#StandWithBelarus: Interview with a Belarusian Activist

This article is part of a project designed to raise awareness about what has been happening in Belarus since August 2020, at the occasion of the Day of Solidarity with Belarus launched by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. In order to understand the past and current events better, The Euroculturer Magazine organized a live interview with a belarusian Euroculture Alumni who kindly agreed to give us her insights on the situation. For the sake of this person, this interview will be anonymized.

Interview conducted by Leyre Castro & Hannah Bieber and transcripted by Bryan T. Bayne & Katarina Jarc

Euroculturer Magazine (EM): How do the events in Belarus affect you personally?

Of course the event affected all people in Belarus because the scale of the violence produced by the police in Minsk was so unpredictable and unproportional, especially August 2020. It produced collective trauma not only for people who participated in the protests, but also for those who couldn’t participate. People were tortured and killed and this was something nobody expected because a protest of this scale has never happened in Belarus. It was very hard for me because I am an activist in Belarus and I know a lot of people protesting. Most of my friends were protesting and many were detained. One was arrested on the very first day and he’s still in prison.

The whole campaign before the election was so big and prominent, and so many activities were organized. There were signals to indicate who you were supporting. For example, we would wear white bracelets to indicate who we were actually voting for. If you ask anyone, so many really wanted to vote for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. When we saw the preliminary results of 80%+ for Lukashenko it was unbelievable. People immediately wanted to protest, as the election was allegedly fraudulent. We always have peaceful protests, we don’t use violence. Our most popular instruments are clapping and  chanting. We never thought about using violence, molotov cocktails and so on. 

It was a very hard August for me. I was trying to complete my thesis and it was just impossible. The only thing I could do was to go protest and vote. But when I tried, the Belarus Embassy in the country of my residence as in many other countries  didn’t allow us to vote, they were slowing everything down to prevent us from voting, allowing only one person in at a time. Their arguments were Covid measures and also that they were not prepared for so many people showing up to vote.

EM: How do Alexei Navalny’s arrest and the resulting protests in Russia relate to the situation in Belarus? Do you think that this could have a spillover effect in Belarus and affect how protestors/government react in the coming weeks?

I like this question a lot because I think it’s very very prominent now. To be honest, I think the spillover effect took place rather in Russia, not Belarus. Russian and international media write about the Russian protests referring to the Belarusian as a comparison or metaphor. . For example, The Financial Time published a piece called “Echoes of Belarus in Russia.” But also on social media Russians often use “Belarusian terminology”, when they call on protest. They say “let’s go for a walk”, referring to the catchphrase of one of the legendary figures in the Belarus protests.

This figure was an old lady that when police confronted her and tried to prevent her from carrying the flag, she took a pause, raised her head and replied “I am walking.” And she carried on. The police didn’t know what to do. Her attitude was as if the police weren’t even at her level. This became a meme in Belarus and spilled over to Russia. Russians say the same thing now when they protest. 

Another phrase is associated with the  huge solidarity that the Belarusian protest created between people, who realized how many like-minded, beautiful people are there in our society. We started gathering in communities to support those who were released from detention centers. Many of these were released straight to hospital and required psychological support. So Belarusians who provide many services organized in groups to help those who suffered during the protest. This includes health services but also other things like car maintenance and so on, everyone is helping. 

Now we are showing solidarity in our own yards, so this is when people started to get to know their local communities and districts. People gathered to have tea, share their homemade dishes, and sing songs. One of these yards was well-known for solidarity and protests. In the yard, they had white and red stripes hanging as a decoration. One night, police in civilian clothes came to cut them, which is ridiculous and illogical. 

One active resident of the yard decided to go down and ask them what was going on – well, of course he knew who they were and what they were doing but he wanted to protect the yard and the symbols of hope and freedom.  He wrote in the yard chat: “I’m going out.” The police beat him into a coma and he passed away on the following day. 

This phrase “I’m going out” became a slogan and a name of one of the marches in Belarus emphasizing the responsibility and deep bravery of each risking their life for freedom. Now in Russia the phrase has become a meaningful slogan too . I can’t say Russians were supporting the Belarusian protests too much in the beginning, but now they hold Belarusian white-red-white flag and chant “Long live Belarus” during their protests. . 

As a spillover effect in Belarus there may be political consequences. Putin is propping up Lukashenko, a bit less nowadays, but he still gives him some support and considers him the legitimate president. Now Putin is busy with his own protest and internal problems, so maybe now there’s a chance that he will be less involved in the Belarusian affairs. 

