Flying The Flag: Belarusians Show Their True Colors In Solidarity With Protests

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https://www.rferl.org -by Michael Scollon

Many Belarusians are now hanging the flag first used by the ill-fated Belarusian National Republic in 1918-19 from their balconies. (file photo)
It’s red and white and all over Belarus, from clotheslines and hay bales to apartment-building balconies, stairwells and more — a pervasive symbol of resistance to authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and a simple, striped sign of support for his opponents.

The red and white colors of the opposition — adopted from Belarus’s short-lived bid for democratic independence more than a century ago — are flying high amid a wave of anger over an election that many voters believe was rigged to hand Lukashenka a sixth term after more than a quarter-century in power.

Despite the authorities’ adamant efforts to erase the flag from the public consciousness by enforcing an unofficial ban, the streets — and balconies — of Belarus are awash with symbolism.

People are apparently defying conventional thinking that you shouldn’t mix whites with colors, and are hanging red-and-white laundry on clotheslines in alternating order.

Some are just blatantly hanging the flag — first used by the ill-fated Belarusian National Republic in 1918-19 — from their balconies or high above the capital.

In other cases, entire buildings are being transformed into beacons of resistance to Lukashenka’s claim to the presidency and his crackdown on opponents, with residents swapping light bulbs in stairwells to light up the night in red and white

There are heavy risks involved, with reports that security forces are smashing windows of stores displaying the flag and otherwise enforcing its status as an unregistered symbol.

While it served as an official state flag of Belarus from 1991 to 1995, its use was discouraged after a controversial 1995 referendum on state symbols that adopted a Soviet-style red-and-green flag — part of a push by Lukashenka, a former state-farm chief who has played on nostalgia for the Soviet era, to suppress Belarusian symbols he apparently associated with dissent.

Afterward, use of the red-and-white flag was subject to a fine, and its status as an opposition symbol was cemented.

Amid the daily protests that have followed the August 9 election, and the severe clampdown by security forces and police, there have been countless images of red-and-white clad demonstrators being detained.

Videos have emerged on social media of government “ninjas” swooping down to forcibly remove red-and-white flags and banners from balconies.

Riot police have been filmed dragging flags away, and plainclothes agents or Lukashenka supporters have been seen dismantling fence decorations.

In some cases, strenuous efforts to take flags have backfired, like when authorities sent men up in a boom lift to retrieve a rogue red-and-white flag, only to have it pulled from their grasp at the last second.

And in another case, a worker on a lift platform drew delighted gasps as he took the time to straighten out a flag atop an apartment building, rather than take it down.

Other acts of defiance have been seen in schools, where students have sent a message through their seating arrangements.

Everywhere, it seems, support for the demonstrations is visible, from red and white cars driving down the streets in unison to athletes wearing red-and-white garb during their tennis matches, to brides eschewing the traditional white wedding dress.

And if Lukashenka has still not received the message, he need not look further than his own presidential website, which earlier this month featured the red-and-white flag after it was apparently hacked.

Michael Scollon

Michael Scollon is a senior correspondent in RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom in Prague.

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