Saturday

19th Sep 2020

Opinion

The awakening of Belarus

  • People at Pushkin metro station, Minsk, on 16 August at memorial site to Alyaksandr Taraikouski, a protester who died there on 10 August (Photo: Darya Mustafayeva)

Until this summer, Belarus appeared in the international news mostly in the context of EU sanctions, Russian foreign policy, or its very limited response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now Belarus could become known as the country of peaceful, freedom-loving people who are ready to speak out against violence and lawlessness.

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  • Peaceful protests at Minsk Hero City Stella, Minsk, on 16 August (Photo: Darya Mustafayeva)

The largest in the history of Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union, the protests that have swept the country for the second week in a row are the response to a rigged election and the police brutality that followed.

Yesterday (19 August), EU states discussed the situation in the country.

In her video address to EU leaders, the opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who had to flee to Lithuania, urged them to support the "awakening of Belarus".

They agreed three main messages: the EU stands by the people of Belarus; the bloc will introduce targeted sanctions; and it is ready to accompany a peaceful transition of power through dialogue, potentially facilitated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Both presidents of the EU Council and European Commission also underlined that the situation in Belarus is not about geopolitics - it is a national crisis, so the future of Belarus ought to be decided by its own people, not in Moscow or Brussels.

Meanwhile, the whole campaign and its aftermath could be seen as a 'zugzwang' for Europe's longest ruling leader - a chess term for being forced to make a move, but having only bad options.

All his moves are making his position weaker and weaker.

Belarus is an electoral autocracy that has been successfully staging presidential elections every five years.

Sexism backfired

When the authorities had registered the most unlikely contender - a woman with no political experience who replaced her jailed husband - they did not expect that the people would support this "poor little girl".

They did not foresee such a fierce outrage with the announced preliminary and final results either.

The toxic rhetoric against women and insinuating that the constitution is not made for a woman to be the head of state did not pay off.

Women have become not only the driving force of the opposition campaign but also that of the peaceful protests.

Women of different age and social groups, mostly wearing white and carrying flowers formed solidarity chains and marched in the main streets across the country in their protest against police brutality and flagrant violations of electoral standards.

The accounts of torture and inhumane treatment of detained protesters, and the images of police violence that will never be erased from the collective memory, did not deter people.

On the contrary, they sparked indignation among all the parts of society, even those previously largely apolitical.

The cruelty and perceived impunity of the special forces reminded the Belarusian people of WWII and the suffering the nation went through, losing a quarter of its population. "Fascists" is the cry of outrage used at the protests against the riot police these days.

In his pre-election address to the parliament and the nation, Lukashenka spent 1.5 hours trying to convince the Belarusians that they should let him "save the country".

He mentioned the state-owned enterprises that are the backbone of Belarusian economy as his stronghold, in particular automobile plants, steel works, and oil refineries.

But these major enterprises went on strike with the same demands as the wider civil society: stop the violence, release political prisoners, hold free and fair elections.

Lukashenka visited a plant where he was booed and heckled with chants of "Go away!".

Since these workers have been threatened with being fired, a solidarity fund has been created to support those affected.

Diversity of opposition

Doctors, teachers, scientists, actors, musicians, state TV presenters, IT experts - the solidarity movement is very diverse.

This diversity is reflected in the Coordination Council that would lead the process of the peaceful transition of power.

It is composed of opposition politicians and campaign managers that were active in this or previous elections, lawyers, political analysts, activists, journalists, representatives of the major striking enterprises, businessmen, arts and culture professionals.

At the press conference ahead of the first Council's meeting, its representatives called themselves "dreamers" and stressed that Belarusians have proven to be incredible at self-organisation and solidarity.

These hopeful messages come as the reports of possible interference from Russia are being discussed.

There seems to be little pretext, since the neighbour to the east is willing to support the Belarusian strongman in case of a so called external threat, and so far he is threatened only by his own people.

You would not hear slogans in support of either the EU or Russia in the streets these days, mostly "Long Live Belarus!".

Focusing on the internal politics for the moment, the Belarusian coordination council has underlined that Belarus should be a bridge between east and west and that they would like to see both sides as trade partners.

According to them, all Belarus' neighbours should be interested in maintaining a positive image among the population and should support society in their genuine striving for change.

Author bio

Darya Mustafayeva is a Belarusian living in Brussels with a background in civil society empowerment and EU foreign policy

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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