Belarus may have receded from the headlines, but the opposition’s fight continues. Five women discuss their struggle in a forest near Minsk – a site chosen to evade Lukashenko’s thugs.
By Christina Hebel in Minsk, Belarus
The message arrives late one evening via Telegram. It contains an address in a concrete block neighborhood in northeastern Minsk.
Thirty minutes later, five women head out from the site and walk into a nearby forest. They make their way through the underbrush before sitting down on some logs.
The women are all neighbors. They work at a hospital, in a kindergarten, at the university and at a metallurgy factory and take care of their children. They got to know each other at the demonstrations last August against Alexander Lukashenko – and they continue to be active in protests against the dictator today.
Mari, a doctor, is carrying a bag containing underwear, panty liners and socks. She says she carries the bag everywhere just in case she gets arrested. “We have to be prepared for anything,” she says. On her left wrist, she is still wearing a white-red-white bracelet, the colors of the opposition flag, which has been renounced by the government. Those who display the flag can expect to be arrested immediately and locked away for several days if they are stopped by the authorities.SPIEGEL International
Mari’s name, of course, has been changed for this article, as have the names of the other women. The risk is simply too great that they and their families might receive an unwanted visit from Belarusian security. Police continue to regularly patrol residential districts of Minsk on the lookout for regime opponents.
For the women, the forest near their apartments is the only place where they still dare to speak with a journalist. They talk about how omnipresent their fear has become and that police from the OMON security force sometimes even turn up in their nightmares – and about how they are nevertheless unwilling to give in.
Thousands Sentenced to Prison
The people of Belarus haven’t been able to demonstrate for months. Dictator Lukashenko had his thugs clear them off the streets with batons, rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades and pepper spray. It has been 10 months since he declared himself the winner of a manipulated presidential election, claiming to have received over 80 percent of the vote. Since then, all those who question his victory have been fair game for security personnel. More than 35,000 people have been arrested since last August, with thousands receiving prison sentences along with vicious beatings and torture. Some have died.
Recently, Lukashenko even took the step of forcing a Lithuania-bound Ryanair flight with 126 passengers on board to land in Minsk in order to arrest exiled opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend.
The dictator is now using Protasevich to set an example: The 26-year-old wasn’t just forced to confess to extremism in a video following his arrest, but was also coerced into giving an interview on state television. In the interview, he incriminated himself and others in addition to expressing his respect for Lukashenko. Abrasions on his wrists were clearly visible, likely from handcuffs.
Many of his fellow opposition activists assume that Protasevich is being tortured. His lawyer hasn’t been able to visit him in prison for two weeks.
Lukashenko’s message is clear: Those who are against him will lose everything. And the women gathered in the forest are fully aware of that. Many of them chose not to watch the interview, but paradoxically, it is the forced landing of Protasevich’s plane that gives them a spark of hope.
Mari says she feels extremely sorry for Roman. But Lukashenko’s move, she says, is actually helpful for regime critics. Finally, European politicians have understood who, exactly, Lukashenko is: a dictator who doesn’t just terrorize his own country to silence his critics, but all of Europe.
She knows that might sound malicious to some, says Mari. “But finally, the EU has stopped constantly expressing its ‘deep concern.’” The activist speaks rapidly, and the other women nod in approval. They say they have so often hoped that the EU would implement painful sanctions against the regime, but Europe kept hesitating.
Fading Memories of the 2020 Protests
That is something that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya encountered as well. Tikhanovskaya considers herself to be the rightfully elected president of Belarus, but when she traveled through Europe in late 2020 to drum up support for a tougher European response to Lukashenko, hesitancy was the primary response. The more the images from the late-summer protests faded from memory, and the longer Lukashenko remained in power, the less interest the EU showed for the headwinds faced by regime critics in the country on the edge of Europe.
But the forced landing of the Ryanair flight has changed things. Essentially, Lukashenko has impelled the European Union to take the punitive steps it has. The Belarusian state-owned carrier Belavia is now no longer allowed to fly to destinations in the EU, and Brussels has called on European airlines to avoid Belarus airspace. Most airlines have ceased flying to Minsk, with only planes from Russia, Tajikistan, China, Iraq, Israel, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates now landing in the Belarusian capital.
Mari and her companions want more, hoping to see sanctions levied against state-owned companies in Belarus. And Brussels, for the first time, is actually prepared to take such a step, with economic sanctions to be prepared in time for the EU summit scheduled for June 24-25. “The harsher the better,” the women say. Olga, a 37-year-old lecturer at a state university, lists off the state-owned companies that she believes should be included on the sanctions list: potash fertilizer factories, wood companies, oil industry operations and a tobacco company.
The women know that the people of Belarus would suffer under the economic strain of such sanctions. But they are prepared to accept the costs, and they believe that many others in Belarus are as well. It is, they believe, the only way to really increase pressure on the regime, particularly given the inability of regime opponents to do so.
The activists believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t provide financial support to the Lukashenko regime forever. He is, however, supporting the Belarusian dictator for now, even inviting Lukashenko to join him on his yacht recently in the Black Sea.
The Belarusian leader has been tyrannizing his people for 10 months now, with the hopes of last summer – that he could soon be gone – having completely dissipated. Mari and the other activists, meanwhile, are constantly on the lookout, glancing around frequently. A neighbor is nearby, on the lookout for others who might be in the forest – an additional precautionary measure.
“It’s not just Roman and hundreds of political prisoners who have become this regime’s hostages,” says Olesya, 30. “We are too.” Back in August, the university lecturer Olga dared to attend a meeting held by a local politician to speak about the results of the presidential election. Not long later, her contract at the university was extended for just two years, instead of the normal five.
