Along with others who had been protesting against a disputed victory in Sunday’s presidential election for strongman Alexander Lukashenko, Viktor says he was then driven to a notorious prison in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. The detainees were forced to pass through a corridor of guards who beat them until they reached a fence, where they were made to stand for 90 minutes. If anyone moved or spoke, guards beat them again.
“Some people had broken limbs, some people had massive bruises,” says Viktor, who asked not to give his surname for fear of reprisals. “They beat us up like we were animals, not people. How is that even possible? People came to protest peacefully and they beat us up as if we were the scum of the earth.”
Viktor is one of thousands of Belarusians who have been subjected to state-administered brutality this week, as Mr Lukashenko, dubbed Europe’s last dictator for his relentless repression of his opponents, has scrambled to put down the most serious challenge he has faced in his 26 years in charge of the 9.5m-strong eastern European nation.
For some it has revived memories of 1989 when a series of revolutions in central Europe tore down the Iron Curtain, and triggered a process that swept away authoritarian regimes, and redrew the map of Europe.
“There have been a couple of cases [uprisings] since,” says Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and former British ambassador to Belarus. “Serbia in 2000, the bulldozer revolution that got rid of Milosevic. And Maidan in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014. [What’s happening in Belarus] is potentially the last step in a 30-year process of reordering European politics.”
In a week of horrific violence, Mr Lukashenko has done his utmost to prevent that reordering being completed. Almost 7,000 people have been detained, hundreds have been injured, and at least two protesters have died.
Security services have used rubber bullets, stun grenades, and water cannons with abandon. Journalists have been targeted. Even people not taking part in protests have been rounded up, beaten, and arrested.
“We asked the police why they were doing it, and they said, ‘an order is an order,’” says Alina Buskina, a 20-year-old journalism student who was beaten, arrested, strip-searched, and then left in a room with no food or toilet paper for 24 hours, after running into riot police on her way home from a party. “They’re just like dogs who will do whatever they are told,” Ms Buskina adds.
According to Ms Buskina, the women were forced to drink unfiltered tap water and beg guards for food, then told to sign forced confessions that they had participated in “mass disturbances”. When one of Ms Buskina’s cellmates refused, she says a policeman threatened to rape her. “They said, ‘We’ll teach you bitches who to vote for,’” Ms Buskina adds. Women on their periods were told to wipe themselves with their shirts.
Eventually, the guards released them, beating them on the way out for good measure. “I’ve read books about war and genocide and I didn’t believe it could really happen. But when you’ve been there, you see the people who do it, you realise that they do exist, they’ve been so brainwashed by our government that they’re ready to do anything to defend it,” Ms Buskina says.
Yet despite the crackdown, the protests have continued, and not just in the capital Minsk but also in small towns, once Mr Lukashenko’s heartland. On Thursday, and again on Friday, workers at multiple state-run companies began to strike, in an unprecedented display of defiance and the clearest sign yet that the protests extend well beyond the tech-savvy middle-class which long ago tired of Mr Lukashenko.
“This is the biggest challenge Lukashenko has ever faced,” says Joerg Forbrig, director for central and eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the US, a think-tank. “It’s obvious that any strategy that he has employed so far, before the elections, and after the elections, has failed . . . now he is fast running out of options.”
Dependence on Russia
Mr Lukashenko’s unpopularity has deep roots. Having won Belarus’s first and last competitive elections in 1994, the former collective farm boss built a command economy, propped up with Russian subsidies. The model offered Belarusians full employment, rising wages, and economic stability, but at the price of an increasingly authoritarian political system.
In the past decade, however, this authoritarian social contract has begun to unravel as Russia withdrew subsidies, wages stagnated, and workers were forced into precarious contracts.
“The long-term threat to this regime is basically the unsustainable economy,” says Katia Glod, a non-resident fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis, a think-tank. “The whole model, the lack of market reforms, the dependence on Russia, none of this gives any hope that the economy will improve.”