But we still fear Belarus-Russia integration agreements that were signed in the 90’s and salient until a few years ago when the Russian government initiated intense negotiations about deepening the integration . Belarus grew in a different sovereign country and people do not see any point in the agreement that had been signed in the 90’s by Lukashenko and suddenly activated a few years ago by Putin, especially after the support of the brutality of Lukashenko’s police during the protests by Putin.

Our biggest concern is that during this moment of instability, Russia will invoke the card of integration and interfere in the affairs of our country. Perhaps this idea will be a bit weakened now considering the situation in Russia. 

In general, I think the protests in Russia and Belarus are very different. In Russia, Navalny is a figure. He had always been doing this, releasing videos and reporting the truth. Now, he’s calling on protest against Putin but  the protests are also associated with his personal situation, the fact that he’s been sent to prison in a ridiculous case. So not the blatantly deprived will of the people is at stake in this case but the injustice of the system towards its whistleblower, officials’ corruption and greed. Despite this system inevitably affecting everyone’s life, in my opinion, it makes the overall emotion of the protest less personal.

In Belarus it was different. We had Tsikhanouskaya, Kalesnikava, Tsapkala and Babaryka. We had a group of people, but none of them was seen as a leader figure, they were mediators for the will of the people for the upcoming elections. Now we have Tsikhanouskaya, as a more central figure. We’re very much aware that the effort to push Lukashenko back is the people’s effort, and she is a true representative of the people, who deals with international communications and the like. 

With Navalny, this is different. So this is the central difference between the protests and this is a reason why they may develop in a different way. Another reason for different developments in Russia is the scale of their country and the diversity there. In Belarus, in the cities, towns, regions, districts, people united easily and quickly. We awakened and realized that they have their own will. Now they are getting involved in politics because they understand that this is the only way to solve the crisis.

EM: What role has the EU played in the crisis so far? And what role should it be playing in the future?

The EU is doing many things. It implemented 3 packages of sanctions and is preparing another one. These are a controversial instrument. Even though these sanctions are very specific and are targeting individuals, they still affect a population that is already suffering. Another concern of mine is that they’re applying democratic sanctions against a country that isn’t democratic. 

Lukashenko, while being the president of the country was never interested in close relations with the EU, he’s always been backed by Russia and more recently, China. Economic sanctions might push things a bit, but it seems that the strongest instrument is protest. Not only in Belarus, but also internationally, with diasporas contacting embassies and solidarity protests abroad. We are contacting international businesses and requesting them not to cooperate with the government. 

The people have this feeling of power, that their will gives them the right to implement their ideas, that they have the power to change things. We don’t have to fully rely on representatives, we can do much by ourselves. This is impressive and really works. About the European Union, I think that what they’re trying to pass against Lukashenko could be more effective. 

Sanctions had been implemented before in past elections and what we saw was that the more the EU pressed Lukashenko, the more violent his system became against political prisoners. It’s important to keep in mind that Lukashenko is a diagnosed psychopath. He’s obsessed with power and this power is the only thing that allows him to go on unpunished. 

He knows that once everything is over, there’ll be courts and there’s so much evidence already about him. So many strong cases about his personal involvement and orders, including an order allowing police to use fatal weapons. They’re building concentration camps for protesters in a country where a significant percentage of the population died s during WWII in the fight against fascism! 

This is too much. It proves that the democratic ways that the EU is trying to use are not working against him that well because our political and psychological structures are different. Moreover, the more the EU pushes him, the closer he’ll align with Russia, which is something Belarusians don’t want. However, here I want to highlight that our protests are neither pro-EU, nor against Russia. 

We strive to reach democracy and exercise our rights in the place we belong. Overall, the EU creates a certain pressure and expresses its interest to help financially in the future development of Belarus once Lukashenko steps down. But it is an outgoing effort of all actors – political, economic and civilian, international and local – to condition it.  

EM: In your opinion, are protests in Belarus being effective? What outcome do you expect from them?

The protests have 3 demands. First, new fair elections. Second, stop the violence. Third, release all political prisoners. This is the minimum. It sounds very concise. And it is. The main thesis is that we’ll have a new, democratically-elected president. Meanwhile, Tsikhanouskaya’s idea was to copy the government structure and its bodies so that the entire government and the main positions can be replaced as soon as Lukashenko steps down. 

The EU doesn’t recognize Lukashenko as the president, but they don’t recognize Tsikhanouskaya either. They suggest a national dialogue between the two sides. But there cannot be a dialogue with a murderer. We want him to step down, because then we hope that Tsikhanouskaya and her cabinet will be able to restart with new people, ideas and values. 

