MOSCOW – Not long ago, Belarus was portrayed as a peaceful, if authoritarian, former Soviet republic sandwiched between Poland and Russia. right Now The country’s pro-democracy leaders warn Their country could turn into Europe’s North Korea: a country run by a dangerous and unpredictable leader who lives through fear and oppression.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has cracked down on his opponents since the August presidential elections. Mass protests erupted after Lukashenko declared himself the winner of a sixth term and forced his main rival, Svetlana Tikanovskaya, into exile.
Lukashenko responded with violence. According to the Belarusian opposition, More than 35,000 people Detained since August – in a country of less than 10 million people. Human rights activists in the country say there More than 480 political prisoners.
In November, The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the elections had been rigged and that Belarusian security forces had committed “mass and systematic violations of human rights” in response to peaceful demonstrations.
After Lukashenko was forced to shoot down a commercial airliner last month to arrest an opposition activist on board, Belarus is facing greater isolation, with Russia as its only ally. The Kremlin’s support for the Belarusian regime is likely to be seen in this week’s summit between President Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening in Belarus. Survey Posted in March By the Center for Eastern European and International Studies in Berlin shows that 53% of voters cast their ballots for Tikhanovskaya, while 18% chose Lukashenko. The survey also found that 45% of respondents approved of the anti-government protests, while 31% opposed them.
NPR spoke to five Belarusians about how they view the situation in their country. This is what they had to say:
Svetlana, 60, retired music teacher, mother and grandmother
Svetlana lives in Gomel, the second city of Belarus, near the borders with Russia and Ukraine. After retiring early for health reasons, Svetlana taught herself how to ride a bike and joined the cycling community in her hometown. After the elections last summer, Svetlana’s civic activism turned political. Svetlana requested that her family name not be used for fear of prosecution because she has already been detained three times and her home searched.
“We’re joking now that Belarus is further north than North Korea,” she says. “What is happening in Belarus is a disaster. We live under the conditions of a real fascist regime.”
Svetlana knows that many people are now in prison or have gone abroad. “We sit tightly like mice,” Svetlana says of those who stayed like her. “Only a few of us have the power to post on social media.”
She is grateful for messages of support 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 can pursue his dream of pursuing a medical career in his own country.
“Lukashenko did not win,” she says. “There has been a huge change in people’s consciousness. None of us doubts that we will win.”
Peter Markellau, 26, student and civic activist
Courtesy of Piotr Markielau
Piotr Markielau is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of Belarusian youth fled repression in their country. This spring, Markellau walked through the woods across the lightly guarded border between Belarus and Russia, then traveled to safe Ukraine.
Markelau was expelled from his university due to his political activism and plans to study in the Czech Republic. He says he was arrested five times and spent 67 days in prison. Markellau considers himself lucky that he was not beaten, although he says that prison guards poured bleach on the floor of his cell as a form of torture.
“My parents are doctors,” he says. “They are in Belarus, but they don’t want to leave, even though I asked them to.” “I am concerned for their safety.”
Markilau, who comes from a family of activists, is frustrated with Belarusians who passively support Lukashenko’s regime by doing nothing. He is disappointed that the change did not come as quickly as he had hoped.
“People thought it was possible to overthrow a dictator with flowers,” he says. “But that’s not always possible.” “Now people thought 300,000 people took to the streets, we won. Everyone was so elated. I was too – but only for a week.”
Elia Bogoch, 42, owner of a transport company and father of two children
Courtesy of Elia Bogoch
Like Svetlana, Ilya Bogosh is from Gomel in eastern Belarus, where he runs a trucking company that deals mostly with Russia. Pogoch considers himself as much a Belarusian patriot as Svetlana – only he supports Lukashenko and his crackdown.
“Yes, the government’s reaction was harsh, but it was exactly the right thing,” Bogosh says. “People I know work. They didn’t go to gatherings on weekdays, and on weekends, they were home with their kids. I would be interested to see how these hundreds of people make a living, standing in the street every day.”
A few bruises are the price of keeping the country intact, Bogosh says. He says protests in other former Soviet republics have failed to bring peace and prosperity. For example, in Ukraine, a street revolution in 2014 was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a low-level war with Kremlin-backed separatists.
“In my opinion, no revolution anywhere has brought any benefit,” Bogoch says. “Everyone wants changes – but they don’t know what the changes are. I think people have woken up a bit.”
Bogoch says he is suspicious of Tikhanovskaya and is certain that foreign powers are behind her rapid rise. He believes that the exiled Belarusian opposition has neither experience nor plan, and is harming the country by calling for increased Western sanctions.
Pavel Batoyu, 39, electrical engineer and unemployed political activist, father of three
Pavel Batoyu 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 town of Soligorsk, home to one of the largest fertilizer plants in the world and a major source of income for the Lukashenko regime.
Courtesy of Pavel Battuyo
Before the pandemic, Batoyu worked in neighboring Poland. Batuyo says he can’t find a job at home because of his political activism. He says he has already been arrested three times.
“I feel like I’m in labor camps,” he says, referring to the Soviet system of prison labor camps. “Every day is a little terrifying, and lately I’ve started to fear for my freedom. My beliefs are in conflict with the current political system, and in Belarus that’s enough to end up in prison.”
Batuyo says that many Belarusians understand that international sanctions may be necessary to get rid of Lukashenko. But in a town like Soligorsk, where the fertilizer giant Belarus He is the main employer, people are also worried about their jobs.
“Everyone hopes that the meeting between the American and Russian presidents will somehow affect Lukashenko,” says Batuyo, referring to this week’s summit. But he doubts the White House will have the means to pressure the Lukashenko regime.
On the other hand, Russia has close cultural and linguistic relations with Belarus. But Batoyu says that the traditional warm feelings of many Belarusians toward Russia have cooled, because Putin provides essential economic support to Lukashenko.
Alaa, 43, graphic designer
Alla lives in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. She volunteered as an election observer during the disputed presidential election and was arrested after a women’s rally in September. She requested that NPR use only her first name, given the repressive measures the regime is taking against dissidents.
“I am with democratic changes, and I am with a European direction for the development of Belarus,” says Alaa.
She does not agree with the belief that pro-democracy revolutions end in failure, noting that Ukrainians today have much more freedom than Belarusians.
Alaa admitted that following the violent police response to the protests, depression and apathy took hold of the people. But she finds hope in the solidarity she sees among her neighbours, who support strangers in police custody by making food packages and attending court hearings.
“I went to several court hearings of people I didn’t know,” she says. I went so that those facing criminal prosecution could feel some support.”
Alla is in conflict with her sister, who lives in Moscow and believes that Belarus cannot survive as an independent country and that it would be better for her to be swallowed up by Russia.
“I am skeptical of the view that change in Belarus depends on Russia,” says Alaa. “The best example of the Solidarity movement in Poland”.
It took a decade of resistance for the Solidarity movement to bring down the Polish communist regime.