Author explains what happened during the 2020-2021 protests that aimed but failed to overthrow Europe’s last true socialist leader, Alexander Lukashenko
Belarus may not be on your mind, given the war in Ukraine and rising tensions around the globe. However, two years ago this fairly small Central European country with a population of ten million was at the center of attention. The story being told was that of a people having had enough of their long-time dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko.
Now they backed his unexpected challenger—former housewife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya—bravely poring onto the streets in overwhelming numbers only to be met with even more overwhelming police brutality. With Russian backing the brutality eventually won out. In brief, that was the mainstream narrative.
Although I disagreed with it, I was not in a position to say so. And to my knowledge no-one in the West has so far offered a fair account of what happened to Belarus in 2020. So I would like to try.
My own interest in Belarusian matters goes further back than those events, to the summer of 1999. I then first visited the country to entertain contacts between the Swedish Liberal Party and a like-minded youth organization within the Belarusian opposition. More visits were to follow, accompanied by articles, lectures and a book on the political situation. A ban on entering the country didn’t stop my public activism on the issue but getting a job at the Swedish security police in 2006 eventually did.
To sum up my view of the situation during those seven years, it moved from simplistically anti-regime to more nuanced and then again reversed into a more confrontational position. To concretize; from the concept that dictators are evil, so their alternatives must be good; to questioning the opposition’s anti-Russian nationalism, its reliance on Western sponsors and above all its contempt for its own people; to finally accepting the regime as a greater evil and recognizing that, historically, democracy follows national awakening.
The last thing I did before leaving public space was backing the idea to change the name of the country in Swedish, from ”Vitryssland” (White Russia) to its endonym Belarus. This in token support for national identity.
At that point, various events ranging from election fraud to physical assaults on people I knew had convinced me that both Lukashenko and Putin represented rogue states that needed to be fought. Important were the forced disappearances of Lukashenko’s foremost opponents in 1999 and the Russian security service’s apparent culpability in a series of apartment bombings that same year.
Over time, however, my views would change.
Jumping ahead several years, in 2014 I was employed by a Swedish NGO promoting human rights in this part of the world. This put me in contact with once familiar issues. This time, though, I was not as personally involved. Neither was the political tide on our side, as the EU was on a path of reconciliation with Lukashenko.
Him releasing a handful of political prisoners before the 2015 presidential election allowed the EU to abort the sanctions it had put in place after the previous election. He also turned down a Russian air base, and would resist integration on unequal terms within the projected union state with Russia.
The EU reciprocated with support programs for private enterprise, abolished import quotas for Belarusian textiles, welcomed Belarusian students and teachers to its universities and tried to help Belarusian municipalities with energy efficiency and job creation. The European Investment Bank, EIB, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), also made cooperative efforts. Belarus started participating in the EU’s so-called Eastern Partnership, along with Ukraine, Moldova and the Transcaucasian countries.
Most tangible was progress on travel regulations. Agreements on visa facilitation and repatriation were signed. Belarusians would now pay 35 euro instead of 80 for Schengen visas, and the EU would be allowed to send back Third World migrants making their way into the union via Belarus.
The presidents of Austria and Germany visited Minsk, as did the young Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurtz who was at the forefront of this rapprochement. The United States also sent secretary of state Mike Pompeo to Minsk, agreeing to re-open embassies that were long since stripped of diplomatic personnel.
We, meaning my employer, were critical of the rapprochement as it would help conserve Lukashenko’s power. I wrote of its futility, saying that any large protests erupting would force the repressive regime to show its real face and make further cooperation impossible.
Not Much Protest
At the outset, the prospects of such protest were dim. The opposition failed to make use of the 2015 election. The following winter, a presidential decree regulating market vendors stirred those into action and they shut down their stands in a widely visible manifestation. This socially independent group had always seemed politically potent (I had attended their organization’s founding congress back in 2002) and some of the opposition leaders now tried to co-opt their protest to direct it at the regime as such.
