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A Popular Revolt Against a Pro-Russian Dictator, in Belarus

Dispatch from the protests where, unlike in Western Europe, tattooed demonstrators with purple hair and skinny jeans also wear large crosses

Vladislav Davidzon
August 20, 2020
SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images
Minsk, Aug. 16, 2020SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images
SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images
Minsk, Aug. 16, 2020SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images

The massive and historical protests that took place all across Belarus last week, with a 200,000-strong demonstration in the capital of Minsk, have subsided. The bizarro Belarusian dictatorship, distinguished by its campy take on late-Soviet-era aesthetics, no longer seems to be on the verge of collapse. As of press time, the regime has begun to redeploy riot police at key junctions in Minsk.

Three or four days ago, it felt as if Belarusian strongman President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime was on the verge of imminent dissolution. The massive protests that have overtaken Belarus began in the wake of the Aug. 9 presidential election, in which the incumbent Lukashenko awarded himself an 80% victory result that has been declared illegitimate by every serious political observer, as well as the European Union. Police in provincial villages were refusing to break up demonstrations and there were rumors of defections from the military.

Social media was filled with close-up footage of Lukashenko’s contorted face as he was heckled at a rally that was supposed to be full of his core constituency—tractor-driving workers from the rural parts of the country. Comparisons proliferated with the gruesome finale of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime. Having spent a week in Minsk with the revolutionaries, it is safe to say that however this ends, there will almost certainly be no picaresque, Ceaușescu-like summary execution for Lukashenko. The Belarusians are simply too nice and polite for that sort of thing. The culmination of the weekend’s mobilization has dampened the revolutionary fervor, which was dissipated as well by the opposition’s relative failure to launch a general workers’ strike.

In the evenings, after the conclusion of the work day, Minsk roils with revolutionary fervor—but of a sweetly courteous, disciplined, and deferential variety. The middle-class and hipster protesters that gather every night in the capital to raise national flags and chant “freedom,” “go away,” and “everyday,” under the statue of Lenin in Independence Square are all very appealing: well-scrubbed, behaved, courtly, and organized to a fault. Minsk is after all an orderly, well-repaired and well-maintained city. When they climb up the pedestal of a statue in the middle of the square, they tiptoe carefully around the flowerbeds of violet geraniums at its base. The reports I had heard of people taking off their shoes before clambering up a city bench to bellow slogans at the government turned out to be correct. Refreshments and water are arranged on side tables for anyone who needs them, while volunteers walk around cleaning up after the crowd.

The young people wrap themselves in the older national Belarusian red and white flag. “Long time no see, from one barricade to another?” one middle-aged woman greets another. Unlike in Western Europe, tattooed hipsters with purple hair and skinny jeans here also wear large crosses. A French journalist colleague with whom I attended the demonstrations, a veteran of numerous wars and revolutions, ventured that “this was by far the softest, sweetest revolution that I have ever seen.”

Yet, despite the protester’s geniality, Lukashenko has clearly lost the support of between 80% and 90% of the population. The protest leaders are mostly in exile or in undisclosed locations, and so the crowds that gather in Independence Square are entirely self-organized and autonomous. Almost no facial masks are to be seen anywhere, even though Lukashenko’s botched COVID-19 response (his learned medical advice early on during the crisis was to sit on a tractor, drink vodka, and sit in the sauna) was a decisive contributing factor to the unrest. The protests are significantly larger than those that followed the 2006 and 2010 elections and the sense of fear of the security services among the populace is completely gone. This is a purely civic nationalist revolution and the Belarusian protests are vastly different from those that took place in Kyiv’s Maidan, even as one occasionally catches a glimpse of the miniature Ukrainian flag ribbon affixed to someone’s backpack or knotted into a girl’s hair.

There are no European flags or Russian flags to be seen anywhere. There are no slogans about Europe or the European Union, nor are there any demands to join NATO. Neither are there hopes for membership in this or that customs union or in the Eastern European Partnership. Anti-Russian rhetoric is completely missing from the protests. The demonstrations are about ending the dictatorship of an embarrassingly provincial, late-Soviet, yokel kolkhoz manager with an 1980s pornstar mustache and an abiding love of dressing up in Red Army regalia. But even more than that the protests are about ending an era of intermediary post-Soviet stasis and lack of national identity and direction. Thirty years have passed since the Soviet Union dissolved itself, and the Belarusians have had less of a chance to develop their own national identity, in whichever direction however quirky, than any of the other post-Soviet republics.

