MINSK — Over the two and a half decades of Aleksander Lukashenko’s rule in Belarus, anti-government protests had the same scenario — after a crackdown by police and a wave of arrests, unrest quickly faded away.
That’s not happening now.
For the third day after Sunday’s presidential election — where preliminary results gave Lukashenko an 80 percent victory over opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — protests are continuing to convulse the country of 10 million people despite a massive police and military presence. Further demonstrations are planned for this evening.
The demonstrations are largely leaderless after Tikhanovskaya left the country for neighboring Lithuania.
“I thought that this whole campaign hardened me a lot and gave me so much strength that I could withstand everything. But, probably, I remained the same weak woman I was originally,” said the 37-year-old former English teacher who became a surprise candidate after the government arrested her popular blogger husband Sergei. “… I know that many will understand me, many will judge me and many will hate me. But, you know, God forbid having to face such a choice, which I faced. Therefore, people, take care of yourselves, please. No life is worth what is happening now.”
“It’s like a job. You can’t just hope that everything will change in a day. You need to go out every day and show that we are in the majority” — Ilya, Belarusian opposition supporter
In another video released on Tuesday, she called on Belarusians to follow the law.
“I don’t want blood and violence. I ask you not to oppose the police, not to go out on the squares, not to endanger your lives. Look after yourselves and your loved ones,” she said. Tikhanovskaya’s husband is still in prison in Belarus.
But the people taking to the streets have no intention of giving up.
Minsk’s normally lively center looked like a ghost town on Monday night. Public transport on all main streets was suspended, many metro stations were closed. Every few minutes, military vehicles sped down the deserted central avenue. The approaches to the downtown government district were blocked by riot police, metal barriers and police special vehicles.
The internet was shut off by the authorities so that Lukashenko’s opponents would have no access to social media and popular international messenger applications and would have difficulty coordinating their actions. But that’s not stopping groups of mostly young people converging on the city center.
On his way into the city on Monday night, Ilya, 28, opened his backpack and took out a white-red-white banner — the old flag of Belarus that has become a symbol of the opposition. On Sunday, Ilya voted for Tikhanovskaya.
An independent observer at a rural polling station in Belarus’s western Grodno region, Ilya called the official election results “nonsense.”
“I saw people voting. Many people expressed support. Some brought water [to the independent observers], others brought ice cream. Many were wearing white bracelets [a symbol of support for Tikhanovskaya]. Some came and thanked us,” said Ilya, a professional climber.
His plan for the coming weeks is to continue to protest the official election results. “It’s like a job. You can’t just hope that everything will change in a day. You need to go out every day and show that we are in the majority.
“I will take to the streets every day,” he said.
He was part of a larger group of demonstrators walking into the city. As they passed a squad of riot police, one young woman shouted out: “We love you!” For now, the bulk of the security forces still appear to be solidly behind Lukashenko.
Monday evening was marked by scattered protests across the city. In some cases, demonstrators built protective barriers out of cars, rubbish bins, street vases and stones.
The scene is very different from the protests in Kyiv during the Euromaidan uprising of 2013-2014. There the protests were held in the center of the city, and the movement had the backing of the city government, powerful regional politicians and some oligarchs. In Belarus, the anti-Lukashenko forces are much more alone.
Explosions of stun grenades and the crack of rifles firing rubber bullets shattered the night. Ambulances raced down the empty streets.
At about midnight, the interior ministry announced that one demonstrator had been killed after an “unidentified explosive” blew up in his hands. As of Tuesday morning, there was no further information.
Pavel, 23, a graduate of the National Technological University, and his friend Kirill, 21, donned motorcycle helmets for protection against the riot police. “Found in our garage,” they said.
Pavel, who voted for Tikhanovskaya, called the official election results an “outrage.”
The protests shaking the country are a sign that the social contract that has kept Lukashenko in power since 1994 is fraying.
“At a few polling stations, they counted the vote honestly, and Tikhanovskaya received 70-80 percent, but the results [for the whole country] show she got just 10 percent,” he said. “And you see how many people have gone out on the streets [to support Tikhanovskaya]. Nothing like this happened at the elections in 2015.”
Despite the scale of the protests, Pavel felt that many people who oppose Lukashenko were still afraid to go out on the streets. “Half of the population is not ready to stand by their opinions,” he said. He called for the EU to reimpose sanctions against the regime’s allies. “I’m sure the population is ready to put up with the suffering that the sanctions would bring to the country.”
A different country
The protests shaking the country are a sign that the social contract that has kept Lukashenko in power since 1994 is fraying. He’s kept his grip on Belarus by promising people stability, in contrast to the wild convulsions that shook other parts of the former Soviet Union.
In Belarus, the standard of living is lower than in the EU, but better than in Ukraine. In return, Lukashenko keeps an iron grip on the country’s politics.
But people like Pavel are less willing to allow that situation to continue.
If Lukashenko hangs on to power, it will be obvious that he did so by falsifying the elections, said Ryhor Astapenia, the founder of the Minsk-based think tank Center for New Ideas and a Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy fellow.
“[The long-term] social contract with the Belarusian society will be broken. And even worse from Lukashenko’s point of view, the economic situation will deteriorate dramatically,” Astapenia said in a phone interview, forecasting a severe economic crisis this fall. “This will be a very difficult year both for society and the authorities.
“Because of the repressions … people will think about how to leave Belarus, how to withdraw their businesses from the country,” Astapenia said.