This failed, though, as the government defused the situation with dialogue. Neither did the vendors’ complaint receive broader support. To most people, driving a van across a border to fill it with cheap goods and return to sell them in a street market probably seemed a remnant of a dysfunctional past, and Lukashenko’s decree made sense.
A more serious challenge materialized one year later, in early 2017, as another presidential decree would extract a ”parasite” tax from almost half a million people engaged in the informal economy. The opposition-minded Radio-Electronic Trade Union helped foment nationwide protests. And using these as cover, the authorities said, something called The White Legion was preparing for violent action. Some twenty suspects were thrown into the KGB’s detention center and the demonstrations were suppressed by riot police.
The White Legion case topped Belarus’ human rights agenda that year. The detained were allegedly tortured and the unknown charges against them fabricated. The group was said to not even have existed for over a decade, having previously helped out as security guards at the opposition’s protest marches. Soon enough they were also released and eventually the unknown charges were dropped, which seemed to confirm their trumped-up nature.
However, when human rights advocates eventually reported having launched a complaint at the United Nations over their wrongful detention, torture was strangely omitted. Recently it also came to my attention that the “legion” has been active in the Donbass throughout the eight-year conflict there, calling into question its claim of not having existed in 2017.
Had they been released because they were innocent or because of pressure from the EU?
As for the Radio-Electronic Trade Union, two of its leaders were sentenced to house arrest for tax evasion. They had clandestinely received funding from Western trade unions. Whether that was right or wrong one can have different opinions on, and at one time I would have been all for it. But even then I would not have argued that it was legal.
Other prominent human rights cases were similarly diffuse. Two leaders of an organization working for prisoners’ rights had been jailed after what seemed like provocative sting operations. One had attempted to spy on prison authorities, the other had gotten into drunken incidents, and both were continually punished for breaking prison rules.
It seemed plausible that they were unfairly treated, but then as a result of their conflict with prison authorities rather than for political reasons. The authorities eventually backed off from prolonging the sentence of one of them, probably out of concern for the EU relationship. He was also given some economic compensation.
The justice system was criticized for its treatment of drug offenders. Following drastic statements from Lukashenko about making life intolerable for those, human rights advocates reported that first-time offenders were given unjustifiably draconian sentences and that drug offenders mysteriously died in prison. A mothers’ committee went on hunger strike. They were granted a meeting with the head of the presidential administration.
As the human rights defenders then reported from a pro-legalization meeting I started to wonder how balanced their critique had been. Readers may have differing views on legalizing drugs but neither I nor Belarusian public opinion, dare I say, is for it. Admittedly, reporting from the manifestation aimed at protecting the participants’ freedom of assembly. But to me the unexpected connection still threw a shadow over the issue.
Anarchists figured prominently in human rights reporting these years, especially a young man called Dmitry Polienko. His unruly behavior and apparently excessive drinking somewhat undermined the recurring claims of innocence. Two other young anarchists who did indeed receive harsh sentences, seven years of prison, had tried to set the gate of Minsk’s detention center on fire and thrown paint on a court building. It seemed to me that they could easily have avoided doing this.
On the outskirts of Minsk, a small but persistent protest was taking place in the Kuropaty forest which harbors a Stalin-era mass grave and a memorial. This place has always been a symbol for the opposition, at least for its nationalist part. Now, somewhat insensitively the authorities had allowed a restaurant to be built next to the memorial. The protesters stood by its entrance, sometimes blocking visitors’ cars.
Eventually a team of masked law enforcers were alleged to have “assaulted” the picketers, probably on orders from the sinister interior minister Igor Shunevich—who himself liked to dress in Stalin-era NKVD uniform at historical festivities. Lukashenko later replaced Shunevich in an effort to soften the image of the police.
Finally, large environmental protests in the cities of Brest and Svetlogorsk—against a battery factory and a Chinese-built paper mill—offered some hope for popular mobilization, but they stayed local and largely apolitical.
