Belarus’s moment of truth

The protests that have roiled Belarus in the week since its stolen presidential election are evolving. Mass demonstrations gave way to more dispersed mobilisations on the model pioneered in Hong Kong. Because such ‘liquid’ protests arise spontaneously and quickly gather massive numbers of participants, they are much harder for the state to suppress.

But that may not matter, because the authorities also shifted their approach, replacing merely defensive tactics with offensive measures aimed at intimidation. After suppressing the initial protests last Sunday and Monday, the police lined the streets of Minsk, blocking off many areas and selectively stopping passing cars to detain and beat their drivers.

Only by luck did I avoid a similar fate on Tuesday night while hitching a ride around Minsk. Since then, I have witnessed many beatings and have recorded many instances of security forces dispersing protesters with gunfire, as well as documenting the injuries caused by their liberal use of rubber bullets.

The security forces’ intent in dragging drivers out of their cars was clearly to make an example of them. The choice of victims may even be strategic, at least in cases where police stopped young men who might have joined the protests had they not had the idea beaten out of them.

The protests were dispersed across several locations in Minsk, including Pushkinskaya, the Kamennaya Horka neighborhood and the Riga shopping centre, where barricades went up. These three locations became a kind of tripartite Maidan Square—the heart of the 2014 protests in Kiev that brought down Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

On the third day of the protests, the area around Pushkinskaya was covered with flowers to commemorate the victims who had been beaten and shot. Whereas the police had managed to block the intersection from all sides on Tuesday, by Wednesday a group of women protesters had claimed the area.

Wednesday was the moment of truth, and most demonstrators appeared not to have been cowed by the official violence. Women took the lead, organising a large ‘Women Against Violence’ demonstration. They lined Victors Avenue, Minsk’s main thoroughfare, with their arms outstretched, flashing the victory/peace sign. Passing drivers honked their horns in support. Some women courageously held these positions all day.

Women also conducted a softer, more fluid form of protest around various city squares, rather than provoking a direct confrontation with baton- and gun-wielding police. And doctors protested outside of hospitals, dressed in white coats and holding banners calling for an end to the state violence.

In both cases, the tactic was designed to sharpen the moral difference between the two sides by posing an implicit question to the security forces: ‘Will you attack us, too? Will you beat us, too?’ The riot police, not knowing what to do, did little. And when they did try to move against the women occupying the intersection at Pushkinskaya metro station, they didn’t dare attack them outright. Across Minsk, cars were deliberately driving at a mere 20–30 kilometres per hour to create gridlock and block the police.

The protest movement quickly got better at anticipating police tactics and reacting peacefully, despite the security forces’ escalating violence. At around 2 am on Wednesday, I saw dozens of armored cars and buses full of riot police, and it was estimated around 7,000 people had already been arrested—which also means beaten—including several dozen journalists. In Gomel, so many people were arrested that police vehicles were being used to detain them for lack of space. Under these high-temperature conditions, one young man died.

Security forces are began using live ammunition against the protesters. Unlike in Ukraine in 2014, where paid thugs in civilian attire assailed protesters in Maidan Square, the Belarusian police took this task upon themselves. Many demonstrators suspect that the Belarusian police ranks include troops sent from Russia, but I can’t confirm this.

It’s clear that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s characteristically crude methods are poorly adapted to these new forms of protests. His regime was just as unprepared for the appearance of women and physician demonstrators as it was for a widely popular presidential campaign led by a woman challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Neither Lukashenko nor his cronies knew what to do about Tikhanovskaya, so they resorted to shutting off the internet and closing the stadiums where she was scheduled to speak.

Since the election, however, the opposition may be gaining the upper hand. As the protests have continued, many police officers have shed their uniforms and declared that they will not brutalise their fellow citizens. Similarly, in Grodno, when a regime apparatchik tried to organise workers to proclaim their support for Lukashenko, they all shouted Tikhanovskaya’s name instead. That sentiment seems to be widely shared, judging by the fact that employees at some of the country’s biggest factories—including BELAZ, MAZ, MTZ and nitrogen plants—as well as transport workers, went on strike.

Such signs should terrify Lukashenko. In any political uprising, victory is in sight for the opposition when the regime’s own officials and supporters start breaking ranks. And then the interior minister, Jurij Karajeu, while praising the security forces, said that he takes ‘personal responsibility for and apologises to those who were injured while inadvertently at the site of protests’.

Moreover, with cafes and workplaces closing as a result of the protests, the state will soon have to confront the economic consequences of shutting down the internet. The information technology sector is the flagship of the country’s economy, and could well turn Belarus into a second Estonia someday. But that won’t happen if the most talented people have left the country because they can’t get online.

In any case, the peaceful protests will continue. I have witnessed women dressed in white walking down Independence Avenue with flowers in their hands. Like so many others here, they are no longer afraid. Belarusians will not allow themselves to be intimidated, even under conditions of de facto martial law. They refuse to be ruled by a president whose post-election effort to pacify the population has cost him any remaining shred of legitimacy.