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Political spring in Belarus

Photo: Private

The ongoing demonstrations in Belarus are an explosive result of the repression in a country that has long been a political pressure cooker. The development now affects both ordinary citizens and demonstrators.

In the country that has long been known as “Europe’s last dictatorship”, the independent politician Alexander Lukashenko has been president since 1994. Those living in the country claim that he has cheated in many or all of the elections he has participated in.

When he claimed on August 9 to have received 80% of the vote in the election, demonstrations broke out in the capital Minsk. Protesters are demanding that opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya become the new president.

Ordinary people are treated as offenders

One of those affected by the ongoing demonstrations in Belarus is Anna Shamko. She is originally from Ukraine, but now lives with her husband and two children on a farm just outside the capital Minsk. She works as a translator, and had to spend two nights in prison as a result of her work in connection with the election.

Anna Shamko Photo: Private

– A few days before the election, I translated an interview for a Polish journalist. I have two children, and I’m not a very brave person, so we agreed that I shouldn’t translate at demonstrations or protests to reduce the chance of being arrested.

It didn’t help much when she was arrested by the police the day before the election in connection with an interview with an independent election observer. The police protocol claims that Shamko harassed the commission members in a public place, shouted, violated public order and showed obvious disrespect for society.

– I was also supposed to have ignored the police’s demands and refused to obey orders. All this is a lie, but after 3 days in custody I was found guilty and fined.

The witnesses in the trial were members of the commission and the police who detained her. In prison, too, Shamko experienced cases of corruption and restrictions on her rights.

– When we asked to use the toilets, the guards shouted at us – “let’s get in your pants!” They said that the freaks who brought duvets and toothbrushes wouldn’t be allowed to see their belongings before the trial. But personal belongings were never given back over there.

– A girl who needed medication was told: “If you die, we will call an ambulance.” We weren’t allowed to sleep. The cell stank horribly. While we were being transferred from one isolation ward to another, I was stripped naked three times in front of video cameras. and forced me to sit down several times.

The experience was also a nightmare for outsiders.

– None of my friends and relatives knew where I was. I saw my husband after the trial, Shamko explains.

In the wrong direction

When she was finally brought to court along with the other detainees, she thought the nightmare was over, but the threats and humiliation did not stop there.

– The social services have now started coming to my home to check if we can handle parental responsibility, she says.

The meeting with the judiciary confirmed Shamko’s view that Lukashenko is heading the country in the wrong direction. Like more and more Belarusians, she believes that the future of Belarus should be in the hands of another president.

– The future of Belarus shouldn’t belong to a mad dictator or his armed guards. These days I see a united nation. There are so many wonderful people who are willing to help each other and work for a common cause. All our hope lies in ourselves, says Shamko.

She is in no doubt about what has happened in Belarus: Democracy is under greater pressure than ever before.

– What has happened here is an obvious falsification of the election. The police act arbitrarily and people have no hope of an honest trial. They have no respect for people.

Election fraud has been going on for a long time

One of those who has seen the election fraud with her own eyes is Julia Simafieva. She is a poet, translator and one of the founders of the Belarusian literary magazine PrajdziSvet. She has long opposed the Belarusian government.

Julia Simafieva Photo: Private

– I participated in my first demonstration in 2000, when I was 18 and I had just moved to Minsk to study. In 2001, it was the second presidential election, in which Lukashenko won again. I saw the election fraud with my own eyes, since the polling station was in my dormitory, only two rooms away from the room I stayed in. But it was difficult to tell others what was going on. She also could not go to independent journalists, as these were censored or arrested.

– Unfortunately, at that time there were no mobile phones in the rooms, and therefore I could only tell my friends about how a policeman and the head of the election commission exchanged ballot papers at night. All elections (with the possible exception of the very first in 1994) have been the subject of electoral fraud. Even during the election in 2015, which historically had the lowest publicity, the turnout was, according to official figures, as high as 87%.

Simafieva describes a country with a dead political life.

– It seems that the reason is that not a single opposition politician has been able to appeal to the “broad masses”. Over the years, we have learned to avoid influence from the state where possible. We have fenced ourselves from within, because you can not live for decades just by fighting, it gets tired, it takes away precious time and energy. Too often we’ve been convinced that change is impossible, that the political battle is lost.

Believes in new leadership

Researcher at NUPI, Julie Wilhelmsen, believes we are now witnessing a moment where this illusion is finally broken. She believes that there will be a change of leadership in Belarus, but that the big question is how it will happen.

Julia Simafieva’s photo from the demonstrations Photo: Private

– Right now there is a kind of standstill where Lukashenko probably understands that he is not allowed to keep power, but doesn’t want to give it up. At the same time, the protesters and the opposition aren’t allowed to escape yet.

The researcher’s prediction is supported by Simafieva. She doesn’t see how a more diverse political environment could be made possible, either. Lukashenko’s challengers, Sergei Tikhanovsky and Viktor Babariko, gave people hope for change in the country, but when they were imprisoned and not registered as candidates, we all felt confused and disappointed. The fact that they’ve been in prison on false charges for several months has also played a huge role in Belarus’s awakening. The great involvement locally could potentially have consequences for the entire post-Soviet bloc.

Wilhelmsen believes that the situation in Belarus is having ripple effects in the region, among other things because the Kremlin fears demonstrations internally in Russia.

– Therefore, they will probably tighten the grip on the opposition in Russia.

For Simafieva, the attention now being paid to Belarus offers hope for reform in the direction of democracy and the separation of powers, but also international recognition of the country’s long history and vice versa.

– We are people like you, we read the same books, we also write poetry and prose, we are peace-loving and law-abiding, but we were and are afraid, maybe more than you, because many of us know what it means to be abducted from the street for no reason and to be sentenced by a court to 15 days in prison, to be tortured for fun by representatives of police authorities, to fear for our loved ones and spend endless nights behind prison walls, to hear desperate cries from those who are tortured. Imagine if it was your adult child shouting “Mom!”. But this fear and dread, which deprived us of sleep, still failed to break us down, but made us stronger and bolder and only strengthened our desire to live in a state that we can trust a little more, she concludes.