1st Oct 2023


In Belarus, the other victims of Putin's war

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A lot has already been written about the torture, the tactics of the KGB (Belarus's secret police), and protest-related deaths in Minsk and elsewhere since the contested elections in 2020.

Yet there still are voices from abroad condemning the Belarusians, arguing that we are to blame for Russia using it as a base to attack Ukraine from our territory; or that we were not brave enough to oust our longstanding dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, ourselves, and for good.

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This underplays our courage.

Belarusians who protested against the Russia's aggression were tortured in detention.

Mothers of the Belarusian soldiers who gathered in Minsk cathedral were detained after their prayer for peace. An activist who took a photo of the Russian military on the move will face criminal charges.

Such seemingly minor acts of civil dissent happen despite years of repression, when virtually any independent initiative was immediately destroyed by the Lukashenko authorities before it had the chance to take root.

Those who can, still contribute their share towards the struggle. Belarusian cyber partisans paralyse the railroads to sabotage the logistics of the Russians army, even though, were they to be captured, such activists could face the death penalty, which still exists in Belarus.

Networks of solidarity and resistance exist underground. The Belarusian diasporas in Poland and Germany are volunteering to help incoming Ukrainian refugees.

At the same time, those state officials who serve the Lukashenko regime declare on TV and in public that they have no knowledge of the presence of Russian helicopters here, despite the overwhelming evidence of attacks from Belarusian soil.

Those who support the Lukashenko regime constitute less than one-third of the population. They are bombarded with state propaganda, which itself often cites the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and outlandish claims that the West is to blame for Putin's war.

Sometimes in past years, Belarusians were mocked for their peaceful protests with flowers rather than Molotov cocktails.

But these critics fail to mention that the European policymakers signalled to the Belarusian democratic forces that peaceful protests would be a precondition for the Western support. The West wanted to avoid potential confrontation where protesters triggered Kremlin interventions, to stabilise the situation, as Moscow would put it.

Even after the exposure of the Lukashenko regime's crimes following the fraudulent 2020 presidential election, there was lobbying within the EU to exempt some sensitive assets from the sanctions lists.

And to be honest, the EU only acted decisively on Belarus after the diversion of a Ryanair plane — a state hijacking — in May 2021, i.e. when the interests of EU citizens were violated.

The 2020 post-electoral crisis was never resolved but protesters were forced underground, and Lukashenko stayed in power through terror tactics with the help of Vladimir Putin.

Without Kremlin money to sustain the economy, and threats that any Western mediation would be considered by Moscow as interference in Belarus' sovereign affairs, Lukashenko's illegitimate regime would already have collapsed.

And the price Belarus is paying for Kremlin support, for Belarusian people, for Ukraine, and for Europe, is a high one.

Belarus has allowed the stationing of Russian troops on its soil used for attacks on Ukraine. Minsk conducted a fraudulent constitutional referendum that served to consolidate the regime's powers and further reduce civil liberties. And Belarus' neutral status was dropped, giving even greater scope for its territory to be used for Russian military purposes.

At this point, it is unthinkable that Lukashenko would say no to any of Putin's demands: on a road from Lithuania to Belarus, a new road sign was placed by Lithuanian activists, saying: "Minsk (under occupation)."

There was a view taken in the West that relaunching relations with the Belarusian leadership after the Crimea annexation, when Lukashenko presented himself as merely not the worst guy in the room, was strategically wise.

However, the promises he made turned out to be valueless.

His promise to the EU to protect their joint border? He instrumentalised the migration flow in 2021.

He stated that Ukraine would never be attacked from Belarusian territory. Yet sceptics used to downplay the threat of Russian aggression, labelling it alarmism.

When the Astravets nuclear power plant was built at the Belarus-Lithuanian border, Lithuanians warned the plant was a Russian-backed geopolitical tool to threaten the Baltic states.

When Moscow forced Minsk into closer relations, many downplayed the idea that Putin would eventually expand his grip over Belarus through political integration or that he'd place a military base in there.

Yet here we are. The worst predictions have been born out.

Isn't it time for Europe finally to rally to our side, too?

Author bio

Katsiaryna Shmatsina is Belarussian, and a fellow with the German Marshall Fund think tank, specialising in Belarus foreign policy and security in the region. Previously she was a research fellow at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.


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

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