The nation of Belarus is bursting to the seams with protests against Europe’s so-called “last dictator”. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who holds a totalitarian grip, has failed to eradicate the protests despite conducting mass arrests and torture. President Lukashenko lives in a euphoric Soviet past and has proved to stop at almost nothing to maintain his totalitarian grip over Belarusian society. Currently, there is an ongoing conflict between a civil society striving for national change and a stubborn tyrant adamant to maintain a Soviet-like state. Who will come out on top of this crisis? Belarusian society will overthrow President Lukashenko if they continue to stubbornly protest.
The people of Belarus are particularly inventive when it comes to protesting against their dictatorial government. Following Belarus’s only democratic election in 1994 which elected Alexander Lukashenko as President of Belarus, the country’s level of democracy spiraled downward. In response, Belarusian society protested against their police state. Though the Lukashenko regime banned freedom of expression, Belarusians continued protesting through particularly imaginative forms. Belarusians should be commended for their decades of pursuit to protest – and creatively.
“Illegally’ flying the old national flag of Belarus.
Simply waving the previous national flag of Belarus became a form of protest against President Lukashenko’s regime in the early 2000s. The old national flag symbolized Belarus’s national revival and Belarus’ brief democratic period, since the flag was first flown during the brief period Belarus was a sovereign state (1918 – 1921) and was again flown during Belarus’ brief democratic transformation (1991 – 1994). President Lukashenko’s Soviet nostalgia was transferred through flags as he replaced the national flag in 1995 with the communist flag flown during the Soviet Union, though he did remove the hammer and sickle. By the early 2000s, the previous national flag was adopted as a symbol of opposition to Lukashenko’s regime. In response, Lukashenko swiftly labeled the previous national flag an ‘unregistered symbol’ which meant that flying the flag could lead to arrests and confiscation of the flag. Lukashenko went so far as to pressure organizers of international sporting events to ban the flag from being flown, especially during Lukashenko’s loved game of hockey. Consequently, President Lukashenko scored a point in the early round of protests, as flying the flag in protest did not result in any change in government.
Soon afterwards, wearing denim clothing also became a form of protest. The denim protests occurred in 2006 following the disputed Belarusian presidential election results which saw President Lukashenko win – again. When a political activist had his old national flag seized during a protest against the Lukashenko regime, he raised his denim shirt instead as a flag. The activist began a protest fashion trend – Belarusians began rocking their denim jeans. It became known as the ‘Jean Revolution,’ playing on Western symbols dating back to the Soviet Union. During communism, jeans were a Western good and an extremely scarce commodity in Communist Europe. In part from the influence of American pop culture, Eastern Europeans began to wear jeans in protest to communist authorities as it symbolized the ‘capitalist West’. This time, when the protestors wore jeans, it did not result in any reforms in government. So, unlike the Soviet Union, President Lukashenko’s leadership did not collapse but rather continued its authoritative grip.
Being silent and clapping on the street became another form of protest in 2011. Organized by way of social media, flash-mobs began breaking into spontaneous fits of clapping on sidewalks and street corners across Belarus. The clapping was described to being much like sports fans celebrating a win on the way home. President Lukashenko responded by passing a law that prohibited people from standing together and doing nothing. In the years following, Lukashenko gave charismatic speeches that ended in awkward silences as no one was legally allowed to clap. Despite the lack of applause from Belarusian society, President Lukashenko remained president.
The Progressive Parasites
Belarus experienced its first successful protests in 2017 following protests against the “decree against social parasites.” Belarusians protested against a legislation passed by President Lukashenko which taxed those who officially worked fewer than 183 days per year and did not ‘finance the Belarusian state.’ In response, Belarusian civil society began to protest under the banner “We are not parasites.” Uniquely, many of the protestors were from the ‘nuclear electorate,’ Lukashenko’s consistent support base since he was elected president in 1994. This change of behavior by the ‘nuclear electorate’ signified President Lukashenko’s unforeseen decrease in support across Belarusian society. The protests lasted for weeks, rather than the usual few days that were generally clamped down on by Lukashenko’s security forces. For the first time, Belarusian protestors were successful in achieving their demands and the unemployment tax was retracted. This time, Belarusians had the upper hand against their authoritarian leader.
Next Level Protests
2020 Protests against President Lukashenko: “Fair elections. Tribunal. Freedom to the political prisoners.”
Belarus’s current protests are unprecedented. Never before have protests in Belarus reached such a high number of participants, with estimates of over 220 000 attending a single protest, and lasting over several months. The protests have also spread to online channels as social media apps have become a space to express disgust towards the Belarusian state. One viral trend included video uploads of police and military personnel destroying and burning their uniforms. Additionally, police officers and members of the special forces are using social media as a space for announcing their resignation. Another trend includes displaying the outlawed previous national flag as a form of protest. In response to the flags, Lukashenko’s regime has sent out unidentified men to climb apartment buildings well as sent out cranes to take down flags flown at the top of buildings. So, Belarusians counteracted by hanging their underwear in the flag’s colour formation of white-red-white and having brides paint a red stripe across their pearl white wedding dresses, among other methods. Belarusians are at their peak performance in protest tactics, which Lukashenko is failing to diffuse.
Mass arrests and torture has been President Lukashenko’s response to the protests. The detention centers are over capacity with protestors and have become torture chambers. Reports to Amnesty International described cases of detainees being stripped naked and beaten sadistically. The reason for these punishments could range from detainees having long hair, tattoos, to imply moving without permission. In one weekend of protests alone, over 6 000 Belarusian protestors were arrested along with an undocumented number of people who have ‘disappeared’ from Belarus. President Lukashenko has personally demonstrated his military strength by flying around Belarus in his personal helicopter looking for protestors while armed with an assault rifle. Despite Lukashenko’s campaign of intimidation and persecution, he fails to bring the protests to an end. Lukashenko’s regime is constantly detaining protestors, but it has not deterred people from protesting, rather it has motivated them to continue protecting for the ninth week straight. Never has the nation of Belarus been so united in removing the Lukashenko regime.
The past protests against the Lukashenko regime have evolved into the current 2020 revolution. Looking back at Belarus’ protest history, the current protests were a long time coming. For decades, opposition to Lukashenko’s regime has been progressively persistent and expansive. Now, Belarusian society is united for the first time in removing the Lukashenko regime. This unprecedented social mobilization is not going anywhere. Belarusians have demonstrated that threats of torture and arrest will not deter them from their final goal – removing Lukashenko as president. The question remains whether Lukashenko will resort to Russian law enforcement as offered by Russian President Putin to maintain his authoritarian grip over his own people. Well, if direct military force is not directed at the people, Belarusians will finally be victorious in their fight to overthrow their authoritarian regime.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine
Enya Hamel is a researcher on counter-terrorism for the Defence and Security programme of GLOBSEC Policy Institute. She has also worked on projects related to European terrorism and Jihadism and co-authored two publications relating to the European crime-terror nexus. She is currently completing an International Master in Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow, UK. She also holds a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Studies from Queen’s University, Canada. Her research interests include counter-terrorism, global security, comparative politics, social media campaign strategies, and post-Communist and post-Cold War transformations and developments.