turns that eerie silence into panic: “What happened? Did a relative get arrested? Are the police beating up people again, are armoured vehicles rolling in the streets again?” Even abroad, it’s hard for Belarusians to escape the violence and clutches of the regime.

A constant state of panic

The expat Belarusians, or as they like to call themselves “the diaspora”, have abandoned the quiet comfort of their new homes: Living rooms are being turned into mobile campaign headquarters and virtual dissident squares. One of them is Lia Maisuradze who lives in Luxembourg and is the unofficial, charismatic maidenhead of the Belarusian people’s movement in the Grand-Duchy. Lia is not exactly a career politician or an activist: However, last summer turned her life upside down: “I’ve been around a bit longer than he has!” she chuckles. With “he” she means Lukashenko of course, who has ruled the country since 1994. Lia was born in 1989, of Belarusian and Georgian parents into the very end of the Soviet Union, when Glasnost and Perestroika had failed to defibrillate the stagnating economy of the once so illustrious Union.

Lia Maisuradze, Luxembourg

Some of her earliest childhood memories revolve around “him”. Her grandmother always kept a newspaper cut out of the presidential portrait pinned to a wall. Lia smiles again, as she does almost always: “You see, I didn’t really like him already back then, one of my childhood memories is not liking the man on that newspaper cut out in my granny’s home”. As the years passed, and Lia grew up, Lukashenko tightened his grip on the Belarusian society, plunging it back into a Soviet surveillance state, while cracking down on democratic opposition parties and foreign NGOs, ordering arbitrary arrests and plotting the disappearances of dissidents from his Presidential Palace.

Lia finally left for Lithuania when she was 17. In 2020 the inspiring actions by the Belarusian society made her speak up for the first time:“The immense courage of my people inspired me to do my part as well.” She got in contact with the authorities in Luxembourg and actually asked for a permit to demonstrate every Saturday. “The clerks asked us, if we knew how long that would be, we said that as long as it’s necessary.

” It is definitely easier to demonstrate outside of Belarus, Lia says, but from abroad, people could help to build a crucial counter narrative and an important net of support for the people of Belarus. “A lot of the donations and help funds were created abroad and now help to relieve Belarusians that are persecuted or lost their job due to the protest.”

“We Belarusians all have the same wish for 2021: I can’t help but wonder if 9 million people share the same dream that somehow this dream will become reality.”

Lia Maisuradze, activist

For 2021, Lia intends to go louder and get even more involved: “We Belarusians all have the same wish for 2021: I can’t help but wonder if 9 million people share the same dream that somehow this dream will become reality.” Together with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s Transition Council they are building up People’s Embassies around Europe and also in Luxembourg to really represent the Belarusian people outside the country. “We are actually seeing the first Belarusian refugees arrive in Luxembourg who have fled the regime and the state’s terror.”

Lia is aware of the immense challenges that a peaceful revolution requires in order to succeed and that revolutionary theory does not apply onto the Belarusian case: “ … I thought we’d succeed quicker, but let’s be realistic, 26 years of Lukashenko dictatorship will not be dismantled in a few months, no matter how hard we will try.” This does however not stop the movement: “The protest has only been growing and becoming more important and broader with the time”, she explains. Indeed in 2021 Lia and her activists will try to continue to help tackle the regime by building coalitions. “It is so crucial to keep up a steady and constant amount of political pressure: We don’t know how this will play out, but what we know is that when the good side fails to act…evil will prevail.” Lia tells the story about how many Belarusians know family members that were pressured to keep their mouth shut and how they are threatened by officials: “Even if you want to do good and change something from within, the system will find a way to keep you quiet.”

Cat and mouse games

Inside of Belarus, citizens are bravely putting up one of the most impressive and ingenious cat and mouse games that any fight for freedom and fair elections has ever seen. The streets belong to the protesters: Communities of people turn their local Soviet-Era Apartment block backyards, the normally so bleak and brutalist courtyards of the Khrushchyovka apartments, into living cultural centres at night. All of the protesters are united by the wish for fair elections, peaceful transition and the liberation of the hundreds of political prisoners. The protest is at least visibly, predominantly young and female. However, the movement is diverse, uniting young students and striking industrial workers, lawyers, the country’s well known IT sector, doctors and pensioners. All of them share the common wish for another Belarus. While years ago, Lukashenko’s digital counter intelligence team had succeeded in blocking cell phone and internet access, generations of Belarusians now help each other setting up secure VPN connections to make the protest unstoppable.

