On August 25, the anniversary of Belarus’ declaration of independence from the USSR, the country’s peaceful protesters enjoyed a brief respite. Although President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime is not keen on this holiday, even the security forces understood that openly attacking Belarusian citizens on such an occasion would be awkward. Besides, the authorities had already blocked off Independence Square, the main gathering site for protests in Minsk.
By the next day, the authorities were back to exhibiting little restraint. Though the riot police (the OMON) are not as brutal as they were in the immediate aftermath of the August 9 presidential election, they are still breaking up demonstrations and arresting protesters in droves.
At one point, around 100 people were trapped by police in a church on Independence Square, which attracted still more demonstrators to the scene outside. After more than 1,000 people had shown up, the OMON corralled them like cattle and began carting them off. Some 20 journalists were also arrested, though most were released after the authorities checked their accreditations and the contents of their phones.
The regime’s current strategy has three prongs: to wait until demonstrators lose their resolve, to detain the most active individuals (journalists as well as labor and protest leaders), and to intimidate the general public so that the demonstrations don’t grow. The third prong does not appear to be working, considering that more than 200,000 people are expected to show up to the protests scheduled for August 30.
Though Lukashenko is a self-professed dictator, even he cannot completely ignore public opinion. He knows that the brutality of the previous crackdown cost him much of the little support he had left, not to mention forging solidarity among workers, medical personnel, and other professions, as well as with the wider world. The regime knows that it cannot openly brutalize thousands of people without provoking even larger protests. Lukashenko would become more isolated than he already is, and thus more dependent on Russia – something he has always sought to avoid.
The opposition is operating very wisely, eschewing clearly anti-Russian or pro-European slogans. Commentators who complain that the European Union flag is absent from Independence Square have missed the point entirely. Flying the EU flag would merely harden divisions and might provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene against the opposition, while the EU itself would be further cut off from a country that it cannot help directly.
Moreover, since the beginning, Belarusians have been relying on themselves, exhibiting courage and determination. This approach, on its own, has put Russia in a more difficult position and increased the moral pressure on the West, toward which Belarusians feel growing affinity.
By congratulating Lukashenko on his fraudulent election victory, sending Russian “journalists” to replace striking Belarusian state media workers, and directing Russia’s own media to lie about the events next door, the Kremlin has driven more and more Belarusians away. And, of course, the poisoning of Russia’s most popular opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, has not won the Kremlin more supporters. Still, with no other options, Lukashenko is now dangling the threat of a Russian intervention to intimidate the protesters.
The conditions are ripe for Russia to lose Belarus – more slowly but just as surely as it lost Ukraine. This is not to suggest that a post-Lukashenko government would rush into the arms of the EU. Any Belarusian government inevitably will have to deal with Russia. And yet, Europe could serve as much more of a geopolitical reference point than it has in the past.
For its part, the EU can do nothing for Belarus when it comes to “hard power.” But Europe does have more than enough money to bolster Belarusian civil society. Belarus’s small population of just 9.5 million people means that investments in the country’s independent media outlets – such as Tut.by or Nasha Niva – would go far toward strengthening democratic forces.
Already, the regime has been brought to the brink of collapse simply by exposure to sunlight. The independent media has laid bare all of the government’s misdeeds, from falsifying the election to torturing detained protesters, as well as Lukashenko’s own eccentricities and embarrassments. It is no coincidence that Lukashenko’s jailed would-be presidential challenger, Sergei Tikhanovsky, is a video blogger rather than a traditional politician.
European countries, starting with Poland, should be prepared to accept Belarusian refugees, including those who have already been brutalized by the regime and those who may be personally threatened in the confrontations yet to come. But the EU also will have to start providing serious financial support to nongovernmental organizations and cultural institutions operating in Belarus before their staff emigrate.
With appropriate financial support, Belarus’s ideological, political, and intellectual ferment will continue to deepen, eventually bringing its people back into the European cultural and political fold. With democracy wavering almost everywhere in the West, Belarus has reminded the world what it looks like when people fight for it.
In this fight, Lukashenko is confronting four threats that he is unable to manage: women protest leaders, demonstrations on an unprecedented scale, reporting by independent media, and strikes by workers in economically crucial industries.
The continued scale of the strikes will depend on how much financial pressure workers feel. But organized solidarity funds can address this issue, by assuring strikers and their families that they will not lose their livelihoods for opposing Lukashenko.
This is an effort to which everyone can contribute. The Polish trade union Solidarity has already set a shining example by donating money and food for Belarusian strikers (though most provisions have so far been seized at the border). Fundraisers are being organized for workers, journalists, and NGOs. The world must tread carefully, but it can and should do more than simply cheer Belarus on.
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