« This is a War of Terror by the State Against the People »

, par Christian Gibbons

« This is a War of Terror by the State Against the People »
People gather in solidarity with the protests in Belarus outside a church in Vienna, Austria. The interviewee asked for her picture not be used. Photo Credit : Oksana Guzenko

Volha Biziukova is a PhD candidate at the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology, the University of Vienna, and a junior visiting fellow at the IWM (Vienna). She received her MA degree at the Central European University and her BA at the Belarusian State University. Her research interests include new middle classes in Russia, consumption, and citizen-state relations.

Volha also served as an election observer for Belarus’s August 9th presidential election. In this conversation, our Global Affairs editor, Christian Gibbons, gets her take on what happened.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : Outwardly, Sunday’s election in Belarus seemed historic, with countless people rallying around the opposition candidates in an effort to oust President Alyaksandr Lukashenka from power. What kind of people came to these opposition rallies ? What motivated them ?

VOLHA BIZIUKOVA : It was really a broad-based coalition – a movement for, of, and by all kinds of people. From the very beginning of the campaign, when citizens started queuing in long lines for hours to give their signatures to nominate candidates, it became apparent that very different people from very different walks of life were unexpectedly becoming mobilized. The current strikes at all enterprises and companies - from major works and factories, to trade, to the philarmony and academic institutions prove that it is an all-people’s movement.

There are multiple reasons for this : the mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, the economic stagnation coupled with emigration, the promises left unfulfilled for decades, the absence of any vision of future development, the obvious obsolescence of the current societal model, and, importantly, Lukashenka’s disrespectful and contemptuous attitude towards citizens. The president has repeatedly spoken about the people in overtly humiliating language – mocking and degrading them. Finally, there is the unbelievable, sickening tiredness that comes with seeing the same person as president for 26 years – a person who has lost all sense of reality and come to think of himself as the “owner” of the country.

These variegated crowds of people – numbering in the tens of thousands – were gathering at Tsikanovskaya rallies in different places all across Belarus. More than 60,000 people of all ages and occupations assembled at the biggest demonstration in Minsk. It was the biggest mass gathering in Belarus since the country became independent in 1991. After that event, mass rallies during the election campaign were banned. Now that protests are also being suppressed, it looks like young people have become more and more central to these gatherings.

"Lukashenka’s main ’electorate’ was always men in uniform – and they vote not with ballots but with hoses."

Remarkably, Lukashenka did not hold any mass demonstrations during the campaign. Throughout the period preceding the elections, he was tirelessly visiting army or riot police units, or meeting with the heads of security services. So his main “electorate” was always men in uniform – and they vote not with ballots but with hoses. Belarus is one of the world’s leaders in the number of police officers per capita, at 924 policemen per 100,000 (for comparison, the US has 245, France has 356, and Russia has 509).

What’s more, higher-ranking bureaucrats and the heads of local administration support Lukashenka because their positions are dependent on him staying in power. Probably, these people are the only section of the Belarusian society which really lives in the “social state” proclaimed by the constitution : they receive higher salaries, housing, and stable employment in exchange for their loyalty and readiness to suppress dissent.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : That’s really interesting. Now, in Western media, the protests have sometimes been called a “Slipper Revolution” (referring to the protestors’ stated desire to “squash” the “cockroach” Lukashenka). Why is that ?

VOLHA BIZIUKOVA : The nickname “cockroach”, along with “Sasha 3%”, have become common ways to refer to Lukashenka. This refusal to call him by his real name is both a reflection of popular disgust as well as a reaction to the denigrating and humiliating language he has used to speak about the Belarusian people, especially in the last few months.

With regards to the “Slipper Revolution” – this had more to do with the movement led by ex-presidential candidate Siarhei Tsikhanouski earlier this year. He made “squash the cockroach” the slogan of his campaign as he traveled to different cities and towns across Belarus.

After his arrest, however, the “slipper” as a symbol became marginal, and his wife Sviatlana Tsikanouskaya took his place as presidential candidate. The different offices of the united opposition instead tried to send a positive message, which was embodied in their symbolic photo – three women showing the gestures of love, decisiveness, and victory. These symbols alluded to a famous slogan that gained new appeal in the run-up to the election : “We believe, we can, and we will win !” (“verym, mozham, peramozam !”) ❤️✊✌🏻 These were the real symbols of the opposition.