Such was the state of protest and repression. The Western-sponsored human rights movement made what it could of these meager cases to portray Lukashenko‘s rule as oppressive. And they especially insisted on widening the legal framework for street protests.
The presidential election of 2020 promised to be a repeat of the non-event in 2015 when, unlike in 2010, 2006 and 2001, there had been virtually no street protests. At the beginning of the year the opposition launched primaries, a concept I think was introduced by American sponsors in the early 2000s. However, internal divisions and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic soon ended a series of meetings around the country. And after only twelve hundred out of seven million eligible voters took part in online voting, the primaries were aborted.
The opposition would have done equally bad without the pandemic. As for Lukashenko, he stuck his neck out in resisting the global wave of lockdowns, calling them a collective psychosis and stressing the need to keep the economy going. The West and Lukashenko’s domestic critics, in turn, deliberately misunderstood some of his more jocular comments and branded him mad and reckless.
In practice, Belarus introduced pretty much the same social distancing measures that Sweden did, and was greatly helped by having preserved its Soviet-era health care system. The death toll still seemed far greater than ours, probably due to overall worse public health. And the societal anxiety added by the pandemic surely played some part in what was to come.
I failed to appraise early signs of this drama. Looking back, it was at the beginning of May that I noted a video blogger called Sergei Tikhanovsky. The leading Belarusian human rights organization, Spring 96, happily reported his crew stirring up a crowd to block the police from intervening against them in the city of Mogilev. In a video recording from the event one of them could also be overheard bragging, as it seemed, about having connections in Moscow.
I learnt that Tikhanovsky had a popular Youtube channel called Strana dlya zhizni (trans. A Country to Live In). Its concept was to tour the country, find discontent people and blame Lukashenko for their problems. Tikhanovsky openly referred to Lukashenko as a cockroach that could easily be killed with a slipper, the symbol of his campaign. He also promised “to string up the pigs” during the up-coming election in which he intended to run for president himself.
Tikhanovsky had previously been producing video commercials for the Russian market. The rumor among his fellow political vloggers—as reported by the oppositional Nasha Niva newspaper—was that he had gotten into some sort of trouble and was now used as a pawn by Russian interests.
Other unexpected challengers were Viktor Babariko, long-time director of Belgazprombank, a Belarusian banking arm of the Russian state gas export monopoly Gazprom; and former Lukashenko-affiliated civil servant Valery Tsepkalo, known for having paved the way for Belarus’ successful IT sector. Babariko was the most viable candidate. He had large numbers of volunteers who collected record amounts of signatures in support of his candidacy.
The Russian trace was not surprising, because relations between the two countries had deteriorated during Lukashenko’s rapprochement with the West. Given his degree of control, though, they all seemed to be on a kamikaze mission. And they were soon out of the way. After yet another confrontation between his followers and the police, Tikhanovsky ended up in jail. Babariko was also jailed on credible charges of bribe-taking and money laundering. Tsepkalo was denied registration as a candidate and fled the country.
They had served a purpose, though. Those jailed were declared political prisoners by the Western-sponsored human rights advocates. And as I had predicted the EU started distancing itself from Belarus, apparently unable to comprehend what was going on.
There was also one seemingly minor complication. Before being taken off the stage, Tikhanovsky had performed a strange little switcheroo with his wife—or perhaps rather she with him—launching her as the presidential candidate instead of him. But this seemed merely odd to me and I went on summer holiday not expecting much to happen up till the election in August.
This expectation was wide off the mark. Returning from my vacation I was surprised to find that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, having teamed up with Babariko’s campaign manager Maria Kolesnikova and Tsepkalo’s wife Veronika, attracted huge crowds to her pre-election meetings. And oddly enough, the authorities seemed shaken and barred her from holding a final meeting in Minsk. From secret video surveillance that was to be made public it was clear to them that her staff planned forced takeovers of administration buildings in case of her being denied victory.
