Sergei Grits / AP
MOSCOW – Not so long ago, the image of Belarus was a peaceful, albeit authoritarian, former Soviet republic, sandwiched between Poland and Russia. Now warn the country’s pro-democracy leaders their country in Europe could turn into North Korea: a country ruled by a dangerous, unpredictable leader who survives through fear and repression.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has been taking action against his opponents since the August presidential election. Mass protests erupted after Lukashenko declared himself the winner of his sixth term and forced his main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovska, into exile.
Lukashenko reacted with violence. According to the Belarusian opposition, more than 35,000 people have been in custody since August – in a country with less than 10 million. Human rights activists in the country say there are more than 480 political prisoners.
In November, concluded the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe that the elections were rigged and that Belarusian security forces committed “massive and systematic human rights violations” in response to peaceful demonstrations.
After forcing a commercial airline to arrest an opposition activist on board last month, Belarus is facing even greater isolation, whose only ally is Russia. The Kremlin’s support for the Belarusian regime will probably take place this week’s summit of President Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Due to the travel restrictions of COVID-19, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening in Belarus. The survey was published in March The Center for Eastern European and International Studies in Berlin shows that 53% of voters voted for Tikhanovskaya, while 18% chose Lukashenko. The survey also showed that 45% of respondents agreed with anti-government protests, while 31% disagreed.
The NPR spoke with five Belarusians about how they view the situation in their country. Here’s what they had to say:
Svetlana (60), retired music teacher, mother and grandmother
Svetlana lives in Gomel, another Belarusian city, near the borders with Russia and Ukraine. After an early retirement due to health reasons, Svetlana learned to ride a bicycle and joined the cycling community of her city. After last summer’s election, Svetlana’s civic activism turned into political activism. Since she has already been arrested three times and her home has been searched, Svetlana requested that her last name not be used for fear of criminal prosecution.
“Now we joke that Belarus is even further north than North Korea,” she says. “What is happening in Belarus is a catastrophe. We live in the conditions of a real fascist regime.”
Many people that Svetlana knows are now in prison or have gone abroad. “We sit tight like mice,” Svetlana says of those, like her, who stayed. “Only a few of us have the power to post on social media.”
She is grateful for the messages of support coming from the United States and other Western countries. Her greatest hope is that her two children will not be forced to leave Belarus and that her grandson will be able to follow his dream of a medical career in his country.
“Lukashenko did not prevail,” she says. “There’s been a big change in people’s minds. None of us doubt we’re going to get over it.”
Piotr Markielau, 26, student and civic activist
Courtesy of Piotr Markielau
Piotr Markielau is one of hundreds, if not thousands young Belarusians fleeing repression in their country. This spring, Markielau walked through the woods across the poorly guarded border between Belarus and Russia, and then traveled to the security of Ukraine.
Markielau was expelled from the university for his political activism and plans to study in the Czech Republic. He says he was jailed five times and spent 67 days in jail. Markielau considers himself happy because he was not beaten, although he says prison guards poured bleach on his cell floor as a form of torture.
“My parents are doctors. They are in Belarus, but they don’t want to leave, even though I asked them to,” he says. “I’m worried about their safety.”
Markielau, who comes from a family of activists, is frustrated with Belarusians who passively support the Lukashenko regime by doing nothing. He is disappointed that the change did not come as quickly as he had hoped.
“People thought it would be possible to overthrow the dictator with flowers. But that’s not always possible,” he says. “People now thought 300,000 people took to the streets, we won. Everyone was so euphoric. I was too – but only for a week.”
Ilya Bogush, 42, owner of a trucking company, father of two children
Courtesy of Ilya Bogush
Like Svetlana, Ilya Bogush is from Gomel in eastern Belarus, where she runs a trucking company that does mostly business with Russia. Bogush considers himself a Belarusian patriot as much as Svetlana – only he supports Lukashenko and his suppression.
“Yes, the government’s reaction was harsh, but it was absolutely the right thing to do,” says Bogush. “People I know work. They didn’t go to rallies on weekdays, and they were home with their kids on the weekends. I’d be interested in how those few hundred people made a living standing on the street every day.”
Bogush says a few bruises cost to keep the country intact. Protests in other former Soviet republics have failed to bring peace and prosperity, he argues. For example, in Ukraine, the street revolution of 2014 was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a low-level war with Kremlin-backed separatists.
“In my opinion, no revolution has ever done anything good,” Bogush says. “Everyone wants change – but they don’t know what changes. I think people have sobered up a bit.”
Bogush says he is suspicious of Tikhanovskaya and is sure that foreign forces are behind her meteoric rise. The fugitive Belarusian opposition has no experience and no plan, he believes, and is hurting the country by calling for increased Western sanctions.
Pavel Batuyeu, 39, an unemployed electrical engineer and political activist, father of three
Pavel Batuyeu is a longtime member of the opposition Belarusian People’s Front, a political party dating back to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He lives in the city of Soligorsk, home to one of the world’s largest fertilizer factories, the main source of income for the Lukashenko regime.
Courtesy of Pavel Batuyeu
Prior to the pandemic, Batuyeu worked in neighboring Poland. At home, Batuyeu says, he cannot find a job because of his political activism. He says he has been in custody three times already.
“I feel like I’m in a gulag,” he says, referring to the Soviet system of prison labor camps. “Every day is a little scarier, and lately I’ve started to fear for my freedom. My beliefs are against the current political system, and in Belarus that’s enough to end up in prison.”
Many Belarusians understand that international sanctions could be needed to get rid of Lukashenko, Batuyeu says. But in a city like Soligorsk, where fertilizer is a giant Belaruskali is the main employer, people are also worried about their job.
“Everyone hopes that the meeting between the American and Russian presidents will somehow influence Lukashenko,” Batuyeu said, referring to this week’s summit. But he suspects the White House has the means to put pressure on the Lukashenko regime.
Russia, on the other hand, has close cultural and linguistic ties with Belarus. But many of Belarus’s traditionally warm feelings toward Russia have cooled, Batuyeu says, as Putin provides substantial economic support to Lukashenko.
Alla, 43, graphic designer
Alla lives in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. She appeared as an election observer during the disputed presidential election and was detained after a women’s rally in September. She demanded that the NPR use only her name, given the regime’s repressive measures against dissidents.
“I am for democratic change and I am for the European direction of Belarus’ development,” Alla says.
She disagrees with the belief that democratic revolutions end in failure, noting that Ukrainians today enjoy much more freedom than Belarusians.
After the regime’s sharp police response to the protests, people were overwhelmed by depression and apathy, Alla admits. But he finds hope in the solidarity he sees in his neighbors, who support unknown people in police custody by making food packages and attending their court hearings.
“I went to several court hearings for people I didn’t know,” she says. “I went so that those who face prosecution feel some support.”
Alla is in conflict with her sister who lives in Moscow and believes that Belarus cannot survive as an independent nation and that it would be better if Russia swallowed it.
“I am skeptical of the view that change in Belarus depends on Russia,” Alla says. “I prefer the example of the solidarity movement in Poland.”
It took a decade of Solidarity resistance to overthrow the Polish communist regime.