It’s six months since unpopular dictator Alexander Lukashenko surprised everyone and no one by winning the presidential election in Belarus – once again – by an unusually high margin against impossible odds. Every weekend since has seen protests throughout the country. For many weeks there was genuine optimism that this time, something would really change. But here we are half a year later and despite the efforts of hordes of brave and peaceful activists Lukashenko is still in the Presidential Palace, his residence since 1994. Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya – widely accepted to be the real winner of the election – remains in exile in neighbouring Lithuania and scores of dissenters are dead.
Tsikhanovskaya asks us to join her and the people of Belarus in a day of solidarity this Sunday 7 February.
A quick recap of the story to date: Tsikhanovskaya reluctantly stepped in to replace her husband – blogger and presidential candidate Sergei Tikhanovsky when he was jailed in May 2020. The field narrowed further the following month when Lukashenko jailed another candidate, banker and art collector Viktor Babaryka on charges of money laundering and fraud – classics from the Putin playbookused to great effect against Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khordokovsky and many more. (Babaryka’s case goes to court in mid-February; neither the defendant nor the press were permitted to attend the preliminary so how fair the trial will be is questionable.)
The peaceful protests of the Belarusians have been beautiful to observe. Scores of citizens have marched, danced, smiled through the streets. Chains of young mothers link hands and give flowers to police, who almost look ready to switch sides. But, inevitably, the crackdown comes before the day ends. People have bravely shared evidence on social media: footage of protesters being bundled into armoured vans, horrifying screams recorded at Okrestina prison, doctors’ photos of victims’ life- changing injuries. You can only imagine the mental scars.
There’s heavy snow now across the country and the OMON – the military police – will have no qualms about using blood to recreate the red and white of the Belarus flag over the streets. More than 30,000 have been arrested since the election and over 200 key figures remain in prison. Amnesty International have logged 900 abuses by police. But the people of Belarus will march for change, nonetheless. They still have hope.
In her statement, Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya asks us to arrange rallies and performances in support. Not so easy in lockdown Britain, but you can do something: tweet your support to @Tsihanouskaya and @VoicesBelarus, read something about Belarus, donate to the support fund for victims of this brutal crackdown or to Amnesty.
We can’t protest at the moment in the UK due to the pandemic but it does remain a right otherwise. We are also fortunate that our police handles crowds with comparative temperence. Kettling is an unpleasant crowd control technique but preferable to the repeated use of truncheons.
However, with our current government stacked with young Thatcherites and even a few proponents of the death penalty, the rules of engagement could change. As London Mayor, Boris Johnson purchased water cannons with an eye on the student and anti-capitalist protests in the early to mid-2010s. Then-Home Secretary Theresa May ruled he was not permitted to use them – but his intent was there. Right wing think tanks who have ready access to Number 10 would align us with the USA, a country where the police has been increasingly militarised and Black Lives Matter protesters have been teargassed and pummelled by riot cops kitted out to resemble a dystopian robot army.
And this makes me think. Would I be brave enough to join a peaceful march for democracy if there was a risk of being beaten black and blue by the military police? I like to think so, that I would feel that I had to make a stand for right over wrong. But I am just confronting myself with a scenario and, hopefully, an unlikely one at that. For Belarussians it’s a very different story. I stand in awe and raise my fist in support of those prepared to risk their lives for hope in a better future for their country.
Жыве Беларусь! [Long live Belarus]
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