In a perspiratory speech by Lukashenko—he had been sick in COVID-19—the autocrat defended his 26-year rule, saying that with him people knew what they had and pleaded with them not to plunge the country into chaos. The speech made a surprisingly strong impression on me. In many regards the long-time leader seemed to have done a good job: relative economic equality, good public healthcare and education, viable agriculture and technological development, preserved industry, an entrepreneurial sector that had emerged by itself and not through shady privatization. And, last but not least, Belarus was still a sovereign country. Of course I had not been wholly unaware of all this before. But as the situation was being brought to a head, it became more difficult to ignore.
A graph showing real income development over the past decades—published by one of the main independent media outlets—indicated constant growth interrupted by setbacks sprung out of Russian economic crises, which were not of Lukashenko’s fault. However, as a result of these setbacks, incomes were now the same as ten years before.
This hardly seemed catastrophic, but there was something of a revolution of unfulfilled expectations in the air. Old oppositional friends of mine also acknowledged Lukashenko’s merits and expressed concern over the situation.
What if Tikhanovskaya was somehow going to become president? She said she had no interest in power, but saw her role as paving the way for fair elections in which someone else would be elected. In the absence of popular support for the traditional opposition, I wondered, who would this be? The hustling banker Viktor Babariko? The field would be open for corrupt interests to rip the country apart. This was not something I wished for the Belarusians.
Riots and demonstrations
Allegations of fraud, some of them backed up with video or audio recordings, marked the election itself. In Minsk, crowds gathered around polling stations as they closed—a new phenomenon. Frightened election workers called for police or snuck away through windows. Larger groups gathered in the city center, as in other cities across the country.
The bursts of stun grenades followed.
After police had broken up the crowds in the center of Minsk, a nightly cat-and-mouse game between smaller groups and police followed in the suburbs. An old friend of mine told me of yelling at the police through his apartment window and then hearing the thumps of rubber bullets hitting the wall next to him. Over three days, seven thousand people were thrown into detention centers. Dozens were rumored to have been killed.
The chaos came to an end and the detainees were released, many of them with thighs and buttocks beaten black and blue by riot police who had been sent as reinforcements to keep order in the overcrowded detention centers. There were also allegations of sexual violence.
As the fog dissipated, it was clear that the rioting had presented a serious challenge to the authorities. More than thirty policemen were hospitalized, some after being hit by cars. Video recordings and testimonies of protesters themselves showed a large presence of criminal thugs in the chaos. As for the claims of mass killings, in reality two people had died from police violence. One of them was a drunken rioter in Minsk with a previous conviction for manslaughter, unfortunate enough to have his body penetrated by theoretically non-lethal rubber bullets.
The other was a biker in Brest who together with his friend had assaulted two plain-clothes officers with metal pipes. In the scuffle, one of the officers aimed his handgun at the man’s shoulder but accidentally shot him in the head. Other deaths were also reported during these first chaotic days after the election, but nothing indicated police culpability. A young man died from heart failure while in custody. Someone was found hung in a park.
Opposition-minded media, however, spun all this according to their own agenda. Thanks to the relative freedom of the latest years—and of course the Internet—their reach was comparable to that of state media. Their reports of pervasive police brutality sparked more anger than the election fraud itself had. For the rest of that autumn weekly protests would gather enormous crowds in central Minsk, although not in the rest of the country.
These protest marches were mainly met with passivity from the police and generally also rather orderly themselves. Sometimes they looked more like street parties than protests. The supportive tut.by news outlet gave a top participation figure of a bit over two hundred thousand. According to Lukashenko, the protesters were never more than fifty thousand at a time.
Noteworthy is the fact that the protests adopted symbols of the nationalist opposition, such as the white-red-white flag and the hymn Mahutny Bozha, Almighty God, written by a Nazi collaborator during World War II and suggested as an alternative national anthem in 1995.
Workers wouldn’t strike
At this point, though, I was no longer very worried that the revolution we had been fomenting would succeed. For a few weeks immediately after the election Lukashenko’s position had indeed seemed precarious, but he had stood his ground. The heavy-handed police tactics had upset not only the liberal urban middle class, but also many workers at the state-owned factories.
