MINSK, Belarus—Strolling through the impeccably manicured center of the Belarusian capital the evening before this month’s presidential election, a local friend complained to me about the looming presence of the state in day-to-day life. This was especially true during the past several months, as a wave of unprecedented discontent derailed President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s plans for a smooth recoronation. Change was on everyone’s mind, but so was speculation about how his regime might thwart it.
“I’m sick of being forced to think about politics,” she told me. Life in a place like Belgium or Denmark—where, she mused, not everyone’s always able to name the sitting prime minister—seemed so much less stifling.
Belarusians have never been particularly pushy. For years, they watched protests grip their neighbors, first in Russia and then in Ukraine, where mass movements became deeply fraught with ideological divisions, identity politics, and geopolitical undertones. Protests here had erupted over previous elections, but the culturally focused opposition, marginalized by Lukashenko’s police state, failed to inspire the masses. Meanwhile, the former collective farm boss presided over an ideologically flexible, quasi-Soviet regime marked by sterile celebrations of civic (rather than ethnic) patriotism and stodgy displays of national solidarity.
Think billboards lauding the nation’s harvest or reminding Belarusians of the sacrifices they endured in the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Stability and order have long been paramount, as evidenced by the spotless streets and museumlike atmosphere of Minsk. Obedience is strictly enforced, thanks to a well-resourced security apparatus. Lately, social responsibility has also figured prominently: Public service announcements posted on sidewalks remind residents to avoid using plastic bags when buying fruit, and even to teach their grandparents how to take selfies.
Ironically, in some ways Lukashenko’s quest to forge a civic-minded, goal-oriented society has reached its final conclusion. It’s just not in the way he’d planned—the most serious threat to his 26-year rule. The world is now watching the Belarusian people embrace widespread solidarity in a unified, nonviolent movement buoyed by remarkable displays of humanity.
Although anger had gradually mounted in recent years over the stagnation of Belarus’ state-oriented economy, Lukashenko’s most serious misstep came this spring, when he gruffly dismissed the coronavirus pandemic and allowed his country to suffer one of Europe’s worst outbreaks. After jailing several key political opponents, officials rigged the Aug. 9 election to hand “Europe’s last dictator” an unimaginable 80 percent of the vote. There is plentiful anecdotal and statical evidence suggesting this figure is laughably inaccurate.
But the tipping point came after Lukashenko deployed his feared riot police to round up peaceful protesters who spilled onto the streets after the election. Over several days, about 7,000 people were detained, many subjected to brutal mistreatment. (I was one of them.) Horrific firsthand accounts of psychological and physical torture galvanized Belarusians like never before. Alesia Rudnik, a researcher at the Minsk-based Center for New Ideas, says the moment amounted to “a common trauma” for a nation whose post-Soviet identity hadn’t quite been fully formed. “And when I say nation,” Rudnik says, “I mean that Belarusians have finally emerged as a nation.”
Largely because Belarus was the crown jewel of Soviet industry, its national identity had been closely tied to that legacy, rather than to any cultural attachments. Close economic and military ties with Russia—itself struggling to give up the ghost of empire—helped lock that in place, even amid Lukashenko’s “soft Belarusianization” campaign aimed at keeping its distance and avoiding a so-called Crimean scenario.
Now, for the first time in decades, Belarusians are rallying against a common enemy they believe is endangering their future. This time, it’s the regime itself.
In recent days, commentators both at home and abroad have marveled at the largely peaceful nature of the demonstrations, even after being exposed to the ghastly abuses their compatriots had suffered in detention. Photos depicting protesters removing their shoes before hoisting themselves onto benches, or picking up trash after themselves, have gone viral. These days, the dominant sound in central Minsk is the cacophony of car horns honking in support of the movement.
As Belarusians have increasingly realized the power of their own agency, civic society has emerged as something of a parallel structure to a state bureaucracy that’s bloated and ineffective at best, and predatory at worst. Even before the protests began, the #ByCOVID19 crowdfunding campaign gained enormous traction, raising more than $300,000 for medical supplies to fight a virus the government had all but ignored. Before I left for Minsk, Andrej Stryzhak, the chief coordinator, told me that he hoped the effort would set an example for others. “Limitations breed creativity,” he said.
He was right. In the wake of last week’s detentions and beatings, Belarusians flocked to help one another. Volunteers gathered outside prisons to provide food, support, and even rides home for recently released detainees. Hairdressers offered free haircuts, says Alena Aharelysheva, a 32-year-old gender researcher and civic volunteer, and dentists offered their own services free of charge. “My Facebook feed is full of initiatives,” Aharelysheva told me, noting that the country’s army of IT professionals has been indispensable to those efforts.
She added that Belarusians have realized they don’t really need the state, at least not one like this.
But for all the popular will, it’s far from clear whether the movement will succeed in squeezing any concessions from Lukashenko, to say nothing of toppling his authoritarian regime. After the wave of repression, he hinted at further crackdowns, including against a fledgling opposition coordination committee that’s struggling to gain political and diplomatic momentum. He also doled out hundreds of medals to officers, a resounding endorsement of the vicious violence they meted out against their own people. Meanwhile, the labor strikes many experts believe could potentially deal a fatal blow to the regime haven’t yet reached critical mass.
And indeed, just as countless Belarusians have embraced their new collective sense of defiance, large swaths of Lukashenko’s police state are keeping in line. Among the many disturbing memories of my detention, a brief conversation I managed to hold with a 20-year-old prison guard stands out. With his hat tipped goofily over his childlike face, with a smile full of false, youthful confidence, he offered a simple explanation for detaining those who, just like me, were simply walking down the street or waiting at a bus stop: “If you don’t pick off the first couple,” he said, as if describing insects, “the rest will come swarming in.”
Currently, Belarus is stuck in a moment of deep uncertainty, and both sides are battling to win the war of mobilization, says Tatsiana Chulitskaya, a Belarusian-born researcher at Vytautas Magnus University in Vilnius.* The opposition is hoping to maintain pressure through labor strikes and street protests, while the regime—besides begging Vladimir Putin for help—is deploying its motley crew of supporters. The latter’s strategy, says Chulitskaya, revolves around Soviet-style admonitions to defend the state from supposed ruin.
“But what we see now is that people want to live,” she says, “not just to survive.”
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Correction, Aug. 21, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Tatsiana Chulitskaya’s first name.