Aliaksandr Atroshchankau was 18 the first time he was arrested for protesting the cruelty of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus. His act of defiance lasted “about 30 seconds” before he was forced into a van by security officers and driven into the forests outside Minsk.
“We’re going to execute you and leave your body in the woods,” he remembers the men telling him. “Luckily, they just left me in the forest,” he recalls with a wry grin.
That was 1999. Mr. Atroshchankau was then an idealistic student of international law who hoped to work for the Belarusian Foreign Affairs Ministry one day. Then came the news that four prominent opposition figures had disappeared and were presumed dead. The teenager decided he could never work for a government that murdered its own people.
The 1999 protests were small. But they were the start of a long effort that only now threatens to oust Mr. Lukashenko after 26 years in office.
Massive crowds have taken to the streets for more than 50 consecutive days since a fraudulent presidential election on Aug. 9. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is recognized by many Belarusians as the legitimate winner, but the protests have also sprung from anger over Belarus’s collapsing economy and Mr. Lukashenko’s bizarre, dismissive handling of the pandemic. The mood boiled over into rage when the regime claimed Mr. Lukashenko had won an improbable 81 per cent of the vote.
Belarus, long an obscure country in the heart of Europe, is suddenly the centre of international intrigue, with countries on NATO’s eastern flank increasingly unnerved by Russia’s support for Mr. Lukashenko.
The Kremlin has provided an emergency US$1.5-billion loan and tripled its presence at joint military drills near the Belarus-Poland border.
Canada this week threw its shoulder behind the opposition, slapping sanctions and a travel ban on Mr. Lukashenko and 10 members of his regime. Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne also recently announced $600,000 in new funding for independent media and women’s groups inside Belarus, though he hasn’t named the organizations for fear of making them targets of the regime.
But Belarus’s long march toward democracy didn’t begin with the pandemic or even the election. Today’s protests are the culmination of more than two decades of struggle between a Soviet-style security apparatus and people who slowly gained the courage to stand up to it.
Many of the veterans of the previous efforts to oust Mr. Lukashenko were eventually forced into exile. Today, Warsaw is something of a rear base for the revolution, a hub for dissidents such as Mr. Atroshchankau and free media driven out of their own country.
Vlad Kobets was another young Belarusian on the streets that day in 1999. A would-be natural-resources bureaucrat who couldn’t tolerate working for the government, Mr. Kobets is nine years older than Mr. Atroshchankau. The 1999 rally wasn’t his first protest, but it was one of the first that he personally helped organize.
Five years later, he was the founder of a youth movement that was trying to stage an uprising against Mr. Lukashenko after a stage-managed referendum in 2004 that eliminated a clause in the country’s constitution limiting presidents to two terms in office. That protest lasted only a few hours longer than the one in 1999.
In 2006, in an attempt to copy one of the successful tactics of Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution,” he and thousands of others were pitching tents on the streets of Minsk. It was dubbed the “Jeans Revolution” (denim has been associated with dissent in Belarus since the Soviet era), but it wasn’t enough.
Mr. Kobets, who along with Mr. Atroshchankau now works at a Warsaw-based think tank that advises Western governments about Belarus, says the time wasn’t ripe. “In Belarus, if you are a member of an opposition party, you have two paths: You can go to prison or you can become a refugee.”
Back then, Belarusians weren’t ready to take such risks. Now they very clearly are. And the Belarusians challenging Mr. Lukashenko today – using some of the same slogans Mr. Atroshchankau and Mr. Kobets were chanting two decades ago – are getting help from the previous generation of dissidents, who hope the scenes unfolding in Minsk mean they might soon be able to return home.
Wiejska Street, in downtown Warsaw, is more than 500 kilometres from Minsk. But what happens on the streets and in the squares of Belarus is often first conceived in a second-floor apartment here, in a cramped office identifiable by the white-red-white flag of Belarus’s revolution hanging out the window – and the pair of Polish policemen guarding the entrance.
Belarus House, as the office is known, has been a hub of frantic activity since Aug. 9. When The Globe and Mail visited last week, two members of the opposition’s co-ordination council – appointed by Ms. Tikhanovskaya to oversee the transition away from authoritarian rule – were meeting in one room.