For the veteran activists and opposition politicians, those that fought the regime’s policy for a long time, the new year’s wishes still remain the same but they are formulated slightly differently, and of course more politically. Over video-conference Lëtzebuerger Journal was joined by Ihar Lednik, a former businessman and now a senior opposition politician from Belarus. Many entrepreneurs have joined the protest and their stories often sound the same: Economic crimes, barriers and obstacles by state institutions and corruption paralyze the economy.

Ihar Lednik, Belarus

Ihar has been organizing for social change in Belarus for decades, and he plays his part in the movement as well. As an opposition politician, Ihar Lednik lives on the edge of a sharp knife: According to Belarus’ strict party laws, he is not allowed to have contact with politicians outside of the country.

Lednik has seen many of his opposition party friends from the Belarusian Social-Democratic Party (Hramada) arrested in the past month. His colleague Vitold Ashurok was sentenced in January to five years in jail because he attended the protests. The court even ruled that his party membership card is evidence to his guilt and is to be destroyed. Ihar is aware that the same arbitrary behaviour could have him arrested at any moment but he stays resilient and that threat does not stop his work. He continues to work on social change in Belarus and also helps out with projects in Ukraine. Ihar has been a contributor on the Joint Declaration on the Digital Economy of the EU and the Eastern Partnership in terms of the accession of partner countries to the European Declaration on e-Government (eUnion program).

For 2021 Ihar has the following dreams: “My wishes for the new year are simple but also complex, '' explains the 60 year old dark haired man. “ First of all, for us Belarusians, we were not spared either from the COVID pandemic. The pandemic, combined with the protests and the political situation, have filled the people with sorrow and pain. This sorrow goes through the whole population and I sincerely wish that this new year will bring less pain and problems for the people. We didn’t have the opportunity to have a lot of life this past year, I wish for everyone that we’re able to live just a little bit more and a little bit more carefree!”

“It would be so important if we Belarusians could show the world who we really are, that we are more than just a head of state.”

Ihar Lednik, opposition politician from Belarus

Ihar is also very reflective about the image that people outside of Belarus have about his country: “I want 2021 to be the year where not every foreigner associates Lukashenko and his politics with Belarus. It’s sad that this is the automatic connection that each person outside our country has when they hear Belarus, they think of Lukashenko. It would be so important if we Belarusians could show the world who we really are, that we are more than just a head of state, and that we are people that just want to share our time together peacefully on this earth.”

The fear of a “Crimean” situation

As a veteran social-democrat and politician he has his eyes on the big picture as well, with a serious look on his face he warned: Currently, many of them are afraid of what happened in the Crimea in 2014 (Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian Peninsula) and as seasoned opposition members they’re asking themselves how this could have happened and if a similar scenario is possible in Belarus. That’s why Igor and his colleagues have been studying international memorandums that could avoid Belarus from simply being annexed and dragged into a “Crimean” situation. “Our biggest hope is that the “Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances”* from 1995 could help us prevent a bigger disaster, that would make our country disappear from the map.”  However, in 2014 in Ukraine, the memorandum failed and no security assurance or assistance was provided to Ukraine. In order to stave off such a disaster, Igor trough his party called upon the UN to cancel the “Union Treaty” between Belarus and Russia. Even though Igor is not allowed to have contact or coordinate with foreign politicians he hopes that the actions by the Belarus opposition parties are heard and seen in all of Europe and especially in the U.S, where all Belarusian activists told us that they are expecting major policy changes from the new Biden- Administration.

Lia and Ihar and also the other activists and citizens we talked to inside of Belarus all sound very optimistic. It’s their unbroken optimism, their powerful and courageous determination while smiling into the muzzles and batons of Lukashenko’s cronies that fascinates people around the globe. Revolutionary history is being rewritten in front of the world’s eyes.

Pundits, political scientists and policy experts agree for once: A Revolution doesn’t have to be successful in the first days or weeks, a revolution during a pandemic is when 9 million wishes are channelled into one: The wish of being able to determine by fair vote one’s fate and future.

* Budapest Memorandum: signed in Budapest on December 5, 1994, to delete the nuclear stockpiles of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine in exchange for security guarantees by U.S, U.K and Russia.