Lukashenko went to the MZKT—a factory making heavy transport vehicles—and faced an angry crowd chanting at him to resign. He argued back at them. Attempts were made to initiate political strikes at these state-owned factories. They failed, as the anger wore off and probably also because the workers decided that they would not benefit from a regime change followed by privatizations and massive layoffs.
A second attempt to initiate a political strike was made later in the autumn by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, now from Lithuanian exile, but the workers were unresponsive. This was blamed on fear, but not convincingly so.
The workers had been offered to register anonymously beforehand on a secure website—to persuade themselves of having a critical mass justifying the risk—but at best a few percent of them had done so. Personally I was also somewhat dismayed by the notion that the state factory workers should sacrifice their livelihoods to satisfy the whims of middle class protesters, largely employed in the private sector.
On the opposite side, for the first time since his initial election campaign in 1994 Lukashenko took to holding street rallies. Participant numbers were probably lower than at the protest rallies, but not by far, and those present looked genuinely happy to be there. Government media also got better. Frustrated with the dishonest and one-sided coverage in the so-called independent media, I found myself preferring the state ONT channel whose depiction of events seemed closer to the truth.
The revolution was clearly failing. In November, the death of a young man called Roman Bondarenko following a brawl with Lukashenko supporters sparked some final confrontations. But then the protests died out.
To some extent they had been suppressed; at various points in time over forty thousand people had been temporarily detained and many of them had been fined or sentenced to short-term confinement. But mainly interest simply faded.
Domestically, the abortive revolution was left with a few anarchist and other fringe groups who armed themselves in the hope of affecting change by violent means. Fortunately, the KGB was very effective in rounding these up and also in exposing their plots on TV. The same happened to a more established group of plotters attempting to solicit high-ranking officers for a coup.
Exactly how fraudulent had the August election been? This question is difficult to answer, but here are a few relevant points.
First, Lukashenko later admitted that some of his votes could have been fabricated. He blamed this on regional governors eager to produce good results. This corresponds to conventional wisdom that Belarusian election fraud is carried out locally—before figures are sent to Minsk—and thus not directly involve central authorities. At one point Lukashenko speculated that he could have gotten as little as 68 percent instead of the officially proclaimed 81.04 percent. At other times, he said maybe one or two percent had been added to his result.
Second, the protocols of some polling stations in Minsk gave victory to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya—sometimes even a resounding victory. But what about the country at large?
Some of the new opposition’s initiatives claimed to have collected the official results of a third of all polling stations. These gave Lukashenko 61.7 percent and Tikhanovskaya 25.1 (her official result was 10.23 percent). On one hand, some of those figures would have been distorted to Lukashenko’s advantage. But on the other hand, they were mainly collected in Minsk and other opposition-minded places which skews them to Tikhanovskaya’s advantage.
The Russian liberal newspaper Vedomosti tried to sift out reliable protocols and compensate for the geographical imbalances, arriving at 50.8 percent for Lukashenko and 38.3 for Tikhanovskaya. The former semi-oppositional guru of Belarusian opinion polling Oleg Manaev—whose reporting I had been following during the 00s, but who now lived in the United States—thought Vedomosti’s results plausible but stressed the impossibility of reconstructing a reliable election result.
The picture is further complicated by claims that this time fraud took place not only locally but also higher up the ladder. Personally, given the persistence of the demonstrations in Minsk during the autumn of 2020 I think Tikhanovskaya may have received a majority of votes there. But not in the rest of the country, where protests quickly died out. She was never the legitimate leader of Belarus.
Ryanair and “migrant attack”
For the West, however, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s moral and political victory was total. Directly after the election the authorities had driven her to the Lithuanian border, and in tearful agony she established herself as national leader in exile. Lukashenko said she had agreed to depart voluntarily after being told of a bloody provocation being planned within her own ranks. Tikhanovskaya declined to tell her version of the episode.
