GRODNO, Belarus — The streets of Belarus are now quiet, a year after President Alexander G. Lukashenko brutally crushed a wave of mass protests; billboards and tidy landscaping that proclaim 2021 the “Year of National Unity” are ubiquitous.
But despite public claims of unity and a campaign of arbitrary arrests and government terror, thousands of activists work clandestinely to spread dissent and undermine the government.
“Our goal is to keep the regime on its toes,” said Maksim, who refused to give his last name for fear of arrest.
Despite the harsh and often arbitrary repression of security services, thousands of people are organizing anonymously to register their anger. Maksim’s group, which he says consists of up to 100 people, is just one of many that have sprung up in cities and towns across the country.
Lukashenko cracked down on the opposition that emerged last year after a controversial election. Now that the world’s attention is on Afghanistan, it seems he has things under control. But beneath the surface, opposition activists are working diligently to keep the uprising alive, and they firmly believe that it is only a matter of time before the strongman loses his grip.
For example, on August 9, a dozen Belarusian activists dressed in white and red flags — the colors associated with the opposition and virtually banned from display in any form in Belarus — and protested in a remote pine forest. under cover of darkness. No one could see them, but they shared photos of their action online.
If caught, Maksim and his gang of “partisans,” as they call themselves in a nod to anti-fascist World War II guerrillas, could face years in prison. In today’s Belarus, under the increasingly isolated and authoritarian rule of Lukashenko, many have been imprisoned for much less.
A man in Minsk was sentenced to 12 days in prison for drawing the sun in a blue sky by his young son who had hung in front of a window for four years. Another man in Brest was jailed for a month for writing a line from the Lord’s Prayer on a building. A man was jailed for 15 days for leaving the red and white box that a TV entered on his balcony.
Many people find ingenious ways to make their presence known. Tech-savvy activists developed Krama, an app that enables boycotts by letting people scan the barcodes of goods in stores to see if they are related to Mr. Lukashenko or his followers. It also highlights restaurants and other establishments associated with the government.
- Belarus in the spotlight. The emergency landing of a commercial flight on Sunday is seen by several countries as a state hijacking that the strong president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, has called for.
- Election results and protest. It came less than a year after Belarusians faced violent police crackdowns as they protested the results of an election derided by many Western governments as a sham.
- Forced plane landing. The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk with the aim of detaining Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist.
- Who is Roman Protasevich? In a video released by the government, Mr Protasevich confessed to taking part in organizing “mass unrest” last year, but friends say the confession was made under duress.
Others distributed self-published leaflets and newspapers in the best traditions of the Soviet samizdat. And some people hang white and red ribbons from trees, making life difficult for the maintenance workers who have to remove them. A partisan choir organizes flash mobs who sing national Belarusian songs in public.
In Minsk and other larger cities, groups like Maksim’s operate at a hyperlocal level, gathering quietly in safe locations to prove that all is not lost.
“We want to show people that nothing has been lost, that we are still in the majority,” Maksim said in an interview via Telegram. NewsMadura interviewed representatives of three such groups.
Protected by layers of secrecy and operating as underground cells, some groups of partisans carry out more daring actions. A group has attempted to slow down train traffic by disrupting the signaling system on a line that carries potassium – a key export that fills Mr Lukashenko’s treasury with much-needed foreign currency – to ports on the Baltic Sea. The actions cannot physically harm anyone, but delaying transport, including along one of the transit routes between China and Europe, hurts the government budget.
In addition, a group of “cyber partisans,” operating mainly outside the country, wants to disrupt government communications and obtain and disseminate sensitive information about members of law enforcement who participated in the crackdown on last year’s protests.
“We are undoubtedly a significant threat to the tyrant, and he would do anything to find us and probably kill us if he could,” said one, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “The risks are high, but our determination is greater.”
The Belarusian government is working hard to infiltrate these groups both inside and outside the country, often setting up numerous fake groups to trick the activists into revealing their identities, members said.
“We risk everything,” a representative of a group operating in a small town near Minsk said in an interview. “They come after us as if we were real terrorists.”
