« In These Protests You Can See the Rebirth of a Nation »

, par Christian Gibbons, Dasha Shkarupina

« In These Protests You Can See the Rebirth of a Nation »
Darya Shkarupina stands outside the European Parliament to protest in favor in Belarusian sovereignty. Photo Credit : the interviewee.

Darya Shkarupina is a Social Sciences student in the Vrije Universiteit Brussels and part-time philosophy student at the Belarusian State University. She was born in Minsk, Belarus and moved to Brussels one year ago. Her areas of interest include EU institutions, global politics and communication.

Since the presidential election last Sunday, Darya has been in Minsk. In this conversation, our Global Affairs editor, Christian Gibbons, gets her take on what has happened since then.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : After a historic but ultimately fraudulent election on August 9th, Belarusian President Alyiaksandr Lukashenka has decided instead to hold onto power through force of arms. Can you tell me whether Lukashenka retains any level of support among Belarusians ?

DARYA SHKARUPINA : I don’t think there have been any fault lines. The number of people who support Lukashenka are extremely few. For us, it is pretty clear that no one wants Lukashenka anymore. There are some exceptions, of course : Lukashenka’s electorate usually consists of MPs, government workers, police officers, and others. More casual supporters also exist, usually among elderly people and businessmen (upper-class people).

The last two don’t see Lukashenka’s regime as a dictatorship for two reasons. On the one hand, they’ll say that “in the USSR things were worse, and we don’t have war now”. On the other hand, they’ll say : “I have money, a house, and my children. I have everything I want, and for me it is enough’’. But for others, it is not that simple.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : So what, in your opinion, has motivated so many people to oppose Lukashenka ?

DARYA SHKARUPINA : Personally, I see Lukashenka as a person who cannot analyze and adequately interpret some things anymore. He would rather believe in conspiracy theories – such as that the coronavirus doesn’t exist – than believe that people are fed up with him and don’t want him anymore.

For most of the people who support alternative candidates, money is the least important thing. Rather, we stand for freedom of speech, democracy and fair elections. We want the president to change. But in my opinion there is one interesting cleavage. Belarusians lost their sense of national identity a long time ago because of Russian occupation and becoming a part of the USSR. After Lukashenka became president, he changed the country’s flag, anthem and emblem – which were the last three things that united our people.

Now, however, because people are fighting together, we are uniting and beginning to become a nation once again. In the protests you can see a white-red-white flag : our historical flag. And people want it back along with our identity, which for me is seen as a rebirth of a nation.

"Because people are fighting together, we are uniting and beginning to become a nation once again."

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : Now, on August 11th, the leading opposition candidate – Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – fled Belarus “for the sake of her children”. In Western media, Tsikhanouskaya often came across as a kind of de facto leader figure (although this is not how she perceived herself). How consequential has her departure been, exactly ?

DARYA SHKARUPINA : This goes back to what I was just saying. We can see that Lukashenka is afraid of Sviatlana, and that he knows that he lost this election. Otherwise, why would she have been forced to flee the country ?

During this election some alternative platforms were created to count votes, the most popular of which was called “Golos”, and which had 1 million people registered. According to this platform, 800,000 thousand people voted for Tsikhanouskaya, which already contradicts official exit poll results, which claim that only 500.000 voted for her. By doing some simple statistics and taking a look at the protest movements now, we can clearly see that more than half of the population voted for Sviatlana.

But Sviatlana never was an opposition leader for our people. She was rather a person who built alliances and created community between those who want to overthrow Lukashenka. Sviatlana is a symbol of opposition for us.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : But now that symbol of opposition is no longer in Belarus. So how have things changed since she left ? To what extent is the opposition even being coordinated ?

DARYA SHKARUPINA : Initially, Sviatlana never even called for people to go on the streets – we did it ourselves. So things will not change at all now that she’s gone. The protests won’t stop. She left the country on Tuesday, and since then we’ve had day after day of constant protest.

