The uprising against Alexander Lukashenko may not have a leader, but its goals are ambitious. After the first phase of shock and fear, the people are now showing pride and self-confidence. Will that go far enough?
Maria Kolesnikova hesitates before opening the car door. “Shall we?” she asks, and then climbs out. A tall woman with short hair dyed blond, she isn’t initially noticed by the crowd that will soon envelope her in hugs, cheers and selfies.
An icon of the protests that have washed over Belarus, Kolesnikova is on her way to her next appearance – a leader against her will, one both seasoned and overwhelmed. She is an ersatz politician in a country that has to relearn what political life actually means, because there has been no place for it under the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko.
It’s Tuesday afternoon in Soligorsk, two hours south of Minsk by car. Around a thousand miners have collected on the main square, while momentous words are coming from the stage. It is time “to drive the last nail in the coffin of Lukashenkism,” cries an animated young speaker.
Soligorsk is a socialist planned city, with prefab concrete structures in the center and gigantic, red-and-white slag heaps on the outskirts. A fifth of all global exports of potash come from Belarus, and a significant chunk of the country’s tax revenues depend on the potash combine here in Soligorsk.
That explains why it is of decisive importance for Lukashenko, who is currently engaged in a fight for his political life, whether the miners here support him or not. And on this Tuesday, it looks as though many are more interested in going on strike to protest against the electoral fraud that occurred during the country’s recent presidential election.
In Soligorsk and in Minsk, in large factories and at the state-run television broadcaster, on the streets and in people’s hearts: The battle to determine whether Lukashenko’s 26-year rule will soon end is taking place everywhere. And it is a battle that has not yet been decided.
The Face of the Protests
Everyone here knows Kolesnikova. She is one of the three women who led the campaign on behalf of a trio of men. The others are Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran for the presidency in place of her imprisoned husband and who fled to Lithuania following the election. And Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband Valery, a former diplomat and tech entrepreneur, fled the country even before the vote to avoid being arrested. She is currently in Ukraine. Kolesnikova, who heads up the campaign team of the imprisoned banker Viktor Babariko, is the only one left who is both in the country and not behind bars. She has essentially become the face of the protests.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Kolesnikova was a flautist living in Stuttgart. There are videos of her in a church filled in southwestern Germany with sea-blue light as she imitates whale songs with her flute. Later, she led OK16, a cultural center located in a closed down factory in Minsk, financed by Babariko and his bank. She has, one could say, come from the post-industrial world to Soligorsk, where industry remains a very real fact of life. The way she bows slightly to all sides when she finishes her speech to the miners makes it seem as though she has just finished a performance.
Kolesnikova reads her speech from notes, stumbling here and there. She calls for her listeners to overcome their fear and continue the strike. She calls Lukashenko’s regime a “clunker” and calls on the police to shift their loyalties “to the side of good.” She closes with: “Belarusians, I am proud of you, I love you,” something she always says.
But she doesn’t tell the people what precisely they should be doing, and she also doesn’t meet with the head of the strike committee. She spends 20 minutes hugging people, answering questions, receiving flowers and posing for selfies with locals. Then she jumps back into her car for the drive to Minsk, to her next appearance, an event at which the protest movement’s Coordination Council will be introduced – of which she will become a member.
Belarus has transformed since the presidential election on August 9 and the ensuing protests. It seems as though people have woken up from a long period of hibernation and are now trying to get their bearings.
In the last two weeks since the election, the Belarusian capital has experienced an emotional rollercoaster. First came shock, stemming from the brazenness of the electoral fraud, with Lukashenko claiming he had won 80 percent of the vote. And fear, a product of the brutality meted out by the country’s security forces and the torturing of the protesters.
But then came self-assertion and pride, and a weekend of euphoria, with one of the largest rallies in the country’s history, with honking and cheering and smiling faces.
And finally, after the weekend, the realization that this will be a long, exhausting confrontation. Honking cars won’t be enough to bring down this dictatorship. Power must be taken from the autocratic regime piece by piece. Thus far, not even fear has been completely conquered. Plenty of it still remains.
Igor Kvyatko’s own body bears the marks of Lukashenko’s repression. The back of his thigh is a deep red, even though fully a week has passed since he was beaten. Kvyatko, a 23-year-old railway worker, is currently on sick leave for another five days. He has just returned from the polyclinic, where he showed his injuries and received permission to miss work.