Something I really like about our newfound solidarity is that Lukashenko hasn’t noticed that the new generation, the one who never lived in the USSR, has access to the internet, travel, and international educational opportunities he hasn’t noticed that this generation grew up and became aware of their civil responsibility and rights. 

During the protests, these people discovered each other, realized that they were so many and could share the best in them – to help altruistically, support each other and cooperate. Not only in Minsk and Belarus, but in many other cities and countries. And this is one of the most beautiful and important outcomes. Once he steps down, I hope that we’ll therefore experience a burst of creativity and a better life in many perspectives.

Attendee: In your opinion, what kind of ‘sanctions’ (or similar) could the EU impose, if the ones now are not really working? Could the EU take any better steps in approaching Lukashenko?

Sanctions are functioning economically but they’re not as effective as we’d like them to be. I know they’re working because Lukashenko’s inner circle started to put their money in different accounts, for example their wives’ and children’s. They know that the sanctions are coming so they transfer the money to someone else’s account. I don’t know what to do because Lukashenko has psychological issues which makes things beyond our control. 

I like what the US has done. They released an action plan, the “Belarus Democracy Act 2020”, about developing Belarus and said they’ll monitor Russian activity during this period of instability in Belarus. The US warned Russia not to interfere. I know the EU also communicated something similar to Putin. 

I feel that the US’s warning against Russia is more credible than the EU and I feel that if the conflict escalates we might have a second cold war. I don’t think the US can do anything to help Belarusians, besides of course providing some financial support for the people once Lukashenko steps down. I’m not an expert, but I really don’t think that something will happen. The United States holding back Russia is already quite helpful, though.

Maybe if Lukashenko loses China’s and Putin’s support, he’ll lose confidence. We hope that those working for Lukashenko, his advisors, the police, etc, will remember their oath and serve the people first instead of the president. There’s a chance that they might turn to our side, but this is impossible to forecast.

Belarusians have always hoped someone else like the EU or the US will come to the rescue in challenging times. But I believe this ongoing revolution reveals that nobody will save us and that we have enough will power and strength to do it by ourselves. This way, our victory will be more valuable. 

We need to keep protesting and striking, be vocal and publicly show disaccord. Solidarity coming from countries with similar experience is very valuable because many people in Belarus were frustrated during protests, some of them were killed, tortured and raped. To sum up, I just think people should support the protests and show appreciation to the Belarus people risking their lives for a better tomorrow.

Attendee: Is it possible for Belarusians to apply for asylum as political opponents following recent protests?

Some countries proposed a simplified visa process. This is the case of Poland and Lithuania. They also changed the rules to help IT specialists find jobs there. Which is smart of them, but bad for us, because IT is one of the strongest sectors of our economy. So people are leaving for Poland and Lithuania and are unlikely to come back. 

I’m not sure about other countries. I was considering and still am considering applying for refugee protection. But I know that in my country of residence, there was a case of a couple who waited for 10 years, they were very active in their community, established connections there, were working and had settled there. And after 10 years, last September, in the height of the protest, that country ordered them to go back because they saw no threat in Belarus.

 The diaspora might help refugees find jobs and places, and there are some programmes for students of course, because many students were expelled or fired from their jobs. We have funds for these people, they received donations and support. But this is temporary.

Attendee: I read that Belarus was hit quite hard by Covid-19 because Lukashenko denied the lethality of the sickness, and spread those lies on mainstream media. Has the virus played a role in raising an opposition against him? Or perhaps in the protests?

I think one of the starting points for our awakening and solidarity was COVID. Lukashenko said covid doesn’t exist and proposed treating it with vodka, saunas, etc. That’s a fact. People started getting sick and dying, without receiving any assistance. There were no restrictions and the government provided no assistance to hospitals. Covid is affecting the elderly the most. 

Many of elderly are the staunchest pro-Lukashenko electorate, because they are nostalgic of the USSR and Lukashenko embodies soviet nostalgia with its politics. So these people who were voting for him,  supported and trusted him were the ones who were hit the hardest by covid. And this was his biggest mistake. Instead of protecting his supporters, he let them die and neglected them. That was the turning point and people opened their eyes and realised that things probably aren’t like what they say on TV.

Thank you very much for reading this interview. We cannot stress enough how grateful we are for this person’s testimony and would like to thank her again for having the courage to speak up and tell us her perspective on the situation in Belarus.


Picture Credits: Artem Botez, Pexels

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