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader who ran against Lukashenko last fall, said her allies were determined despite the crackdown.
“The protest and activity of people is not so noticeable now, as people were being violently evicted from the streets and squares,” said Ms Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory in the elections but fled to Lithuania in the days following the vote. “But the people didn’t stop fighting.”
She said actions by cyber partisans “demonstrate the security forces terribly and destroy their ranks”, and insisted that labor strikes “sooner or later” would topple the dictator.
People who are less committed than the hard core, but still want to participate, do so through apolitical activities. In Grodno, a town on the western edge of the country that was a hotbed of opposition during the protests, activists have used bike rides, church-related events or other sporting and cultural gatherings as plausible reasons to get together and “just look each other in the eye.” to watch”. the eye,” said Anastasia, a local organizer who declined to give her last name.
None of these strategies is foolproof. In Minsk, a group of triathletes were recently detained for questioning over the colors of a rider’s jersey, and a tour group was arrested and charged with organizing a rally. Recently, Mr Lukashenko’s government banned all Belarusian athletes from participating in international competitions after an Olympic sprinter, Kristina Timanovskaya, criticized her coaches for incompetence. (She subsequently applied for and received asylum in Poland.)
The arbitrary nature of the crackdown makes it difficult even for those who want to operate within the law.
“Like in any totalitarian system, laws are deliberately blurred so that we don’t even know what’s legal and what isn’t,” said Aleksei Shota, editor of Hrodna.Life, a local news outlet at risk of being banned from publishing. banned “extremist” materials. “Even if we wanted to censor ourselves, we wouldn’t know how.”
If the prosecutors are successful, Mr Shota’s publication will be added to a long list of Belarusian media that have been banned in recent months. Entire newsrooms have been closed and many journalists have been forced to flee the country. At the moment, at least 27 are still incarcerated.
Still, many outlets remained active, posting news on social media and encouraging readers to access their material through VPN networks. Mr Shota, 32, said that regardless of his publication decision, he plans to continue publishing his work on social networking apps such as Telegram.
He was adamant that, unlike many of his classmates and friends, he would stay in Belarus. “My family has lived in Grodno for 150 years,” he said, surviving Russian tsars, Hitler and Stalin. ‘Who is Mr. Lukashenko compared to them? He’s a joke.”
Hrodna.Life’s small newsroom is next to a shop that was closed for selling opposition-colored souvenirs and a bar that is currently under pressure for protecting protesters from the police last year.
Non-governmental organizations have also been targeted, with more than 40 being shut down at the end of July on orders from Mr Lukashenko. The list included many who worked in non-political areas, such as helping the disabled or people with AIDS. In Grodno, the local government is pressuring a children’s hospice to close, even going so far as to open a criminal case against the director.
Despite the crackdown, many NGOs have continued their work online to help Belarusians in need, whether it’s organizing the purchase of school supplies for the children of political prisoners or providing aid to the prisoners themselves. Viasna, the country’s leading human rights organization, continues to operate through a network of volunteers inside and outside Belarus.
Kristina Vyzovskaya, 40, stops using Krama because she “remembers what not to buy by heart.”
As a psychiatrist, she helps Belarusians traumatized by Lukashenko’s actions. Dozens of her clients had to flee the country and several have been arrested, she said. Under pressure, many suffered severe burnout and stress.
Mr. Shota, the journalist from Grodno, said that Mr. Lukashenko, impulsive and cheerful, was sometimes his own worst enemy. Things like forcing a commercial plane to detain an opposition blogger or encouraging migrants to open a new route to the European Union via Belarus have led to increasingly tough Western sanctions that have been imposed on them. might further threaten power, he said.
His crackdown on NGOs would have similar damaging effects in the long run, he said.
“Everything the government didn’t do before was handled by the NGO sector,” he said, including purchasing crucial equipment to fight the Covid-19 pandemic – which Mr Lukashenko has dismissed as “psychosis”.
Despite Mr. Lukashenko, said Mr. Shota that his country’s history gave him hope.
“Belarus is a partisan republic,” he said. “We are the descendants of the partisans.”