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People pay their respects to Roman Bondarenko, an anti-government protester who died in hospital following what witnesses said was a severe beating by security forces, during a funeral ceremony in Minsk, Belarus, on Nov. 20, 2020.

The Associated Press

Natalia Smalyuk is a Belarusian Canadian, media advisor to the Belarusian Canadian Alliance and award-winning communications strategist. She provides crisis leadership consulting, coaching and training services to guide organizations through adversity and build resilience.

“I am going out.” Those were the last words written by Roman Bondarenko in a chat as he left his house to defend the white and red decorations in his yard from masked men in civilian clothes. The display was in the colours of the Belarus’s historic national flag and the pro-democracy movement. On the next day, the 31-year-old Minsk artist died after being beaten by siloviki – the military and police forces of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.

The following Sunday, thousands of protesters chanted “I am going out” in the streets of Minsk. According to the Viasna human rights group, police detained more than 500 people that day.

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As a professional communicator, I tell my clients in media training sessions that numbers validate. When they move up or down in any important sphere of activity – from protests to elections to coronavirus cases – they create newsworthiness.

Here are numbers from Belarusian Canadian Alliance, a group that represents the country’s diaspora: five killed, 170 political prisoners, more than 33,000 detained. Do they tell the real story?

When a state terror machine is used at its full application, the daily human cost eludes math. There is no way to count all job terminations, university expulsions and politically motivated tax inspections. One can hardly attach a number to broken lives, squashed professional opportunities and undiagnosed PTSD conditions. “Belarusians have not seen this level of repression since the Second World War,” said Alena Liavonchanka, head of the Belarusian Canadian Alliance.

Yet, this story of human cost doesn’t make it to the mainstream media driven by numbers and political sound bites. Events in Belarus are framed as a political crisis, a paradigm that comes with the language of “anti-government protests” in the West and a ping-pong of foreign interference accusations in the East.

But there’s more to the story. Human rights atrocities are a systematic practice in the crackdown on protests following an election called “a sham” by the Economist. There’s documented evidence of murder, rape and mass-scale torture in detention centres – crimes that have not resulted in a single police investigation. Siloviki beat and detain unarmed people in the streets, in their homes, stores and cars.

This is a humanitarian crisis and an international emergency destabilizing the region and producing the country’s first refugees. The world has no mechanism to deal with it. This is the real story.

Belarusians, whose voices have not been counted or heard in the election, have participated in the largest protests since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mr. Lukashenko blamed the unrest on the criminals, drug addicts and unemployed people manipulated by Western “puppeteers” meddling in the country’s internal affairs. His government replaced the dissenting Belarusian TV journalists with Russian propagandists, canceled foreign press accreditations, blocked local independent media and knocked off the internet during protest peaks.

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As a Belarusian Canadian immersed in a Western worldview, I see the notion the West is “meddling in internal affairs” as fake news, where “internal affairs” means cutting Belarus off from the outside world and “meddling” is speaking up against terror. No, the world should not shut up and mind its own business when its basic values are under attack.

I am proud to live in a country that leads by example when advocating for human rights. Canada, along with Britain, was first to impose sanctions against senior figures in Belarus responsible for abuses. By and large though, international “meddling” consisted of symbolical gestures and political slogans that hardly make a difference. The European Union reacted to the post-election crackdown with embarrassing delay. The United States was too distracted by its domestic strife.

Generations born in the land of the free may believe a dictatorship will never happen to them. But four years of President Donald Trump culminated in an angry mob attacking the U.S. Capitol. It shows how quickly political behaviour not based on democratic values can become the new norm. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Lukashenko lost the election. Both remained defiant. Both refused to concede. While Mr. Lukashenko is clinging to power using siloviki, Mr. Trump operated through his litigators and, when that failed, brought in rioters to storm Capitol Hill.

When populists like Mr. Trump and Mr. Lukashenko sell the idea that democracy is a fraud, a dictatorship can pop up anywhere if enough people buy into the claim.

Luckily, Americans demonstrated with numbers that democracy is worth voting for. Across the ocean, Mr. Bondarenko showed it is worth dying for. Recalibrating for 2021, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should recognize that global recovery is not possible without a restored trust in democracy and multilateral co-operation to stand by it.

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