In another, 22-year-old Stepan Svetlov was fighting his own battle against the Belarusian police. The driving force behind Nexta, a channel with almost a million followers on Telegram, Twitter and Facebook, Mr. Svetlov can mobilize protests almost on his own – as he did on Sept. 23, the day Mr. Lukashenko caught many people off guard by inaugurating himself for a new term. Nexta recently obtained a list of 14,000 serving members of the Belarusian security services. Mr. Svetlov is releasing the names 1,000 at a time, hoping to make the police and Interior Ministry troops – who usually wear balaclavas when they confront protesters – think twice about continuing to support the regime. “We’re de-anonymizing them, unveiling their identities, because that’s what they are most afraid of. For them it is really scary.”
Like most of the Belarusian dissidents living in Warsaw, Mr. Svetlov knows he can only go home if the revolution succeeds. If it fails, he faces a 15-year prison sentence for “organizing mass riots.”
Even as Mr. Lukashenko digs in – with the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who fears a copycat uprising in his own country – Mr. Svetlov says he believes victory looms. “Belarusians are ready for change, they won’t let it slip away. They will fight for it,” he said. “Change is imminent.”
For a revolution to succeed, the regime needs to crumble.
Splits in the ruling elite helped bring about the downfall of leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine – two close-to-home examples that the Belarusian protesters are keenly aware of.
Though the regime has thus far held together, with Mr. Lukashenko ordering escalating repression of his opponents, there are signs it’s beginning to crack.
Sergey Kurochkin was a senior inspector in the Belarusian police until two days after the Aug. 9 election, when his twin brother was arrested for being seen near a protest.
For the next 48 hours, Mr. Kurochkin searched frantically for his brother, who was being held in the notorious Okrestina detention centre. After two days of beatings and torture, he was released without charge.
“After all this, I couldn’t stay in the police service. I couldn’t look my family in the eye and say nothing had changed,” Mr. Kurochkin said last week at the Belarusian Solidarity Centre, a non-profit group in Warsaw. The centre helps recently arrived exiles navigate the country’s COVID-19 rules and connects them with medical care, if needed, as well as free Polish lessons.
Andrei Ostapovich’s defection from the police was even more dramatic. Unwilling to take part in the crackdown, he posted his resignation letter on Instagram on Aug. 16 – one week after the protests began – and fled to Russia. His post calling for Belarusians to “kick out the dictator” went viral, and Mr. Ostapovich was seized by what he believes was Russia’s FSB security service and roughly deported back to Belarus.
He then walked for five days, living off Snickers bars and water from streams, across Belarus to Poland, where he is also now being supported by the Belarusian Solidarity Centre.
He said there are many other Belarusian policemen who sympathize with the protesters but are afraid to quit their posts.
“I’m sure that the majority in the police force are thinking about doing the same thing, but they all have their own reasons why they can’t,” he said.
But even if fear is holding the regime together for now, Mr. Ostapovich said, he is confident that change is coming to Belarus.
“If Lukashenko won’t leave, we’ll wear him down economically. Nobody will pay taxes or otherwise support the unwanted President. You can’t do anything without the people. That’s why they say that the people have the power.”
A decade before Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s blogger husband was jailed and she launched her improbable challenge against Mr. Lukashenko, it was Andrei Sannikov who tried to oust the dictator. Mr. Sannikov, a veteran diplomat who helped negotiate the treaties that saw Belarus give up the nuclear weapons on its soil at the end of the Cold War, isn’t sure he won the 2010 presidential election – but he’s not sure he lost it either.
He believes the race was close enough – even with the KGB (as Belarus’s secret services are still called) harassing his campaign team and state television broadcasting only praise of Mr. Lukashenko – that a runoff election should have been held. (In Belarus, a second ballot is held between the top two candidates if no one clears 50 per cent of the vote in the first round.)
If that had happened – if voters saw there was a real chance to get rid of the strongman – Mr. Sannikov says, Mr. Lukashenko’s end would have come a decade ago. “He wouldn’t have gotten 10 per cent in a second round.”
Then, as now, the regime instead announced a first-round result that many believe was fake: 80 per cent for Mr. Lukashenko and just 2 per cent for Mr. Sannikov. The opposition took to the streets on the night of the election, and Mr. Sannikov was singled out for a particularly harsh and public beating before he was forced into a prison truck. He was later convicted of organizing a riot and spent 16 months in jail. (Mr. Atroshchankau and Mr. Kobets were also arrested that night and spent several months in jail.)