In the Lithuanian capital Vilnius she was awaited by her children, already there in custody of some veteran figures of the old opposition. More of those joined her. If her husband had presumably been a Russian pawn she was now firmly attached to the West. Her prime adviser Franak Vyachorka was a non-resident fellow of the Atlantic Council and the son of Vintsuk Vyachorka, one-time leader of the nationalist Belarusian Popular Front.
Left active in Belarus were the human rights advocates of Spring 96, whose leaders were jailed for their support of the attempted revolution, along with hundreds of other activists and ordinary people who had been caught up in the fervor.
Tikhanovskaya proceeded to meet with Western leaders—including a brief informal encounter with Joe Biden, infamously feeding her White House crackers—whom she asked for support and for ever more sanctions against her own country.
The last visible sign of any domestic influence was an internet petition calling for negotiations between her and Lukashenko in early 2021—allegedly signed anonymously by eight hundred thousand people. After that, all her initiatives and calls would be met with little or no response.
As her popular support vanished, the West ramped up its sanctions. More and more regime representatives—including loyal journalists whose only crime was ”propaganda”—were targeted with travel bans and freezes of their non-existent Western assets. This was motivated by Lukashenko’s refusal to step down and by Spring 96’s ever-growing list of so-called political prisoners, many of whom had fought with the police and probably none of whom could be considered totally innocent of breaking the law.
After the Ryanair incident in May 2021, the sanctions got more serious. Belarus’ national air carrier Belavia was barred from EU airspace and the union encouraged European aviation companies to circumvent Belarusian airspace, robbing the country of fees and its citizens of travel opportunities. Further sanctions would be directed against the important petroleum and fertilizer industries, ostensibly to deprive ”the regime” of its resources but in reality affecting the Belarusian people.
What was the Ryanair incident about?
A passenger plane heading from Athens to Vilnius through Belarusian airspace was invited to make an emergency landing because of a bomb threat that turned out to be false. Onboard was Roman Protasevich, a young journalist-activist and former editor of the Nexta channel that had played a pivotal role in inciting and coordinating the riots and protests.
With him was his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, administrator of the Black Book of Belarus, collecting and publishing personal data of Lukashenko loyalists and their families so that they would be harassed. Upon detection, both were arrested.
Western governments condemned ”Lukashenko’s hijacking” of the Ryanair carrier. Russian ex-oligarch in British exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky mysteriously produced the false bomb threat e-mail—which was time-stamped only after Belarusian air control had warned the pilots of the threat, seemingly proving Minsk’s culpability.
Belarus said there had been two e-mails, one before and one after it contacted the carrier. Protasevich himself accused his former comrades of sacrificing him and started spilling the beans on them on national television.
An official investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, would drag on until early 2022 and was inconclusive. Lithuania had provided the rapporteurs with information indicating there had only been one e-mail, obtained from the Proton Mail service by way of Swiss authorities. But ICAO apparently didn’t credit this information enough to draw the obvious conclusion from it.
Half a year later ICAO issued an updated version of its report, now pointing a finger at Belarus. This after American and Polish authorities had provided the investigators with the air traffic controller who had been involved in the incident. The man, who was of Georgian origin, had defected after the incident. He had also made secret audio recordings while it was taking place, although curiously enough the recordings did not indicate any wrong-doing by Belarus.
All in all, these circumstances suggest the West rather than Belarus plotted the Ryanair incident.
The hasty and harsh EU reaction to that event triggered an unexpected response from Lukashenko. He stopped keeping Third World migrants from crossing the union border. During summer and autumn of 2021 there was a growing stream of primarily Iraqi Kurds, first to Lithuania and then to Poland. Both countries pushed back hard against the migrants. Belarusian border guards found several who had died after beatings.
In the West, Belarus was also accused of violence against the migrants. The few such cases that I have seen mentioned all concern Syrian refugees, and the circumstances are unclear to me. On the whole, Belarus treated the migrants humanely.