"The mobilization has been fueled even further by people’s outrage. This broad movement of solidarity is our major hope."

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : That photo was really inspiring for me to see – and I think for other people, as well. Now, on the night of the election, you worked as an election observer at the Belarusian embassy in Vienna, Austria. Were you able to observe any electoral fraud ? What exactly was taking place ?

VOLHA BIZIUKOVA : I was working as an observer both on the main election day and during the early voting period [1]. From the very beginning, the election process was rigged.

The election committees, which organize voting on the ground, were formed to make sure that no independent member could get on board, despite the hundreds of applications. The duties of observers are very narrow, but by law, their number is not supposed to be limited. But since thousands of people expressed interest, Lidia Yermoshina, the head of the so-called Central Election Committee (CEC), introduced limitations on the number of observers allowed to be present at the venue. She cited the coronavirus as a justification – but this was probably the only official state restriction on mass gatherings in connection to the pandemic. The people who got access were determined by committees like this, each of whom were quick to add loyal pseudo-observers to the top of their lists.

This happened to me. When I came to the embassy with my application, the people there were clearly lost, and did not know how to proceed. They held me there for several hours, leaving the room, and then coming back. In the end, they announced that they had registered me under #3. The first two observers were always allowed to be present in the voting hall. When I met them later, they did not even know what these registration numbers were. Nor did they have even a vague idea about election laws or what the functions of observers are supposed to be. They were simply given a piece of paper, and asked to sit in the room. One of these pseudo-observers was actually an embassy employee, and the other was a close associate.

Voter suppression was a common strategy at all embassies. Since the authorities were trying to limit the number of people who got on voting lists, they provided incomplete information about the rules of inclusion. Furthermore, on the main voting day, they chose to process voters very slowly. Thus, in Prague, almost half of all eligible voters on that day were denied their voting rights. I strongly believe that this strategy originated in Belarus’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

As independent observers, however, I and several others were still able to control the turnout, count the “white ribbons” [2], and, on the occasions that we were let in, ensure that proper procedures were followed. And luckily, at our embassy, the movement of voters somehow slowed down only in the afternoon – so everyone was able to vote. Our embassy also admitted the victory of Tsikhanouskaya with 69% of votes. In my opinion, there is a good chance that the actual numbers were higher.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : So let’s talk about that for a moment. The leading opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, refused to accept the results of the election (according to which the incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka won with around 80% of votes). She instead claimed that she had actually won, referring to exit polls that showed her routing Lukashenka. Can you give any more substance to these claims ?

VOLHA BIZIUKOVA : We will never know the real results of the election. The early voting was thoroughly falsified. According to the data of the independent observers, the “official” turnout during the early voting period was at least two times the actual turnout. The content of the ballot boxes was also out of control and could be meddled with at any moment. There is even ample audio-recorded evidence of orders to falsify the election results at local committees.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : And Lukashenka has openly admitted in the past to falsifying elections.

VOLHA BIZIUKOVA : Yes. At the places where votes were counted honestly, however, Tsikhanouskaya was winning with more than 50% of the votes. And even if we take all the reports, including the distorted ones, the total numbers do not add up to the official result of 80% that Lukashenka claimed for himself. People have since tried to gather all available photos of the final paper reports from the local commissions into a database. But the functioning of this digital system (named “Golos”) was sabotaged by blocking the Internet and hacking the website.

"The total falsification of the election results basically means that Lukashenka opted for the usurpation of power and the violation of the constitution through brutal violence and repression."

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : But Tsikhanouskaya fled Belarus on August 11th, fearing for her safety and that of her children.

VOLHA BIZIUKOVA : Of course, it would be better if she had stayed, but in no way does her departure mean an end to the pro-democracy movement.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : Right.

VOLHA BIZIUKOVA : In any case, she is much more useful for the movement in exile in Lithuania than behind bars. No one can blame a person for not behaving like a hero. She has already done a lot and was under the most horrible pressure that one can imagine.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : Indeed, the movement is still in the streets of Minsk, even as we speak. So here’s another thing I want to ask about : these protests have invited a lot of comparisons to the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2014. Do you think that this is an accurate comparison ?

