The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
An extraordinary wave of protest has swept Belarus since its presidential election on August 9. The incumbent president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, claimed to have won reelection with a preposterous 80.1 percent of the vote. Protesters rose to demand a fair and transparent vote count: it would be the country’s first in 20 years. In the days that followed, police detained thousands of protesters under horrible conditions that included psychological and physical torture. Hundreds more have been beaten and wounded. And yet Belarusians continue to flood the streets of their cities, demanding that the government acknowledge election fraud and begin a dialogue on transferring power.
The protesters in Belarus are not organizing riots, getting into standoffs with the police, attacking governmental buildings, or looting shops. Rather, they build barricades in the evening, then go back to work in the morning. And yet the riot police confront the demonstrators with tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, stun grenades—even, some witnesses claim, live ammunition. After days of documented brutality, the government released thousands of detained protesters the night of August 14.
According to the pro-government news media, the protests are the work of foreign powers. But the narrative is hard to sustain when state-employed workers denounce police violence and demand a fair vote count. Prominent national figures, including actors, doctors, the Olympic biathlon champion Darya Domracheva, and the former tennis champion Victoria Azarenka, have recorded videos and signed petitions calling for an end to the violence and respect for the demands of the demonstrators. Police have reportedly singled out men for abuse: in response, women have organized all-female protests, at which women of all ages and social backgrounds dress in white, hold flowers, and talk to the police, asking them to stop fulfilling criminal orders. A Facebook and PayPal campaign called BY_Help has raised more than $2.5 million to help protesters pay medical bills, legal bills, and fines.
The protest movement has coalesced around three clear demands. The government should release all prisoners whose arrests were politically motivated—including former presidential candidates Viktar Babaryka and Siarhei Tsikhanouski. Authorities should investigate police violence and bring those responsible to justice. And then they must either recognize Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as the election’s winner or organize new elections, registering all candidates and allowing the news media and independent observers free access.
To read the coverage of the demonstrations in the major Western, Russian, and Ukrainian media outlets is to understand little about the upheaval in Belarus. These sources are instead busy comparing the events in Belarus with peaceful revolutions or failed coups in an endless chain of other countries. When Internet access was restored after three days of little to no connectivity, a high-ranking European diplomat posted sarcastically on Facebook: “I am surprised to find among my international friends so many experts on Belarus protests.” He later deleted the post and adopted a more official tone, but many Belarusians share the frustration he expressed.
Advice—and invidious comparisons—has poured in from all sides. Well-meaning pro-democratic Russians and Ukrainians offer Belarusians lessons on how to act more strategically. Not-so-well-meaning actors, such as the official social media account of the Russian president’s press pool, mock their indecisiveness. “If Fidel Castro fought for Cuba only in the evening after work, he would never gain it,” representatives of the official Kremlin pool of journalists wrote on August 11 on Telegram. Americans, absorbed in their own drama, project domestic narratives onto Belarus. The New York Times concludes that President Aleksandr Lukashenko “has lost the aura of an invincible popular leader”—without ever having critically analyzed whether such an aura has even existed in the last ten years. CNN describes street protests as “riots,” giving them a connotation of violence. “Who let Bill Barr and Donald Trump into Belarus?” demands the anti-Trump Lincoln Project on Twitter, posting a video of brutal Belarusian police actions and adding that “police thuggery” is “America’s latest export.”
Back in June, Vitali Shkliarov, a Washington-based political analyst, described the Belarus protests as “the most unusual . . . in the world.” No one could have predicted that the average Belarusian would take to the streets, he wrote in Foreign Policy, but as it turned out, “there has been unrest simmering all this time, so deep and low that it didn’t register with most people; it just took a destabilizing event as big as a global pandemic to uncover it.” Shkliarov was arrested in Belarus in July and accused of disturbing the social order.
The people of Belarus are giving their government one last chance to listen to their voices.
There is in fact nothing sui generis about Belarus’s nonviolent protests, nor are they rooted in the pandemic. And as much as Belarus shares with its neighbors to the south and east, it has absorbed its experience differently. The country has a long history of civic cooperation and peaceful expression, and it is one that has unfolded against a backdrop of breathtaking state violence. Nearly every third Belarusian perished in World War II at the hands of either Nazis or communists. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin decimated the country’s intellectual elite, killing its brightest minds by the hundreds. The trauma of the twentieth century is still present in every Belarusian family. Today’s authorities have skillfully manipulated that memory by promising Belarusians the peace and stability that elude their volatile post-Soviet neighbors.
When Ukrainians on social media tried to compare the current protests in Belarus with those in Ukraine, many Belarusians replied with anger: even Ukraine’s 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” struck them as too violent. Belarusians fear the comparison with Ukraine for many reasons. Kremlin-sponsored television, widely accessible in Belarus, depicted Ukraine’s revolutionaries as “Nazis” burning down houses. But even many of those who don’t believe such propaganda flinch from the possibility of any violence whatever on the side of protesters. Ukraine’s bitter experience of losing control over parts of its territory stands as a cautionary tale—one that pro-Lukashenko forces continue to invoke as the reason for him to stay.
