Almost four weeks after the presidential elections in Belarus, the situation is still tense. Since that election day, residents have been taking to the streets en masse to demonstrate against the results. The opposition speaks of large-scale fraud and demands new elections, but President Lukashenko is still firmly in the saddle. In the meantime, Russia seems to want to play up the cause.
The CCeit spoke to four demonstrators in Minsk who have been taking to the streets for weeks. What’s keeping them going?
“The violence is inhuman
“I have lived in this dictatorship for 26 years and have experienced many protests, but never on such a scale,” says 35-year-old architect Dzmitry Ziaziulchyk. He has seen the number of protesters increase significantly over the weeks. “Especially on Sundays there are a lot of civilians on the streets.” He refers to the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets last weekend.
Ziaziulchyk is angry with President Lukashenko. “We don’t want him as president, but he stole our vote.” The police brutality of the last few weeks to crush the protests only makes him angrier. “With six men strong, they beat up the protesters. When you fall to the ground, they go on for a while. It’s like they’re having fun. It’s absolutely inhumane.”
That’s how it was with last Monday’s protest
The 35-year-old architect tells that there was a moment when President Lukashenko began to lose hope, but then the support came from Russia. “That gave him new hope. It’s a threat to us: if you don’t stop, the Russians will come.” And a lot of people don’t want that at all.
Yet Ziaziulchyk keeps hope and believes that the new elections will come. “We are in the majority, and that gives us tremendous strength. No one will forget the atrocities of the past few weeks. We will continue to protest and change the system.”
“We fight with flowers, not guns
“I expected my voice to be stolen,” says 32-year-old Olga. “But when I saw the harsh police action of the first days after the election, I had no choice.” Since then Olga takes to the streets several times a week and is always present at the big protests in the weekends. For fear of being tracked down by President Lukashenko’s troops, she prefers not to be mentioned by surname or on the photo.
Apart from the regular protests, Olga also participates in the women’s demonstrations every week. Dressed in white and with flowers in their hands, they sing songs. The goal is to make their voices heard in a peaceful way. “We fight with flowers, not with weapons.”
She says she feels safer when she is surrounded by other women. “The police are less harsh when it comes to women. The last time I went out on the streets with a group of women, the police didn’t even show up.”
According to the 32-year-old woman, it will be a long drive, but eventually there will be new elections. “While all the people of this country are so different, everyone is so united and that gives me hope.” Olga jokes with her friends that they owe this unity to President Lukashenko. “Thanks to his hatred and his regime, the Belarusians have come closer together.”
“They kept on hitting me
“I’d like to demonstrate, but I’m extremely careful”, Ilya Ksenevich says timidly. “I’ll only go to the small protests and watch very carefully. I don’t want to go to jail.” He knows what he’s talking about: the twenty-something-year-old was detained for days after the elections, mistreated and belittled.
It was the day after the election, and Ksenevich happened to pass by a small demonstration, he says. The riot police broke up the protest with a flash grenade and started beating up Ksenevich with clubs. “I said I wasn’t one of them, but they kept hitting me and took my things. I was thrown into a van on top of other prisoners.”
“One night followed in the courtyard of a prison with no food, no place to sleep, no toilet. “‘Piss all over each other, then you’ll have something to drink,’ they shouted. There were sixty of us standing on about four square metres. Some of them lost consciousness or had panic attacks.” In the end Ksenevich managed to fall asleep against the concrete wall, despite the constant violence of the guards.
After two days he was suddenly released, without his things and after he had to sing the national anthem. In the meantime the wounds have healed and the demonstrator has risen up in him. “But I am very careful,” he emphasizes again. Ksenevich stays in the background of groups, doesn’t take pictures and doesn’t wear white-red clothes.
“An ocean of people
“I have a daughter of 12 and I want to give her a good future.” “But it’s too dangerous to live here now.” It’s one of the reasons why the 38-year-old programmer from Minsk still takes to the streets almost every day.
Tsvetkov talks about vans filled with policemen stopping at random moments. “Sometimes they beat you up, sometimes they arrest you. You never know what to expect.” Tsvetkov himself often goes to the protests with his wife. Regularly they flee from the vans and hide in the woods.
Yet the Tsvetkov is not afraid. “The tortures and atrocities I see only give me more reason to take to the streets and help my countrymen.” But he does look tense to his eastern neighbours. “President Putin is as disturbed as our president. I never thought he’d annex the Crimea, but he did. Something like that could just happen here.”
At the same time he sees the number of demonstrators increase every week and then he is positive. “It’s like an ocean of people, so impressive. It shows we’re not giving up. We will fight together to the end and win.”