VOLHA BIZIUKOVA : I actually believe that these protests are very different, both in terms of their “legal” grounds and the context of the state systems in which they took place.

I should say that I fully sympathised with Maidan from its very beginning. When Maidan started, Viktor Yanukovich was still an elected president. He compromised his legitimacy when he decided to betray the Ukrainian people and to do a 180-degree turn to Russia while ordering a violent suppression of the protests. His appalling behaviour made citizens contest his legitimacy through active protests instead of waiting until the next election (by which time it would already be too late). But, due to this, the contestation went outside the constitutional process.

Additionally, Ukraine was never so centralised. The country had regular elections and different power groups. The state had never developed a huge, punitive apparatus whose only aim was the suppression of popular discontent, as is the case in Belarus. The Yanukovych regime was quite loose.

In Belarus, the opposition acted from the very beginning exclusively within the frame of constitutional process. Even after Babariko was detained, his office did not call for mass protests, but argued for litigation in court and proceeding with the elections. The total falsification of the election results basically means that Lukashenka opted for the usurpation of power and the violation of the constitution through brutal violence and repression.

Another difference is that, in Belarus, there are also almost no appeals to the European Union. On the one hand, there is an attempt to preserve good relations with Russia, considering the country’s economic dependence. On the other hand, the tragic example of Ukraine has shown that the support of the EU does not go much further than an endless expression of “concern”. The people in Belarus have few illusions regarding Europe’s attitude. If in 2010, the flags and slogans for the ‘European’ future were prominent, now – now, they have almost disappeared. In this respect, the situation in Belarus could be compared to Nikolo Pashinyan’s movement in Armenia.

A fourth difference is that nationalism is extremely marginal in Belarus. While I do not think it was a dominant force in Maidan, it was nevertheless a visible and, at some points, an important part. And then, finally, the kind of large-scale gatherings that we saw in the Maidan protests have been hampered in Belarus. This is because astonishing violence and diverse administrative barriers (such as denying approval for demonstrations) have been used by the Belarusian security forces from the very beginning. A person who simply shows up in the street is immediately attacked and ruthlessly beaten up by the police unless s/he manages to run away. The state has left no space for ‘peaceful’ demonstration.

"If Lukashenka goes away now, there will probably be new elections. Viktar Babaryka looks the strongest in terms of popular support."

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : Yes...the images and stories of brutality that I’ve seen since detainees began to be released are absolutely appalling.

VOLHA BIZIUKOVA : They’re far from the worst. Those detention centers are improvised concentration camps.

But now there are strikes all across the country. The mobilization has been fueled even further by people’s outrage at the evidence of inhuman treatment and torture in the detention centers, which became widely available after the Internet started working again. This broad movement of solidarity is our major hope.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : So aside from Lukashenka’s monopoly on violence, what barriers or obstacles currently constrain the pro-democracy movement in Belarus ?

VOLHA BIZIUKOVA : That is the only barrier remaining, and it is the only reason that Lukashenka is still not behind bars. This is not a civil war. It is a war of terror by the state against the people.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : And what might happen if Lukashenka actually steps down (or is forced to step down) ? What is the strategy of the pro-democracy activists ?

VOLHA BIZIUKOVA : Sviatlana herself was always explicit about her position – that she was only a symbol, and would become a “technical” president only to ensure a transition and new elections. According to the plan, she would have been president for half a year. After the election, the strategy was to run the state as it is, without lustrations and shocks, so as to secure the transition.

If Lukashenka goes away now, there will probably be new elections. We’ll have to see what comes of that. Among the present set of candidates, Viktar Babaryka looks the strongest in terms of popular support. Fortunately, the pro-nationalist opposition is marginal. This personally makes me very happy, as I hope that Belarus will one day be a truly socially-oriented state.

1. The early voting ran from August 4th to 8th. Volha Biziukova was observing from the 6th to the 8th.

2. « White ribbons » were promoted as the visible signs of the opposition movement. People were called to wear them in the period before the election. During the voting period, independent observers could count voters with white ribbons on their wrists as a way of estimating the minimal number of voters for an alternative candidate.

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