The March Of New Belarus demonstration attracts the biggest crowd since Belarus’ independence

The March Of New Belarus demonstration attracts the biggest crowd since Belarus’ independence
At least 250,000 people attended the The March Of New Belarus demonstration in Minsk, bigger than the crowd that demonstrated for Belarus' independence in 1991 / WIKI
By Ben Aris in Berlin August 24, 2020

A huge crowd of at least 250,000 people answered the call by opposition leaders to rally in central Minsk on August 23 in the biggest show of defiance by the population yet and bigger even than the demonstrations in 1991 demanding the country’s independence from the Soviet Union.

The opposition hoped to recapture the initiative after losing it to Belarus' self-appointed President Alexander Lukashenko in the last few days. The "March Of New Belarus" exceeded their hopes, which were met with a surge of people who travelled to the capital from all over the country.

The success of the demonstration sets the scene for a sharp backlash by the authorities on Monday after Lukashenko warned the population he would “give you the weekend” to chose a return to public order or face a “crackdown.”

The government deployed OMON riot police and troops on the streets of the capital and prevented the crowd from moving to the obelisk at Minsk Hero City memorial, where it has gathered several times before. But the organisers had warned the crowd not to go near or provoke the police, which retained a respectful distance from the police line. The sheer size of the crowd made controlling it impossible and the police simply stood at their barriers and did nothing.

The protest was entirely peaceful, with some protesters bringing instruments and singing. Others had children with them. Another man moved through the crowd with a bin-liner collecting empty water bottles and other rubbish to prevent the crowd from littering. Protesters have been seen to take off their shoes before standing on public benches. Some wags have dubbed Belarus “the Japan of the East” in jest as a result.

But the size of the March Of New Belarus was important. Belarus’ protest movement has been on something of an emotional rollercoaster ride in the last two weeks. After facing down brutal treatment and random arrests at the hands of the OMON the protest movement took control of the streets after the authorities realised they had gone too far and apologised, releasing the majority of the detainees.

Then came a few days of heady open defiance of the regime, culminating in Lukashenko’s visit to the MZKT truck factory on August 17 where angry workers chanted “Get out” to his face in an embarrassing scene that was even broadcast on some state-owned television stations. But following a three-hour meeting with an unidentified senior Russia Federal Security Service (FSB) official that night, who arrived on the plane normally used by the head of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, the tide turned.

With obvious Russian backing, Lukashenko regained control of the state TV and officials resumed arresting protest leaders and sacking strikers at the big state-owned enterprises' (SOEs) plants. The mood blackened. In the lead up to this weekend the authority’s rhetoric became increasingly aggressive, even threatening to shoot protesters if they did not fall into line.

In a clear sign that Russian nationals are now running the state TV, the spelling of the country’s name on TV captions has changed from the Belarusian version to the Russian one.

“Belarusian state TV now calls the country Белоруссия (Belorussiya). Only Russians use this word, every Belarusian finds it offensive and says Беларусь (Belarus) instead. That's what happens when you replace most of local TV journalists and technical staff with Russian mercenaries,” Tadeusz Giczan tweeted, a Belarusian PhD candidate at University College London School of Slavonic & East European Studies and a bne IntelliNews contributor.

The Ministry of Defence issued a bizarre statement, part of which was written in ALL CAPS for effect, accusing the protestors of being fascists and warning them not to go near the war memorials. As bne IntelliNews reported earlier, the Ministry of Defence has already briefed its officers that they may need to shoot protesters if the troops are deployed against the crowds.


THEREFORE, FROM TODAY, WE TAKE [THE MONUMENTS] UNDER OUR PROTECTION AND PROTECTION,” the ministry said on its Telegram channel and also in a YouTube video.


The size of the crowd that rallied on August 23 in Minsk was so huge that it has retaken the initiative and given the protest movement an important boost to maintain its campaign to oust Lukashenko.

Similar protests were held simultaneously in other cities around the country. “Sasha you are fired" chanted protesters in Viciebsk, a town with a population of 360,000. In another march in Grodno there was an impressive turnout, led by the striking workers of the Grodno Azot factory. Lukashenko has promised to shut down all the striking enterprises from August 24.

Lukashenko on the run

After a few hours in Independence Square the crowd moved towards Lukashenko’s residence, Independence Palace. They were met by a barricade and ranks of heavily armed OMON forces. Again the crowd stopped short of the barricade and did not attempt to engage with the police.

Lukashenko, taking fright at the approach of the crowd, was evacuated from the palace to another location by helicopter. He was shown in footage released by his press service looking down on the streets of Minsk accompanied by his 15-year-old son Kolya. He emerged from the helicopter wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying an automatic rifle.


Earlier Lukashenko was shown appearing at the barricade to congratulate and praise the masked troops on duty there who were in full riot gear. “You’re glorious! We will solve this together,” Lukashenko told the troopers who applauded him in a video that was widely shared on social media, but will only undermine his legitimacy further.

What next?

In the coming week tensions are likely to escalate further and will probably focus on the striking workers. Before the weekend started Lukashenko capped off several days of travelling around the country in military uniform and held rallies with loyalists with a TV address where he warned that his patience was running out. He threatened that he would order a “crackdown” on August 24 and gave the people the weekend to “reconsider” their opposition.

The president has already retaken control of the state media and begun the process of weeding out the most vocal strikers. With the army now in play there is a possibility that he will declare martial law. Despite his successes in last week’s counter-offensive, the sheer scale of the March Of New Belarus shows that he has no control over a large part of the population and is running out of options.

Tikhanovskaya had anticipated the coming crackdown on factory works and came out openly in support of the strikes for the first time in a video at the start of the weekend.

“We have to protest or else we will all become slaves,” she said in a video address.

“You have already shown incredible unity,” Tikhanovskya told the workers of Belaruskali potash manufacturer, Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ), the Grodno Azot fertilizer group and other state-run companies. “The strikes have squeezed the dictatorship into a corner… The future of Belarus and the future of our children depends on your unity and determination. That’s why I ask you to continue and expand the strikes. Strikes are absolutely legal and powerful weapons against the regime,” she said. “Don’t get bullied. Unite.”  

Like with most of the claims of misrule made by the opposition so far, the state has also denied the strikes were having much of an impact. Recently reappointed Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko said at the end of last week that only 360 industrial workers out of 650,000 have staged walkouts.

“All factories in Belarus work as normal, output activity is not lowered anywhere, targets are met,” Golovchenko told state television.

The strikes carry even more weight in the confrontation between the state and the people, as they have the power to collapse the already weak economy, which will plunge the country into a major economic crisis.

Currently the Belarus national bank only has $8bn in reserves, or the equivalent of 2.5 months of imports, which is already insufficient to ensure the stability of the ruble. And the country has $3bn-$4bn of external debt to refinance this year, but has already been cut off from the international capital markets by the crisis. And with its major cash cows on strike the state is likely to start running out of money very quickly.