Igor spent a day-and-a-half in police custody. Like the vast majority of the people you talk to in Minsk, he voted for Tikhanovskaya, but he didn’t take to the streets on her behalf. On Tuesday evening, a couple days after the election, he was in a taxi heading to a friend’s place. The route led through the Serebryanka district, where protests were currently underway, part of the guerilla tactics being pursued by the anti-Lukashenko activists.
Igor was dragged out of the car. He says he showed the police his callused, grubby hands and implored them: “I’m a worker!” But to no avail. First, he was beaten in the police van and then he was forced to kneel and stand for hours in the police station, with his bound hands raised. But that was just the beginning. “Guys, brace yourselves. You are now going to be turned over to the death squad,” a policeman told him the next day, as he was transferred to the Okrestina Street prison. The name became shorthand for the horrors of the violence meted out by police.
Igor spent a day and a night in a fenced-in yard measuring six-by-six meters together with 124 other men. Right next to them, someone was being tortured. They could hear punches and truncheon blows, along with the forced scream: “I love the Omon!” The Omon is Lukashenko’s special police force. By the time it was over, all they could hear was heavy, labored breathing, Igor says. “It no longer sounded as though it was coming from a human.” Igor also heard women pleading for mercy in a neighboring yard. There was almost nothing to drink.
Now Is the Time
Igor was forced to sign a document that he was not allowed to read, and then he had to lay down with everybody else to be badly beaten one final time. “Even some men were crying,” he says. When he left the prison, he was approached by volunteer helpers, but he was too intimidated to accept. “If you talk about what happened to you, then we’ll come get you,” he had been warned. He limped off into the morning until someone picked him up.
Igor tells his story with an incredulous smile on his face. “You start wondering: Are we living here in a democracy or a dictatorship?” A puzzled look appears on his face and he falls silent. It isn’t a rhetorical question. Igor Kvyatko really doesn’t know the answer, or, rather, he has never really thought much about the difference between dictatorship and democracy. Now, is the time to find out.
On the day after Igor’s release, during a peaceful demonstration on Independence Square, women approached Interior Ministry troops in front of the parliament building and hugged them. It was intended as a symbolic message: We don’t want any violence and we are grateful that you are allowing us to demonstrate here. “I was furious when I saw the images,” says Igor. “First, they beat you in a police van, and then they get a kiss.”
Igor has now begun attending the protests himself and has grown proud of the Belarusians and their peaceful protests, but he would still rather leave the country. According to official statistics, most of the 6,700 people who have been arrested have since been released. But there are no precise numbers. In front of the Okrestina Street detention facility, where Igor was abused, long lines formed last weekend of men who had recently been released, all of them badly bruised, waiting to get their possessions back. But the small clutch of tents that volunteers set up to provide support for the detainees and the victims of abuse, had begun to empty out.
The most surprising thing currently on display in Minsk is the rebranding of the entire country, with the flags having become the most visible symbol of change. The official colors of Belarus are red and green, but Minsk these days is awash in a sea of white-red-white flags, which has long been the banner of the marginalized opposition. For many years, flying it has been cause for strict punishment.
The changing colors are symbolic of the delayed farewell to the Soviet era. Belarus actually introduced the white-red-white banner as its national flag in 1991, just as Russia under Boris Yeltsin returned to its white-blue-red tricolor. But then, Lukashenko – a popular, young president at the time – switched back to Soviet symbols, with the support of the electorate. To this day, the country’s coat of arms includes ears of wheat, a Soviet star and the rising sun of world revolution, its rays shining over a darkened earth. It has a certain retro charm.
The entire city of Minsk looks as though the Soviet era never really came to an end. Having been destroyed during World War II, the center was reconstructed in the Stalinist style. In contrast to 1990s Russia, the Soviet industrial heritage in Belarus was not privatized overnight and divided up among ambitious oligarchs. There was never the extreme division between rich and poor, as seen in Moscow and Kiev, and the state continued to reliably serve its function, if at a modest level. The break with the past was never as great in Belarus as it was in neighboring countries.
But there were significant developments beneath the retro surface. There are plenty of casinos in Minsk for guests from Russia and an innovation park for the growing IT sector. Belarus has a special economic zone that has attracted Chinese capital, and even within state-run companies, the workforce is kept on its toes with contracts that can be terminated annually, as though the country had introduced turbo-capitalism. There are fancy cafés and close links to the European Union, Russia and Ukraine.
On television, Lukashenko likes to present himself as though he was still the party secretary of a rural collective farm in times of perestroika. He can be seen digging up potatoes, harvesting watermelons with female students at his side, or inspecting lush wheat fields. If protests are shown on TV, they are depicted as extremely violent affairs, held by bloodthirsty nationalists.
