The angry silence in Belarus

By bne IntelliNews March 22, 2011

Vic Vapennik in Minsk -

Since the violence and repression that followed the rigged December 19 elections, the Belarusian people have adopted a number of strategies to cope with the new, fearful climate.

The most popular is silent protest; people simply won't talk about politics at the moment. Silence comes naturally to a people living in a country where the memory of the Soviet system is still fresh in the mind. But whereas "silence was prudent" in the old days, currently it has become a force of passive protest.

Ales Pushkin, an artist known for his political performances, was arrested on false charges shortly before the elections - pre-emptive arrests were a distinguishing feature of these elections - and spent 13 days protesting against his unjust incarceration with a hunger strike and a vow of silence. After the elections, he developed the idea into "the action of silence". Of thirty protesters who stood in silence in the centre of Minsk, five were arrested after only 15 minutes, while the police dispersed the others.

When they do speak, most people express resentment. At a shoe repair kiosk in Minsk, the customers were chatting till one of them says something about "decency." It provoked a passionate outburst from another: "And does [President Alexander] Lukashenko have any decency? Just tell me: is he a decent man?"

Well-known Belarusian psychologist Volha Andrejeva says that while some still don't care what happened, for many others the situation has moved them off the fence. "They have abandoned the position of indifference, they can no longer remain indifferent," says Andrejeva.

Dwindling support

Even so, a large chunk of the population are still grateful to Lukashenko - or at least remain dependent on him. According to the National Statistical Committee, 23.2% of Belarus' population are pensioners, and more than half of the working-age population are employed at government-owned enterprises and organisations.

The only possible justification for Lukashenko's economic and political model (and it's a valid one for many) is that by perpetuating most of the old system, Belarus managed to avoid the economic collapse and chaos that followed the demise of the Soviet Union. The lot of pensioners in Belarus really is a lot better than elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Independent States as workers still enjoy the cradle-to-grave care that the Soviet system offered.

Still, even amongst Lukashenko's hardcore support, dissent is growing. One pensioner, Valantsina, tells bne that attitudes amongst her friends are changing. When nobody in her native town agreed to accompany her on a trip to Minsk for election day, she stood by the highway alone with a sign that simply said "Ploshcha" ("The Square") and soon got a lift. She marched in the rally and witnessed the indiscriminate and brutal police crackdown on the protesters. "Now there isn't much of a split in the society," she claims. "Today, the Lukashenko supporters are very few and they keep very quiet. Compared with the past, it's a completely different situation."

Valantsina was shocked by the official reports of the fighting in Minsk that blamed the violence on the up to 30,000 people who took to the streets to protest peacefully, rather than the dozen masked men - agent provocateurs, accuse many - who started breaking windows in the main government building. But the bulk of the country has few alternatives to state-controlled media. This time, though, the state's effort to cover up the riots completely failed by the army of bloggers (many of whom live abroad) being read by an increasing number of citizens with access to the internet. According to Gemius Audience research, the number of internet users in Belarus at the end of 2010 was slightly more than 3.4m, or about one-third of the population.

Go west!

Perhaps the most dramatic form of protest has been to simply leave the country.

In the increasingly repressive atmosphere since the elections, Human Rights Watch said in a report on March 14 that police arrested hundreds of people and administrative courts have sentenced at least 725 people to between 10 and 15 days "administrative detention" for participating in an unsanctioned gathering. The authorities are also investigating more than 46 individuals on riot charges, including seven presidential candidates, political opposition leaders, activists and campaign workers; four have been convicted and sentenced to up to four years imprisonment, two were fined. At least 30 people - including two former presidential candidates - were still in detention at the end of February.

The upshot is there has been a major wave of emigration. Opposition activists fleeing to Poland have been joined by hundreds of students expelled from universities who see no prospects for themselves at home. On March 14, Ales Mikhalevic, a prominent presidential candidate who testified publicly that he was tortured in KGB custody, said he had joined many others by fleeing the country, safe "out of reach of the KGB."

The Belarusians have lost their patience with the president. Mikhail, an engineer at a plant producing TV sets, speaks for most when he says: "Any change for the better involves changing the president. With Lukashenko as president, there can hardly be any change and everybody here knows it now."

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