In late autumn Lukashenko visited a big warehouse near the border where a thousand of them had been given shelter, and he was met with nothing but respect and gratefulness. Belarus was also accused of having organized the migrant traffic, something I rather doubt as the migrants would have come anyway. Poland, furthermore, asserted that Lukashenko’s ”migrant attack” had been ordered by Putin. There are no facts to back this up and as made clear above Lukashenko had obvious motives of his own.
Lukashenko himself blamed the EU for having failed its commitments in the repatriation agreement mentioned earlier in this article. The EU had withdrawn its funding for repatriation centers where migrants were supposed to be processed, he said.
As winter set in, the migrant crisis became less acute. Many of them were flown home to Iraq. At this time, also, the looming war in Ukraine overshadowed everything else.
Not a popular revolution
In Minsk, Russia’s original role in stoking the 2020 turmoil was blamed on “one of the towers of the Kremlin” and played down. Putin now firmly stood by Lukashenko and integration agreements were finally signed, apparently not robbing Belarus of its sovereignty. As for Western influence, the Belarusian civil society organizations we had been funding for decades were all shut down.
Of course, foreign meddling had not been the only factor behind those events. Genuine discontent, above all in Minsk’s liberal urban middle class and also among nationalists, played its part. So did habitually fraudulent elections. But that does not make those events a popular revolution.
The veteran opposition politician Nikolai Statkevich—who had teamed up and was jailed along with Sergei Tikhanovsky—had openly said that if three and a half percent of the population took to the streets, Lukashenko would fall. Supportive reporting by the tut.by outlet indicated that the protesters were perhaps that many, or rather that few.
As for the silent majority, Western-sponsored internet polls suggest continued strong opposition to Lukashenko but suffer from obvious methodological problems. Even those polls, however, show no or little support for Western sanctions or for the white-red-white nationalist flag used by Tikhanovskaya and the opposition.
They also indicate that the war in Ukraine has increased support for Lukashenko. And as the world approaches the brink of nuclear war, it seems to me that we in the West also need to reassess which goals are worthy of pursuing. Attempts at regime change of the sort that took place in Belarus should probably not be among them. Regardless of real or imagined democratic shortcomings.
- Note on names: They can be transcribed differently using Belarusian or Russian name forms. Unlike Ukraine (and wisely enough) Belarus has two official languages.
- On U.S. support for the uprising against Lukashenko, see Jeremy Kuzmarov, “Underreported New Cold War Battleground in Belarus May Spark Dangerous Conflagration Between U.S. and Russia,” CovertAction Magazine, August 20, 2020, https://covertactionmagazine.com/2020/08/20/underreported-new-cold-war-battleground-in-belarus-may-spark-dangerous-conflagration-between-u-s-and-russia/
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About the Author
Tobias Ljungvall has worked with democracy promotion in Belarus and Russia, as an editorial writer and at the Swedish Security Police.
He has authored (in Swedish) the books Russian November and Control: New Report from Belarus.
Tobias can be reached at email@example.com.
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Hi Tobias, thank you very much for this in-depth article about Belarus. I have most of my family in Sweden and you are the first Swedish person I have ever heard of who has gone to Belarus. in fact, when I told my mother on arriving back in the United States About many of the wonderful things about Belarus she was very dismissal of that information. When I mentioned that there were no homeless people there, she said well, yes, they shoot them all. That just shows the extent of the medias propaganda defamation of that country and of Russia too. I know that my family there in Sweden watches way too much CNN and even believe anything that the government TV channel tells them. They even believe that Russia was the party that sabotaged the nord stream one and two pipelines which they had just finished with an enormous multi billion dollar investment. The people in the United States are even more heavily propagandized than those Swedes. I gave up on all of them a long time ago, and moved down here to Mexico, where I am far south from the border. Mexico is one of the majority of the world’s countries that has never put sanctions on Belarus or Russia. Our president here in Mexico, AMLO, has refused to send ammunition for the tanks to be supplied by Germany and other western US vassals. Hi to all of you from sunny Mexico.