But those taking to the streets in Belarus get their news from the messenger app Telegram. It was the only one that continued to work even after access to the Internet was blocked on election day. This is not a social media revolution; it is exclusively a Telegram revolution. And one channel in particular has profited: “Nexta Live,” operated by a young activist from Warsaw, has gained more than 2 million followers in an extremely short span of time – a fifth of the Belarus population. The channel distributes videos and appeals. It’s goal is not the dissemination of reliable information, but the fall of Lukashenko. You don’t have to be an autocrat to find this new media power to be slightly unsettling.
On Sunday, half of the city of Minsk seems to be out and about. Without a leader, yet coordinated nonetheless, around 100,000 people stream to the Minsk Hero City Obelisk, the city’s large monument to World War II. They smile as they give each other the victory sign, pass out bottles of water to ward off the heat and wave huge flags. There are no speeches, if for no other reason than the lack of equipment, making it a bit like a Love Parade without music. Kolesnikova makes a brief appearance at the obelisk, but hardly anyone can hear her.
Early Monday morning, Lukashenko experiences what is likely the most challenging encounter with his people in years. He has come to the MZKT plant, the heavy vehicles factory in Minsk. Specialized vehicles are built here to transport Russian Iskander missiles. As always, Lukashenko’s youngest son Kolya is along for the appearance. The handsome 15-year-old could easily be mistaken for a member of a boy band. He was also with his father the day before, as the Belarusian president spoke in the city center to a bused-in crowd of supporters waving red-and-green flags. Kolya’s older brothers are both advisers to the president – all in the family in Minsk.
This time, though, the appearance begins going wrong from the get-go. “We can spare ourselves the effort of clapping,” Lukashenko says magnanimously at the beginning, and everyone laughs. None of those present is in the mood to clap anyway. Instead, they begin chanting: “Leave!”
Lukashenko plays a recording of a bugged telephone call intended to prove that agent provocateurs are operating at MZKT. “We didn’t understand at all what kind of voices they were,” says one worker who was present. It is an aggressive, arrogant appearance for Lukashenko. “For as long as you don’t kill me, there will be no new elections!” he calls out.
“I Am Who I Am”
Lukashenko isn’t a bad speaker, and the fact that he is willing to put up a fight is what sets him apart from his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych, who put up almost no resistance and fled into Russian exile. Over his years in power, though, torpor has set in. “His only message anymore is: I am who I am, and you just have to accept me,” says political scientist Andrei Kazakevich.
And that’s perhaps the most astonishing thing about Lukashenko’s current downfall. From the very beginning of this election season, he chose to rely completely on repression, on preventing opposing candidates from registering and on arresting them. He didn’t follow the example of previous elections, when he went out on the campaign trail to mobilize and expand his voter base, which Kazakevich estimates was still around 25 to 35 percent this time. Now, he is in the position of having to feverishly make up for all he failed to do before the election.
While Lukashenko is inside MZKT speaking, workers from the Minsk tractor factory are striking outside the gates, trying to support their colleagues. Kolesnikova is there as well. Using a small megaphone, she calls out that she is proud of the Belarusians and loves them. Then she disappears again.
Pavel Latushko, a tall man with a pleasant voice in his mid-40s, could be described as the only visible link between the world of Lukashenko’s elite and the protesters on the streets. He served as the Belarusian ambassador in Warsaw and in Paris, and he also had a stint as culture minister. In spring 2019, he was appointed as head of the Yanka Kupala Theater in Minsk.
The national theater is the oldest and most distinguished stage in the country and is turning 100 years old this year. All of the plays it stages are in the Belarusian language, which also makes it unique, given that people in the capital speak almost exclusively Russian as they go about their daily lives. Like the white-red-white flag, the Belarusian language was long viewed suspiciously, a symptom of nationalism.
“I’m Probably Being Fired”
Latushko’s troupe protested against police violence while the theater director himself demanded the resignation of the interior minister. As he is speaking of the incident inside the theater, he is interrupted by a telephone call. “I’m probably being fired,” he says dispassionately. He’s right: The culture minister is on the line and Latushko is dismissed, effective immediately. Dismayed theater employees gather in the foyer and he explains the situation to them – in Russian. They applaud, and a short time later, every single one of them will hand in their resignation. The first supporters begin to collect outside.
The very next evening, on Tuesday, Latushko is already sitting next to Kolesnikova for the announcement of the first new institution these protests have produced, the new Coordination Council. It is to help with the transfer of power, as a kind of citizens’ platform, as Latushko describes it. The meeting takes place in the campaign headquarters of Babariko, the banker, with a large photo of him hanging at the entrance. But the council was initiated by Tikhanovskaya.