These longstanding economic grievances were exacerbated by Mr Lukashenko’s erratic response to coronavirus. As other countries raced to introduce social distancing measures, Mr Lukashenko dismissed the virus as a “psychosis” treatable by drinking vodka, visiting the sauna, or communing with goats, and blamed victims of Covid-19 for poor diets or weak health.
In an indication of the scale of the discontent, as this year’s election loomed, Mr Lukashenko was challenged at the polls by figures from within the country’s elite: Viktor Babariko, a former head of one of Belarus’s biggest banks, and Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the US.
Mr Babariko was imprisoned along with his son, and Mr Tsepkalo and his family fled the country after threats to their safety. But one real opposition candidate was allowed to stand: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former teacher and the wife of a popular YouTuber who had been planning to run himself until he was jailed in May.
After an uncertain start, Ms Tikhanovskaya quickly became a political sensation. Her platform of releasing political prisoners and holding new, fair elections struck a chord, and her rallies drew huge crowds. When officials claimed on Sunday that Mr Lukashenko had won around 80 per cent of the vote, and Ms Tikhanovskaya less than 10 per cent, Belarus erupted.
“People don’t know what to do. But to do nothing and stay on the sidelines is impossible,” says Natallia Lubnieuskaja, a reporter at the independent media group Nasha Niva, who was shot in the leg on Monday while covering the protests by security forces firing rubber bullets. “People are tired of injustice, rudeness, lies and want to change this. Practically everyone who used to be indifferent to politics [now] talks only about this.”
Over the past six days, further cracks in Belarus’s elite have appeared. Several state-television presenters have announced their resignations. One junior member of the presidential administration has also quit. Meanwhile, social media has been awash with videos of former soldiers disgusted by the regime’s violence throwing their uniforms in the bin. On Friday, Mr Lukashenko was forced to deny rumours that he had left the country.
Mr Lukashenko is also facing mounting pressure from abroad. EU ministers met on Friday to discuss what action to take, including possible sanctions against people involved in ballot-rigging or human rights abuses. Mr Tsepkalo is negotiating with the EU to recognise Ms Tikhanovskaya — who announced the launch of a “co-ordination council to transfer power” on Friday — as Belarus’ lawful president.
In Moscow, where president Vladimir Putin has long pushed Belarus to accept deeper integration with its eastern neighbour, the foreign ministry said attempts to split Russia from its “brother nation [ . . .] are doomed to failure”.
But the protests may indicate that far fewer Belarusians than before want to remain in Moscow’s embrace, says Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“[Belarus] is coming out of these elections a completely different country,” Mr Kolesnikov says. “If you get rid of Lukashenko and don’t let Putin in, it’s a European country. It’s not a country where disciplined rural people are harvesting potatoes any more.”
After spending three days since the election trying to crush the protests, Mr Lukashenko’s regime has begun to change tack. On Wednesday, it ended an internet blockade, which had begun on Sunday, to stop demonstrators co-ordinating. On Thursday, the interior minister unexpectedly apologised for the arrests of non-protesters. On Friday morning, Belarus began releasing people who were detained this week.
Yet, those who have dealt with Mr Lukashenko are sceptical that he will make any concessions that threaten his power. As officials made gestures of reconciliation to striking workers on Friday, Belarus’ election commission upheld Mr Lukashenko’s victory, indicating he is not prepared to relinquish control.
“The fact that the internet came back is of course an economic issue, because the economy needs it to function,” says one western diplomat. “But it is also a sign that they feel sure they can control the situation even with the internet on.”
But the Belarusians who have taken to the streets in their thousands are also unwilling to back down — or to forget the terror that Mr Lukashenko unleashed this week. Ms Tikhanovskaya has called for further demonstrations this weekend.
“It’s clear to absolutely everyone that Lukashenko didn’t win these elections,” says Ilya, a 33-year old from Minsk. “And it seems like there are two ways things can develop. Either the people will win. Or Europe will have its own North Korea.”