Mr. Sannikov says he never thought of himself as a candidate in a real election. He knew in advance that the result would be rigged. The point was to show other Belarusians that there were some who chose to resist. (Mr. Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, came to power in 1994 in what is regarded as the country’s last fair election and proceeded to restore Soviet-style authoritarianism in the country.)
“I wasn’t running in an election, I was organizing a challenge against Lukashenko,” the 66-year-old explains in a French café in Warsaw. “I wanted to show – and I think I managed to show – that Lukashenko didn’t win. That we, the opposition in general, gained a victory that was recognizable.”
Back in 2010, arresting the opposition leader was enough to quell the protests. This time around, it’s the people – not just the traditional opposition parties – who are demanding an end to Mr. Lukashenko’s rule.
Ms. Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee to Lithuania on Aug. 11, citing threats against her children. The two women who campaigned beside her as “The Trio” have also faced persecution: Veronika Tsepkalo fled to Russia, then Poland, after being warned she would be arrested; Maria Kolesnikova is in jail in Minsk, facing up to five years in prison, after resisting an attempt to deport her to Ukraine.
The seven presidium members of the co-ordination council appointed by Ms. Tikhanovskaya are all either in jail or outside Belarus. (One member, Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, says she has gone to Germany only for medical treatment and intends to return.)
Through it all, small protests take place around the country on a daily basis, swelling each weekend into larger gatherings. Every Saturday, the women of Belarus take to the streets, knowing – just as the protesters did 20 years ago – they are likely to be arrested. Every Sunday, the men join them for the week’s largest gatherings, facing down lines of riot police backed by armoured personnel carriers.
The riot police and the KGB arrest as many as they can, but with the jails overflowing (the human-rights group Viasna counts more than 12,000 arrests since Aug. 9) and no leaders left to make examples of, they’re forced to release most of the new prisoners by the next morning.
The difference between 2010 and now, Ms. Tsepkalo says, is Mr. Lukashenko’s handling of the pandemic. While their President ridiculed the virus as “a psychosis” that could be cured with vodka and a trip to the sauna, ordinary Belarusians were forced to continue going to work and to send their children to school – and deal with the illnesses and deaths with no help or leadership from their government.
“Lukashenko left the people alone with our pain. We felt like we were by ourselves and that we didn’t have a president any more,” Ms. Tsepkalo said in an interview. “Belarus four months ago and Belarus now are completely different countries. We are witnessing the birth of an independent Belarusian nation.”
Anastasiya Kozhapenka was 6 when her activist parents took her to her first rally in Minsk. They were Belarusian nationalists, protesting a 1995 move by Mr. Lukashenko to replace the country’s flag from the white-red-white banner – associated with the independence the country gained after the fall of the Soviet Union – with a green-and-red flag that closely resembled the one used while Belarus was a republic of the USSR.
“I asked my mom what was happening, and she told me Lukashenko had taken away this beautiful white-red-white flag. My mom made me a small flag from paper, and I started to understand that something was wrong with my country – that it had two flags.”
That night, she also saw a man bleeding from a head wound after being beaten by police. “My mom told me he was a doctor who just wanted to demonstrate in the streets.”
Now 30, Ms. Kozhapenka is a volunteer at Belarus House, helping organize the evacuation of wounded protesters who need medical treatment. She says she left Belarus after the mass crackdown that followed 2010 election. She felt her country might never change.
Today, the white-red-white banner is back on the streets as the symbol of the opposition, and Ms. Kozhapenka – like many of the Belarusians who have fought so long to change their country – has rediscovered the hope that the regime had briefly beaten out of her.
“For 26 years, everybody was afraid to even speak about change – we only talked about it in the kitchen,” she said, usually with the taps running so no one could listen in.
That time is over, she says. Even if Mr. Lukashenko hangs on for a few more months, or into next year, she says the end of his regime is now inevitable. Ms. Kozhapenka has started to think about going home, to dream about what life in a free Belarus will be like.
“Everything will be different,” she said with a smile. “Even the air will be different.”
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