Olga says that universities keep a close eye on whether the behavior of staff members is sufficiently “patriotic.” Instructors, she says, are told to warn students against alleged brain washing via Telegram, the messenger app preferred by the opposition, and to speak of the fight against extremism. It is referred to as “ideology instruction.” In Belarus, all those who are against the current leadership are considered extremists, including Tikhanovskaya.
Those who express criticism are reported to the authorities, says Olga, adding that “eavesdroppers” are everywhere, even within student groups. “Everyone knows that. Everyone is afraid and extremely careful.” She looks tired when talking and continually stares at the ground in front of her.
Mari speaks of clinics where colleagues of hers have experienced official pressure when trying to start labor unions. Such a thing is provided for by law, but the medical workers were told that it becomes illegal if too many employees join.
“Long Live Belarus!”
More than anything, the people of Belarus are being worn down by sheer hopelessness. Huge numbers of regime opponents have lost their jobs.
The events discussed by the women in the forest are getting more and more depressing.
In May, opposition politician Vitold Ashurak died in custody, allegedly of sudden heart failure. Officials released a video showing him staggering before falling and ultimately lying motionless on the ground. Hundreds of people came to his funeral, with people chanting the opposition mantra: “Long live Belarus!”
The next death came not long later. An 18-year-old fell from his apartment building in Minsk after officials opened a criminal case against him for “mass unrest.” The young man had taken part in protests in August.
In early June, activist Stepan Latypov stabbed himself in the neck with a ballpoint pen in court during his trial. He was facing criminal charges together with family members and neighbors with whom he had protested in his building’s courtyard, a site widely referred to as the “Square of Change.”
As a place that hosted concerts and rallies, Latypov’s courtyard became a key hub of the protests. But officials were now apparently intent on breaking the man, known for his courage: In the courtroom a few weeks ago, Latypov’s father says his son had a black eye and other signs of physical abuse on his face. The father says that his son could hardly sleep anymore and alleges that mental patients were put into Latypov’s cell, who then attacked him.
Vika, the 40-year-old kindergarten teacher who is part of the group of women in the forest, has a word for it: Terror. Irina, who is sitting next to her on a log, says that she frequently has nightmares in which she is running away from OMON police, flash-bang grenades exploding next to her. In late October, the 28-year-old and other peaceful demonstrators were chased through the back streets of Minsk by regime thugs.
Sometimes, says the young woman, she can’t sleep at all. She’ll find herself still sitting in front of her computer at 1 a.m. In such instances, she says, she’ll sometimes call one of the other women. “Let’s go out and do something.”
“A Sign that We Haven’t Given Up”
They’ll head out and post white-red-white stickers on light posts, paint the opposition flag on the street, throw opposition flags up into trees or put up photos of the well-known, imprisoned opposition leader Maria Kalesnikava onto building walls. On one occasion, they sprayed “Fight and be free” in Belarusian onto a wall and it actually stayed there for more than a month. Usually, city workers quickly remove all emblems associated with the opposition.
Doing such things makes them feel better, the women say. “It’s a sign that we and our protest are still alive, that we haven’t given up.” They are small, often creative gestures, things that the activists refer to as “partisan actions.” They communicate via Telegram groups in their residential districts. Some groups have 60 members, others as many as 250. Not all of them actively take part in the activities, with some helping out in the background.
Just recently, a handful of activists filmed themselves unfurling a huge white-red-white flag next to a highway and lighting off fireworks in the color of the resistance. They shared the video via social media.
Mari and her group of friends also meet up to make video clips like that. When the regime shut down tut.by, the country’s most important independent online media outlet, in mid-May, they released a clip in which they shouted “Long live tut.by!” while holding a protest flag. Their faces were concealed by masks.
This year alone, 75 journalists have been arrested in the country. Twenty-seven of them are in prison, including reporter Ekaterina Andreyeva and camerawoman Daria Chultsova from the opposition broadcaster Belsat. They were apprehended for reporting live from a protest rally in November.
The mood lightens a bit in the Minsk forest when the women speak of their protest activities and show videos of themselves dancing in red-and-white clothing.
They have even started up their own newspaper, tucking a sheet of paper printed on both sides with the most recent Belarus news into their neighbors’ mailboxes each week. Many of their neighbors are older and have neither Telegram nor access to opposition media. Most of them are actually Lukashenko supporters – retirees who used to work at state-owned factories. But most of them read the newsletter, the women say, and will even post it on the message board at building entrances. Only one retired soldier, they say, regularly tears up the paper.
Marking His Territory
In the heart of Minsk, the red-green national flag of Belarus waves from many of the buildings. It seems almost as though Lukashenko is marking his territory. The cleanly swept streets bear no reminders of the mass demonstrations.
But small gestures are enough to provide a glimpse into what is happening behind the orderly façade. A brief nod when a shopper in the supermarket notices the red-and-white mobile phone case held by the person next to her. A smile when Alexander Kalesnikav, father of the opposition leader Kalesnikava, poses for a picture near Prison No. 1 with his hands held up to form a heart as his daughter does.
Maria Kalesnikava has now been locked away in the prison for nine months, and her trial for extremism is set to begin soon. The people of Belarus have changed in the last year, her father says, adding that he can tell by the solidarity he experiences every day.
Many thousands of people have already left Belarus, mostly younger, well-educated engineers and programmers. Others say they hope to follow. They no longer see a future in Belarus.
Kalesnikav, though, intends to stay. “How could I leave, with such a strong daughter? She is my role model.” Kalesnikava tore up her passport when Lukashenko’s henchmen sought to force her out of the country.
The five women in the forest also have no intention of standing down. When Olesya says they intend to keep on fighting for “a bit,” they all laugh and repeat: “A bit.”