Advice from Russian opposition activists strikes many in Belarus as even more problematic. For decades, under Soviet rule, Russia was presented to the other republics as an “older sister” and a supposedly more advanced society. Then, when the Soviet Union fell, Russia inherited most of the energy resources, wealth, and political power in the region. It has used these to demand concessions from Belarus, with Russian President Vladimir Putin making no secret that he aims for “deeper integration” between the two countries, or even incorporation. Russia’s opposition has given Belarusians little reason to trust that it would stand in the way of such a future: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has not openly questioned his government’s position on Crimea, for example.
Moreover, activists in Belarus are aware of few instances of local civic activism in Russia, and those they do know of seem far removed from Belarusian circumstances. Residents of the Russian city of Khabarovsk, for instance, have risen to demand the release from prison and reinstatement of their elected governor. Activists in Brest, Belarus, have expressed solidarity with those protests and vice versa. But the long-running protests in Khabarovsk also illustrate the gulf between the two countries. In Belarus, no local official could be elected from the nonruling elite—such officials are not elected at all—and the police would pacify any one-city protest quickly and efficiently. Advice from Russia can therefore seem out of touch with Belarusian experience.
The current regime has ruled Belarus for 26 years. Back in 1994, Lukashenko won a free and fair election with an impressive 80.6 percent of the vote. Two years later, he proposed changes to the constitution that would grant him nearly unlimited powers. Parliament resisted, and Lukashenko dissolved it, appointing new deputies. Since that time, he has removed presidential term limits by referendum. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has not recognized any Belarus election since 1994 as either free or fair.
Under Lukashenko, Belarus’s government has shut down or censored independent news outlets and jailed hundreds of political opponents. In 1999, two opposition politicians and a businessman mysteriously disappeared—the cases remain open. All the while, Belarus has grown exponentially more dependent on Russia. The Belarusian language is formally an equal counterpart to Russian, but it is marginalized and often disparaged as the “language of opposition.” Quality of life is poor in much of the country. And yet for all the limitations of this life, Belarusians are well educated and well traveled. Before the pandemic, Belarus led the world in the number of EU Schengen visas issued per capita.
When COVID-19 hit Belarus in March, Lukashenko publicly dismissed its seriousness, much in the manner of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. But the nation self-organized to provide hospitals and clinics with personal protective equipment, whether by 3D-printing protective shields or by reorienting factories to sew full-body protection suits. These actions were particularly remarkable because Belarus’s government discourages state-owned enterprises from working with nonprofits, which it distrusts as potentially political or connected to the West.
The spirit of mutual support awakened by the pandemic continues to animate these volatile days. Volunteers provide protesters access to their homes and Wi-Fi connections, supply them with food and drinks, and form long lines to meet released detainees and bring them home. Until very recently, most citizens would fear doing such things.
Belarusians have seen enough to know that a swift change will not necessarily improve their lives. In Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia, the path to democracy has been littered with obstacles: corruption, economic hardship, even military conflict. Still, Belarusians who came out to protest before the election told reporters that they wanted greater freedom of expression and to have the government respect the constitution. Almost none said that they were there to demand better pay or that they hated the regime. This restraint may signify that the protesters want their government to leave peacefully rather than being forced to flee in the manner of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych or Kyrgyzstan’s Kurmanbek Bakiyev (incidentally, the latter has been hiding from the new Kyrgyz authorities in Belarus, where he was granted citizenship). Nonetheless, the authorities have responded by instigating fear and treating citizens with inhumanity. In so doing, Belarus’s government has broken its quarter-century-long contract with the society to shield it from conflict.
The people of Belarus are giving their government a last chance to listen to the voices of those who silently agreed to its policies before, as well as to the regime’s more vocal opponents. For the first time since the early 1990s, workers from the major state-controlled factories and plants have halted production and come out to protest. Even Minsk underground station workers visibly joined the protests in the city center. Belarus’s prime minister, Roman Golovchenko, presumably shaken by the presence of what was normally considered the regime’s loyal base, came to talk to the workers in an attempt to prevent a national strike. On state television, the minister of internal affairs apologized for the “accidental” injuries and trauma that innocent people have suffered.
The opposition candidate for president, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, currently in Lithuania, recently broke her silence. Tsikhanouskaya believes that she won the majority of votes on August 9. In a YouTube video, she demanded that local authorities allow demonstrations in all Belarusian cities on August 16 and then afterward enter a dialogue to organize a peaceful transfer of power. More than 200,000 people marched in the streets of Minsk on the appointed day, as did tens of thousands in other cities. Some protesters disappeared after being pulled onto buses without license plates. But for the first time since the protests began, they did not meet open police brutality. Nor did citizens engage in violence, despite the fact that the government brought some 5,000, according to Reuters—65,000, by the official estimate of the Belarus police—Lukashenko voters from all over the country to meet with the president in the center of Minsk. If the second part of Tsikhanouskaya’s plan is as successful as the first, Belarus can affirm to the world that it is truly a nonviolent society—one that lives up to a national anthem that begins with the words “We, Belarusians, are peaceful people.”
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