Many protesters refer to Tikhanovskaya as the winner of the election, but the claim can’t really be proven. A recount is impractical since many ballots have been destroyed. From exile in Lithuania, she has thus refrained from calling herself president, preferring the term “national leader” and saying her duty is purely to attend the transfer of power.
“Back when I was still a minister, Lukashenko once told me on the phone: ‘If you betray me, I’ll strangle you with my own two hands.'”
Pavel Latushko, former government minister
But it has become apparent that there really isn’t anybody who could actually represent the people. Lukashenko has subdued and splintered the society. There are no structures, no institutions left that could help to distribute responsibility. Since the crushing of election protests in 2010, there has not only been an absence of opposition, but also an absence of politics as such.
Belarus doesn’t have the kind of oligarchs seen in Ukraine, who have their own parties and television stations. There isn’t even a simulation of democratic politics, as allowed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, with different parliamentary groups. In Belarus, public politics isn’t even imitated.
The Coordination Council won’t be able to credibly fill the void. it is a collection of around 70 people, with many of them intellectuals. It is reminiscent of the perestroika period, when the intelligentsia payed a significant role because there were no genuine politicians. Literature Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich is a member of the executive committee. Will workers, whose participation is key, feel represented by such a council?
Lukashenko himself has warned that along with his rule, Belarusian independence is in danger. Paradoxically, he’s right. Though the argument would be more convincing if he himself hadn’t brought foreign help into the country. Within a period of just a few days, he repeatedly asked Vladimir Putin for support, claiming that his country was under threat from the West. This week, a plane used by the head of Russian domestic intelligence was in Minsk. A convoy of unmarked vehicles belonging to the Russian National Guard was seen driving in the direction of Belarus. Rumors have been making the rounds in Minsk. Russian journalists are said to have replaced tech personnel at the Belarusian national broadcaster. “But we don’t believe that is the case,” says an employee of the station.
What is clear is that Putin, in contrast to the EU, has never criticized election fraud and repression in Belarus – and that he isn’t a fan of autocratic leaders being toppled by protest movements. After losing Kiev to the West, it would be a nightmare for him to lose Minsk as well. That is one of the reasons why he sought to drive forward further integration with Belarus even before the election – against resistance from Lukashenko.
On the other hand, Russia isn’t interested in betting it all on a single card. The opposition, in any case, isn’t anti-Russian. Banker Babariko, the most consequential opposition candidate, has spent almost his entire career working for a subsidiary of the Russian state-owned company Gazprom.
“When I was in Germany, I was surprised at how often the music teacher would offer praise. That’s not common here.”
Maria Kolesnikova, opposition activist
“An orderly transfer of power would also be in Russia’s interest,” says the discharged theater director Latushko. If Putin starts playing policeman for a failed autocrat, he will lose quite a bit of sympathy in Minsk and back home.
But Lukashenko is gripping tightly to power. “Back when I was still a minister,” Latushko says, “he once told me on the phone: ‘If you betray me, I’ll strangle you with my own two hands.'” Latushko had hardly joined the Coordination Council before he received a fresh slew of threats. “On Wednesday, I received five threats of physical violence and three recommendations that I leave the country. I was even offered a charter plane.”
On Thursday, state prosecutors followed through with a threat that Lukashenko had issued. They classified the establishment of the Coordination Council as an attempted overthrow and initiated criminal proceedings. Members of the council face up to five years in jail.
Indeed, if the pressure from the streets doesn’t continue, the pendulum could swing back. Following the euphoria of freedom on the streets of Minsk over the weekend, Lukashenko is now trying to tighten the screws – by suppressing the strikes and promulgating fear.
Russia is providing de facto support for the effort, and is nonetheless pointing its finger at the West. Europe is only interested in geopolitics, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed recently. Indeed, the emancipation of the Belarusian society from “father,” as Lukashenko likes to be called, threatens to become the victim of outside interests.
It remains unclear how things might end. Maria Kolesnikova doesn’t know either, even as she courageously travels from protest to protest to tell Belarusians how proud she is of them.
She says she learned how important encouragement is from her time spent in the West. “When I was in Germany, I was surprised at how often the music teacher would offer praise,” she says in the car on the drive back from visiting the factory workers in Soligorsk. “That’s not common here. But it boosts your self-confidence. The same thing is happening here. Suddenly, the Belarusians are smiling and are proud of themselves.”
Does that mean that we are essentially seeing a kind of group psychotherapy?
“Definitely,” she says.