Sunday

13th Jun 2021

Opinion

Belarusian spring: finding hope in dark times

  • At the centre of the protests in Belarus has been the old white-red-white national flag, ostracised by the Lukashenko government (Photo: Unsplash/Andrew Keymaster)

Belarus had been considered a lost cause for a long time by political pundits. That is until last summer - the summer of a social miracle that had not been predicted by any political analysts, researchers or journalists, either national or international.

This time six months ago, newspapers around the world were publishing photos of the largest public rallies in the history of the country. Impressive in their imagery, they looked more like a political carnival with flowers, creative slogans, and protest music.

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At the centre of it all was the white-red-white national flag ostracised by the government.

Six months later, the protest movement in Belarus has largely lost its festive flair.

In the country famous for its partisan movement during World War II, the protest tactics have transformed into an almost underground resistance, with smaller groups gathering in neighbourhoods around cities.

Neighbourhood communities are horizontal in structure, self-organised and digitally savvy, coordinating their flash mobs and pickets through Telegram.

Their Zoom sessions with the leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya have become a hit on social media.

The tactics have clearly changed as a response to security concerns.

Today, there are over 250 political prisoners in the country of nine million inhabitants.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg – since August more than 30,000 people have been detained, with many of them subjected to torture and ill-treatment, and over 1,000 people targeted by criminal prosecution.

And who are the judges?

Just two weeks ago, Belarusian journalists Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova were handed down two prison years for live-streaming a wake from the Square of Change.

Back in November, people gathered in this famous Minsk neighbourhood to pay tribute to its deceased resident, Raman Bandarenka - beaten to death by a plainclothes group linked to the police and presidential administration.

This case shook Belarus, even when it seemed like the highest point of repression had already passed.

Crude allegations by the authorities that the victim was intoxicated led another journalist Katsiaryna Barysevich to investigate his medical condition.

Both Barysevich and a doctor, Artsiom Sarokin, who confirmed that there was no alcohol in Raman's blood, ended up being tried "for disclosing medical information".

Those implicated in his murder are still to be found as (to the surprise of his family and wider public), an investigation into his death was finally launched - two months after the event.

These are just some of the cases and Kafka-esque legal proceedings that neglect procedural rights and guarantees.

For weeks-on-end, a wave of politically-motivated judgements have been passed with complete disregard for facts and often logic, like in the case of Hennadz Shutau who was tried posthumously.

The punishment in these cases ranges from supervised release to deprivation of liberty of one to 10 years, with judges every time strictly following the recommendations of the prosecutor for the harshest penalty.

The closest supporters of the former presidential hopeful Viktar Babaryka - Maria Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak – are facing new charges of up to 12 years in prison.

Babaryka himself is awaiting the continuation of the hearing, following his first appearance in court. The first two days of his trial were dedicated to the announcement of all the charges against him.

White-Red-White banner

While people can be put behind bars, symbols cannot be.

But Alexander Lukashenko and his apparatus are trying hard.

Replaced in 1995 with a version of the flag used during the Soviet times, the white-red-white banner is again under attack.

In an attempt to tarnish the symbol of protest, a bill was introduced into the parliament to deem the flag as an extremist symbol and therefore ban its use altogether.

These are dark times in Belarus with the government tightening the screws like never before. They are preparing for spring as much as the opponents of the regime do.

The hope of spring

However low this point seems, there is a prevailing hope among opposition for spring – which for most Belarusians starts this week - to bring a new wave of protests since peaceful mass uprising puts the authorities in a tight spot.

25 March is Freedom Day in Belarus, when the opposition annually gathers in large numbers to honour the proclamation of the Belarusian People's Republic in 1918.

There is also a hope that the EU will be more decisive in its foreign policy and support for Belarusian people, especially after the blunder with the Moscow visit last month.

The EU countries have undoubtedly been active on Belarus with Tsikhanouskaya widely-received as the legitimate leader.

This week, she is meeting with the heads of states in Portugal, which is holding the EU presidency, and Finland.

Since August 2020, the EEAS and European Parliament have issued multiple statements and reports on Belarus, and the European Commission has approved a new support package for civil society, independent media and youth.

However, there is a sense of disappointment with the latest sanctions package excluding several companies linked to the regime and the fourth package being postponed again, possibly until this month.

While sanctions are by no means a silver bullet, they send an important message to the elites, and it is crucial that the lists include the judges who hand down politically motivated sentences.

International organisations have launched their human rights mechanisms to ensure accountability for grave violations, especially those committed by the special forces.

Among them is the OSCE Moscow Mechanism and the recent hearing on Belarus at the UN Human Rights Council. Yet it is early to see any concrete results for those on the ground.

While February 2021 was no August 2020, these six months have given the Belarusians the sense of solidarity and unity - both within Belarus' borders and outside - that did not exist during any previous opposition endeavours.

It is time the EU has shown unity in its approach to the foreign policy towards Belarus as well.

Author bio

Darya Mustafayeva is a Belgian-Belarusian with a background in international law and EU foreign policy. She is a co-founder of the initiative Association of Belarusians in Europe (ABELE)., currently working in EU public affairs.

Disclaimer

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

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