Thank you so much.
Shooting homeless people would certainly not be something I’d expect Belarusian authorities to do, but they may be obliged to do some menial labour which is probably not a bad thing. Swedes are also told to believe Russia blew up their own pipelines. There is very little room for discussing these things and unfortunately we are also sending arms to the Ukraine war.
I envy your recent visit to Belarus. My own trips there were a very long time ago before I got banned from entering the country. As you may have gathered from the article, I caused that myself.
Yes. It is a real shame that you can’t go back to visit to Belarus, one of the most beautiful things about the place is the extreme cleanliness in the mornings. There are groups of people cleaning all of the streets and the parks and the roadways I think I mentioned there are no homeless people that I saw in the whole time I was there with my wife we went to the Bolshoi ballet twice during that time and inside to incredible performances in that glorious building said in an enormous park. For us coming from North America, the train system was a real treat. We took the first class trains to various other cities in the country. Also, it was October 2020 and Belarus was the only country apart from Sweden. That had not locked down its population because of Covid. President Lukaschenko stated that what was needed to confront the pandemic was plenty of exercise in the fresh air and masks were not ever required in the country. I enjoyed my visit so much that I went back for another week in November 2020 and I was able to Visit the factory of Belaz where they make the giant mining trucks. The biggest in the world. you can pay a minimal amount to get a half day tour of the whole plant and see the manufacturing process. It’s a lot harder to go over there now because if you get on Travelocity, Orbitz, Expedia, or Priceline, and look for packages to Russia, or to Belarus no results come up. Those two countries have been erased from that part of the Internet. from here while we are in Mexico, you can still book packages at very good prices on pricetravel.com.mx I think that this erasure of two prominent countries from all of the western travel sites is totally unexpected and has never happened before
It’s been a long time since I tried to apply for a visa, and perhaps I could go there again now. Of course I would like to do an extensive reporting trip, preferrably to write something in Swedish, but that’s tricky now. Good suggestion to do a factory tour. I remember the building that you mention and I too travelled quite a bit around the country by railway and by other means back in the day. Mostly I spoke with opposition-minded people, but also with “regime” representatives. And I actually visited the small rural place where Lukashenko grew up and spoke to his aunt, his mother-in-law and other people there.
Well, in this article I described the prominent human rights cases during 2014-20. As for all those cases that followed the attempted revolution, I had to be brief. But I would encourage anyone to ponder the merits of any individual case themselves.
(Sorry, this was meant to answer Charles’s second comment but seems to have ended up in the wrong place.)
Why are Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reporting extreme human rights violations in Belarus?
I am not aware of them doing any fact-collection of their own in Belarus. Whatever they may have reported is probably based on work done by domestic human rights activists, primarily the Spring 96 organization that I mention in the article.
I am not an expert so I can only tell you what the two organizations say about their research:
How does Amnesty International get its information?
Our reports are recognized as among the most accurate, unbiased and credible human rights reports in the world. Our investigative work is carried out by teams of professional human rights researchers, based at our head office, the International Secretariat in London (UK), and at regional offices around the world.
Investigate. Human Rights Watch is committed to systematically researching and analysing human rights conditions worldwide in order to uncover abuses. Researchers interview leaders, victims and witnesses so that they can form an accurate picture of what happened. They also review media and academic reports, domestic and international law and policy papers to gain a further understanding of the situation.
Expose. Human Rights Watch researchers publish their findings in the form of reports and articles. These are then made accessible to the public as well as local authorities in order to raise awareness of the abuses. The publications are available in multiple languages and formats and are often referenced in news articles worldwide.
Change. Following the identification and publication of human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy division work closely with local authorities and organisations in order to demand accountability and put an end to the abuses that they have discovered. The ultimate goal of Human Rights Watch is to ensure that human rights are upheld worldwide and to promote justice and change.