The attempts at getting a general strike going, which had seemed to be fairly effective and to be gathering steam before last weekend, were thoroughly derailed by the start of the week as the management of the major factories threatened to sack anyone who did not show up for work. At the factory protests I attended around Minsk groups of young people stood around waiting for workers to come out and cheered them on. The numbers were clearly disappointing, however, and I observed some of the more timid workers sneak out of a side door so as to avoid the crowd. By Wednesday morning, those workers who had been involved in the mass walkouts at major government enterprises such as the Minsk Tractor Works had returned to the assembly line. The riot police had broken up the protests outside of the factories by Wednesday night.

The Belarusian workers for state television propaganda networks who had walked out at the start of the week were quickly locked out and replaced. Some who had attempted to return to work were not allowed back in by security guards. In an interview with an independent media station, the former director of the Belarusian TV company claimed that two plane loads of Russian scab “media specialists” had been sent from Russia to take over—the interview garnered tremendous attention but that claim has not yet been confirmed.

The bright, chipper young people manning the check-in desk at my hotel jostled helpfully to provide me and my colleagues with advice on how not to get caught up in a random riot police sweep and beating from the OMON paramilitary police units. The concierge’s advice was proffered in the commonsense tones typically reserved for weighing up the merits of the local restaurants. It has only been two weeks but this has somehow congealed into standardized public health information now. Stories alleging the rape of both male and female demonstrators by members of the state security services have begun to emerge, and numerous arrested activists remain unaccounted for.

Long after the government demonstrated its capacity for savagery and willingness to brutalize its own population, the demonstrations continue to lack the militancy of the Kyiv Maidan protests of six years ago. At this stage of confrontations, the Ukrainian demonstrations had become militant. The stolid, conciliatory, unpretentious “potato eater” provincials of Russian popular stereotypes have been shrewd in their choice of Gandhi-like resistance tactics: No one in the streets of Minsk whom I spoke with seemed to doubt that the denouement of the protests would be bloody. One hears the rueful refrain “this will only end with the bullet” continuously. Indeed, at one tractor-factory protest I literally observed a burly worker in denim overalls engaged in deep philosophical conversation with a bearded hipster who had the faces of Martin Luther King and Gandhi tattooed over his bicep.

This has also been a feminine revolution at almost every level. The leadership of the political opposition is composed disproportionately of women, including opposition leader-in-exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The regime’s decision to allow the registration of women presidential candidates, on the assumption that they could not possibly constitute a threat, was a cavalier byproduct of late Homo Sovieticus misogyny. It also turned out to be a serious strategic miscalculation. The wave of repressive beatings and torture from the riot police had only been halted at the start of the week when women sheathed in white and holding white flowers entwined hands to form a living wall against the steel wall of riot shields. Though the nice kids at the hotel told us not to walk around alone at night.

In cellphone videos making the rounds, Lukashenko carries on blustering arguments with demonstrators. He veers toward challenging random men in the crowd to a fistfight.

Over lunch, a prominent Belarusian businessman explained that his country has elements of both Switzerland and North Korea. It is a regime that is thoroughly brittle and sterile and incapable of taking creative decisions to diffuse matters. Having squandered the opportunity to create anything more than an IT sector atop an inefficient and unsustainably investment-dependent, Soviet-style command economy, Lukashenko has found himself without a base or political party who will fight for him. He is also left without any allies in the EU (the Visegrad Group, his natural affinity partners within Europe, issued a statement in favor of the opposition on Wednesday; this took place several hours before the EU declared the elections illegitimate). Russian President Vladimir Putin deeply dislikes Lukashenko and does not necessarily need him. The plane of the head of the Russian FSB was reported to have landed in Belarus yesterday long enough for a three hour meeting with Lukashenko. The entire house of cards that is the Belarusian political system depends entirely on the loyalty of Lukashenko’s security forces and army.

Lukashenko has also begun to use the fashionable anti-Western language of “Russophobia” and “color revolutions” and to hint at minor constitutional tinkering to mollify the popular rage. Such offers are widely understood to be time-saving measures calculated to ride out the crisis until a compromise deal might be struck, or for some sort of help to arrive from Moscow. A disorganized coordinating committee of various disparate Belarusian elites has just congealed into an opposition council, and they seem to be negotiating behind the scenes discreetly with various figures in the security services while the Russians try to position their own people for a transition scenario that would be acceptable to Moscow. The KGB and Interior Ministry generals—men who owe their property, wealth, and status to three decades of servile loyalty to Lukashenko—are calculating, hedging their chances at surviving a transition process. For those invested in the continuation of the current regime, losing means ending one’s life in exile and house arrest in some Godforsaken Russian military town or facing charges in The Hague.

Rumors of Russian riot police being flown in circulate wildly. These can be neither proved nor disproved, but are indicative of the mood. As of press time, Lukashenko has called on the Interior Ministry to take back control of the streets of Minsk, and Interior Ministry troops and OMON riot police are reestablishing police cordons around the city center.

The situation is at a stalemate but one that is clearly quite unsustainable.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.