However, her alliance is still supporting people who go to the protests and trying to help them. Maria Kolesnikova is still in Belarus, along with the other volunteers and people who worked for the alliance. They are raising funds for people who were arrested, connecting them with lawyers, sending food and medicine to jails, and helping in many other ways. Veronica Tsepkalo left the country on the day of election, but even from there, she is supporting people. She has been involved in solidarity protests in Moscow [1].

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : Let’s talk about the prospect of foreign intervention for a moment. Lukashenka managed to create a small scandal in late July, when 33 Russian mercenaries were detained in Minsk. Lukashenka claimed that these mercenaries – who belonged to the Kremlin-affiliated Wagner Group – wanted to destabilize the election [2]. Were these all just distractions ?

DARYA SHKARUPINA : In previous elections, Lukashenka did the same thing. So people did not believe in his machinations with these 33 Russian mercenaries [3]. In my opinion, he wanted to demobilize opposition movements, and make people believe that it was Sviatlana’s husband Siarhei who paid these people to come to Belarus. Clearly he did not succeed with this move, although he gave Russia another reason to interfere in our country and election process.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : And so are you at all concerned about Russian interference at this stage ?

DARYA SHKARUPINA : It’s hard to say at this point whether we should be concerned.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : Could you briefly run through the range of scenarios of what could happen if Lukashenka actually loses this fight ? What would come after Lukashenka ?

DARYA SHKARUPINA : First of all, we want Sviatlana to get in the office. People voted for her, so this is the most reasonable thing to do. But we do not know how exactly Lukashenka will step aside. If it happens because of a revolution, things might get even more difficult. But since we want him to peacefully step aside and give the office to Tsikhanouskaya, I do not feel that a revolution will take place in Belarus. You can see that people have decided against fighting in the streets in favor of making workers strike. They peacefully protest during the day and block the central streets of the capital city so as to paralyse the economy.

So I think the most likely scenario will be that Tsikhanouskaya will take office, and then dissolve the parliament and other governing bodies. Some people will be arrested, and some of them will just be fired. Later she will propose a new election to the parliament, one that would have all the candidates who were arrested or not registered (Viktar Babaryka, Valery Tsepkalo and Siarhei Tsikhanouski). After that, we will have real and fair elections, and Belarus will finally meet the new president.

"In Belarus, we are raised with fear. Yet in the last 10 years, a real pro-democratic movement has been born."

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : This is a rather optimistic scenario. Are you at all worried about what might happen next ?

DARYA SHKARUPINA : In the Soviet Union, people did not have freedom of speech, and were sent to concentration camps for thinking differently. Lukashenka has been doing the exact same thing all these 26 years. In Belarus, we are already born with fear. We are raised with fear. Only 100 years ago, serfdom – or rather, slavery – was brought to an end in this country, but some things just haven’t changed since then. People still see the President as a father or Tsar-like figure, and our people still feel themselves to be peasants.

So it has been really uncommon for Belarusians to ask for democracy and participate in a pro-democratic movement. Lukashenka created an illusion of democracy, and the last time that that really existed in Belarus was a long time ago, in the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yet in the last 10 years, a real pro-democratic movement has been born.

I personally link this to the creation of the Internet. Most people in Belarus have access to the Internet. And since then, there have been many Belarusians who have wanted to join the European Union. In my friend group, I am always the one who constantly speaks about the need to stay up-to-date about what the EU is doing. It might sound surprising, but our people are totally opposed to integration with Russia. We see ourselves as Europeans, and our people want to be Europeans.

[1] UPDATE : As of August 16th, Veronica Tsepkalo has left Russia for Ukraine.

[2] The Wagner Group is a private military company whose fighters have fought on the side of Russia-backed militants in the Ukrainian Donbas, as well as with government forces in Syria and in other conflict zones around the world. The company is believed to be owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Wagner Group militants are also widely believed to act, at least in part, with funding and direction from the Russian Ministry of Defence.

[3] As of this writing, 32 of the 33 mercenaries have been released without charges and sent back to Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has decried the move, and requested that 28 of them be extradited to Ukraine because of their suspected involvement with separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

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