Police crackdowns, winter and the COVID-19 pandemic are taking their toll on protests calling for free and fair elections in Belarus.
Numbers are dwindling at the demonstrations against the rule of Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed Europe”s last dictator.
Lukashenko, in power since 1994, claimed victory in a presidential election in August that his critics say was rigged in his favour.
It sparked huge protests that — despite a violent police crackdown — continued in the months that followed.
Gradually, protests moved away from the city centre and back the neighbourhoods where impromptu concerts and street parties became the new way of opposing Lukashenko. But even they could not avoid the attention of the police.
From huge protests to small acts of defiance
One of them is Mariya. That’s not her real name. The 47-year-old meets Euronews in a café in the capital Minsk, but because of the risk associated with anti-government protests, we have granted her anonymity.
“I am trying now not to pay my property taxes and not to pay the state companies anything,” she told Euronews. “All the money they receive is used against us, the people.”
Mariya is not typical of the wider protest movement that has been on the streets regularly since August, which is generally young people.
She is a business owner heavily impacted by COVID19. And like many others, she has been a part of the less vocal part of the uprising.
In the spring, she went canvassing for presidential hopeful Viktor Barbaryka. In June he was arrested six days after he announced his candidacy, meaning he couldn’t run in the election.
“I cried when I heard that Barbaryka had been detained (by police). At that moment, all our hopes and wishes for a more democratic country was crushed,” said Mariya.
Mariya did not take part in the solidarity chains, where people stood by the road showing hand signs, holding flowers and flags. She would, however, drive past them and play the song Peremen by Viktor Tsoi, which has become the anthem of the protests, honk her horn and wave at people to show her support.
Smaller, individual protests could be more effective
Mariya is not the only one carrying out small acts of defiance, Aliaksandr Herasimenka, a researcher at the University of Oxford, specialising in social movements, protests, authoritarianism, and propaganda, told Euronews.
Herasimenka claims some smaller factions of the movement target the police, damaging their vehicles, offices, and homes.
“It is very hard to say how widespread it is,” said Herasimenka. “You can see how many protestors are in the streets easily because we can count and verify their numbers, but we can not know how widespread this kind of civil disobedience is. Only the government knows this, and they only reveal it when they catch the responsible person.”
And not paying taxes or paying utility bills might prove more effective than the street protests because they do actual damage to the system’s ability to function.
“Small acts of defiance, if they are widespread, might damage the state to a greater extent than the street protests,” Herasimenka said. “They send a different signal to people in the government, who might want to reconsider their allegiance to Lukashenko if the system stops working. I don’t believe that people in the streets can remove Lukashenko, it is people inside the system who can, and they will if the system is broken by disruptions.”
Mariya’s sons are still protesting in the streets whenever they get the chance. However, a lot of people have already turned their backs on that side of the uprising. Although they still share the aim of ridding Belarus of Lukashenko and having fair and free elections, they disagree over the best way to go about it.
Does the opposition movement have a leadership vacuum?
Alex, another interviewee we have granted anonymity to, is one of those questioning the best way forward.
“At this stage, I do not see the possibility of transferring power because the opposition does not know how to do this.
“The power is not only the president, but thousands of officials and no one in the system will accept the transfer of power.
“My personal opinion is that if we cannot achieve a change of leadership, then it is worth promoting some reforms that will change the lives of our people.”
Alex said the opposition movement lacks competent leadership.
Most of the best-known figures have been arrested or exiled, including the women who ran in the presidential election against Lukashenko.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania, while another prominent figure, Maria Kolesnikova, is in jail in Belarus.
Likewise, protest leaders have been arrested.
So have members of the so-called Coordination Council, an NGO formed by the opposition to “facilitate the democratic transfer of power in Belarus”. It had hardly got to work before its leading members were detained.
This vacuum of power inside the protest movement has been making it hard for it to find a direction, Alex added.
“The Belarussian opposition leaders are behind the border and do not always understand the situation inside the country. Now everything is very difficult, and probably no one knows what to do and what to do next,” Alex says.
‘We have to hope that change will come’
Euronews met one protestor who refused to give up on street marches. She is traumatised from her earlier detention, where she was put in a jail cell with no heat or blankets. Inmates had to sleep bundled up to stay warm, she claimed. Even so, she thinks protesting is the only way to go.
“I have to heal my psychological trauma. I am still afraid of the dark and of going out. I understand that I can be arrested if I go out, but I will go out again at the beginning of next month. I don’t know how things will change, but we have no other option. If we suddenly stop, it could make it more dangerous,” she told Euronews.
She is not the only who feels this way about protesting. Euronews spoke to another man (pictured, below), again, under the condition of anonymity. He was detained at a protest and got ten days in jail for participating in illegal demonstrations.
“Thousands have already left, but the majority are thinking in the same way. They want to continue |[the protests]. The economy is hit very hard, and nobody wants to invest here anymore, so we have to keep the pressure and hope that changes will come.”
But numbers in the streets are not the most important thing if the movement is to succeed, Herasimenka tells Euronews.
“Sure, the protests are smaller, but I don’t think that it matters. The number is not as important as the ability of the protestors to disrupt the state functions.”
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