News August 28, 2020

'In Being Together, We Had the Power' - A Belarusian Activist Describes Life on the Front Lines of Minsk Protests

On the World Class Podcast, Belarusian scholar and activist Aleś Łahviniec explains why people are protesting, and what it feels like to be out on the streets in Minsk.
Protesters in Minsk, Belarus on 8/16/20
Protesters gather in Minsk, Belarus on August 16, 2020. Photo: Getty Images

Described by some as “Europe’s last dictator,” Alexander Lukashenko has headed an authoritarian regime in Belarus for the last 26 years. Following his recent victory in Belarus’ presidential election, which is widely considered to have been rigged, citizens have taken to the streets to protest. 

This isn’t the first time an election in Belarus is believed to have been unfair, Belarusian scholar and activist Aleś Łahviniec told host Michael McFaul on the World Class Podcast. Then a combination of factors including the regime’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and frustration over Lukashenko’s long-standing close ties with Russia created a perfect storm within the country, with some protests in Minsk attracting more than 200,000 people, explained Łahviniec.

What Happened During the Election
Leading up to the vote in early August, Belarusians in the opposition united behind candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of an imprisoned blogger who pledged to improve Belarus’ electoral integrity and end political repression in the country if elected.

After voting ended on August 9, the regime claimed that Lukashenko won the election with about 80 percent of the vote. However, results provided by electoral commissions across the country painted a very different picture: some polling stations reported that Tsikhanouskaya had received between 70 and 80 percent of the vote.

“It was an outstanding proof of the scale of the rigging carried out by the regime,” said Łahviniec, who was a Draper Hills fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. ”Everybody knew that they had to protest.”

It was so inspiring and we felt that in being together, we had the power. There was also the feeling that we are not a minority — we are the majority.
Aleś Łahviniec
Belarusian scholar and activist

How the Protests Became so Massive 
In the days following the election, there was a rumor that if 100,000 people came out to protest in Minsk, Lukashenko would step down. That ultimately didn’t end up happening, Łahviniec noted, but the rumor convinced some people to show up — and continue to show up — who may not have otherwise. 

“People began to understand that there is power in peaceful protest,” he said.

There were also major internet problems in Belarus after the election — communication was very limited within the country, but Belarusians found a way around it by sharing information through a messaging app called Telegram. Some people used Telegram to share information about where and when protests were taking place; others posted independent films and other media about the regime that would never have been allowed on Belarus’ state-controlled TV and radio stations, Łahviniec pointed out.

Łahviniec added that one channel on Telegram called “NEXTA Live” grew from about 100,000 subscribers to more than 2 million. The regime sees these communication channels as a threat, he said, and will do anything in its power to shut them down.

“Right now, there are about 20 bloggers or administrators of Telegram channels who are in prison — they’re being criminally prosecuted,” Łahviniec said. “Which shows that the regime understands the power of these bloggers and Telegram channels. It’s why they cut the internet.”

What it’s Like at the Protests
Protests have taken place nearly every day since August 9 in Belarus. Many, but not all, have been peaceful  — at least two people have died, and there have been reports of other unconfirmed casualties. On August 21, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that more than 100 people were still detained, and that eight people with connections to the protests have gone missing.

However, Łahviniec described a protest he attended with his family in Minsk on August 23 as peaceful and positive. There was a small police presence, people handed out water and snacks, and everyone was generally upbeat. An estimated 250,000 people attended the “March of New Belarus,” which is likely the largest demonstration in Belarus’ history.

“I had tears in my eyes,” Łahviniec said. “It was so inspiring and we felt that in being together, we had the power. There was also the feeling that we are not a minority — we are the majority — in facing an unfortunately hostile, aggressive, and armed minority which protects the dictator.”

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