By Volha Bartash
Western media often portray the events in Belarus as an ongoing confrontation between “the last dictator of Europe” and the opposition led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a Belarusian leader in exile. According to Belarusian independent media, this is an uprising of Belarusian people against Lukashenka. So, what is really going on in Belarus? Probably, none of the two aforementioned scenarios.
For the residents of the country, the leadership of Tsikhanouskaya now has a symbolical meaning. Actual absence of any organized political opposition is a phenomenon of the Belarusian revolution and its main challenge. All the protest actions that have taken place since August 2020 – from courtyard gatherings to the biggest demonstrations in Belarusian history – were grassroots. They were initiated by ordinary people who coordinated their actions via social media and Telegram chats. Belarusian revolution is a phenomenon catalysed by the pandemic, enabled by high tech and featuring female faces.
The second version – an uprising against the dictator – seems to be a phantom as well. Otherwise, who is acting on the dark side, threatening, arresting, interrogating, convicting, firing those who openly express their civilian position, or simply giving their silent consent for all of this? Many Belarusians would answer: This is how the system works.
However, the system is people. As the political crisis deepens, social tensions become more visible. In Maladzyechna, a middle-sized city in the north-west of Minsk, several Lukashenka´s open supporters verbally harassed a human chain in memory of Raman Bandarenka, a 31-year old victim of state violence. One of them, an older woman, tried to insult a young mother with a child: “You would better go home and feed the child! He is hungry.” As the episode escalated, a smartphone camera captured the people of different ages on their Sunday stroll, paying no attention to what was happening.
What seems to be a conflict of generations, reveals, nevertheless, more than that (We all have seen the pictures from the marches of retired people against the regime in Minsk). It is a war of different lifestyles and mindsets, political cultures and means of communication. It would be naive to confine the current situation to the division into the revolution´s and Lukashenka´s supporters. To add some complexity to the picture, who are the bypassers – silent revolution sympathisers, latent Lukashenka supporters or just those who want to live their normal life, pretending to be apolitical?
The state repressions have recently acquired more organized forms and targeted concrete individuals and professional groups, for instance, physicians and historians. Being a potential transmitter of knowledge to the society – either about the scale of the pandemic or the history of the national heraldic – becomes dangerous.
As the repressions escalate, winter temperatures get lower and the pandemic comes to almost every home, bringing even more uncertainty about the future, the protest movement goes underground. The symbols of the protest are gradually displaced to the margins – first, from public spaces to courtyards and private homes and, eventually, to the domain of nature. City municipalities and police set a coordinated campaign against the white-red-white flag. The people respond with a new trend – the white-red-white flag under ice, in the middle of frozen lakes and skating rinks. The frozen flag becomes an object of the new wave of state-run hysteria. City municipalities now send well-equipped teams of workers to get rid of this symbol of freedom.
Returning to the question about the system, who is acting now – the system or the individuals who feel that their job is at risk?
Volha Bartash, PhD, is a historian and anthropologist and a research associate at the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies. Her current research project ROMPAST. Two Paths of a Shared Past: Memory and Representation of the Nazi Genocide of Roma in Belarus and Lithuania is supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship).