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Belarus protest, Berlin
Belarus protest, Berlinvia Instagram/@scum_angel

Here’s why activists are rising up in Belarus

What you need to know about the protests against the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, and how you can help

Over the last week, demonstrations have swept across Belarus to protest the rule of Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president and so-called “last dictator” in Europe. Sparked by a (much disputed) presidential election held August 9, in which Lukashenko claimed to have secured over 80% of the vote, many of these demonstrations have been met with severe police brutality.

Water cannons and stun grenades have been used and rubber bullets have been fired at both protesters and news crews, with at least two protesters confirmed dead. A Guardian report published on Wednesday (August 12), just three nights after the protests began, additionally stated that authorities had arrested over 6,000 people, including journalists covering the demonstrations.

Freed protesters, with bruises over their faces and bodies, have recounted merciless beatings in the detention centres, as well as being held in overcrowded cells and receiving rape threats from police, as reported by the Associated Press

In an apparent attempt to curb activists’ ability to organise online, the Belarusian authorities have also rolled out internet blackouts (following similar censorship tactics used to silence opposition in places such as Russia, Hong Kong, and Syria). This has also made communicating with those outside the country – and spreading news about the situation – particularly difficult, though in many cases activists and allies have found workarounds, such as the encrypted messaging app Telegram.

Here’s what you need to know about the ongoing situation, and how you can help.

WHO IS ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO?

Alexander Lukashenko was first elected as the President of Belarus in 1994. Besides recently dismissing COVID-19 as “psychosis”, and claiming it could be cured with saunas and vodka, the president has long been accused of imprisoning or “disappearing” political rivals (some of whom are still missing today). Belarus also remains the only country in Europe to continue to carry out the death penalty.

Particularly relevant to the recent protests though, is the fact that Lukashenko has repeatedly been suspected of rigging elections to cling to power throughout his 26 year authoritarian rule.

WHO IS CHALLENGING LUKASHENKO’S RULE?

In the recent vote, the results – Lukashenko claims to have won with an 80.23% share – appear to contradict the massive support that has been shown for his main opposition challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, wife of imprisoned blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski. Despite holding some of the country’s largest rallies since it was part of the Soviet Union, Tsikhanouskaya emerged with just 10.09% of the August 9 vote, according to the elections commission.

After the election result on Monday, Tsikhanouskaya left Belarus following an apparent threat to her children, stating, in a video published on Tuesday morning and translated via the Guardian: “god forbid that you face such a choice as I faced. No life… is a good price for what is happening now… children are the most important part of our lives.”

In another video, posted Friday (August 14), Tsikhanouskaya calls on the Belarusian government to stop the violence on the streets of the country’s cities. She has also called for “peaceful mass events” to take place this weekend. One centralised demonstration, taking place today (August 16), has seen tens of thousands gather in the capital city of Minsk.

HOW HAS THE WORLD RESPONDED?

Across Europe, thousands of people have rallied in support of those opposing Lukashenko’s rule in Belarus, with marches taking place in neighbouring Poland, Ukraine, and Russia (where allies have gathered in the cities of Moscow and St Petersburg), as well as Germany.

Angelina Mass, a Belarusian artist who is based in Berlin, took part in a protest in the city August 12, having discovered that her father was arrested back in Belarus. “My task is to draw attention to the problem in Belarus,” Mass tells Dazed.

“Being very far from Belarus it is very important for me to support the people who are now taking to the streets of Minsk and protesting against violence and dictatorship.”

On August 13, the UN also condemned Lukashenko’s government for its treatment of protesters following the latest election, with experts saying: “The Government of Belarus has been impervious to all calls – including our own – to stop crackdowns on peaceful protesters... We call on the international community to strengthen pressure on the Government of Belarus to stop violently attacking its own citizens who are exercising their fundamental rights.”

“Under no circumstances should anybody be physically harmed or criminally detained for peacefully taking part in a protest.”

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?

Amid ongoing protests, there are a few ways you can be an effective ally to Belarusian activists. This could include writing an email to your foreign ministry asking to take action over the crisis – as proposed by the website Help Belarus – or donating to organisations such as #BY_help, which helps victims of political repression with costs such as legal fees, medical fees, or fines.

Sharing information across social media is also an effective way to spread the message, as proven in many recent protests across the world. This can include posts explaining the situation or providing links to sources, but also imagery from the protests, which may not be as easy for Belarusians to share due to the potential loss of internet access.

Olga Cosse, a 22 year old Human Rights postgrad living in the UK – and originally from Donetsk, Ukraine – has shared information about the recent protests on TikTok (@olgasaidyouaintshit) and Instagram over the past week. She tells Dazed: “People mostly react to people. I think it’s a normal human factor.”  

“I’ve noticed that the TikToks where I dump a lot of information don’t make as much impact as the ones where people can see the images of real people, particularly singled out: like an image where an old man is standing against an officer.”

@olgasaidyouaintshit

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“Unfortunately,” Cosse adds, “they also react to torture. As soon as Amnesty International spoke out about the torture in Belarus, people started paying more attention. Somehow my people have to be tortured to get attention.”