After unseen police violence, anger in Belarus reached even some of the smallest towns across the country. In the weeks before the presidential elections of 9 August president Aleksandr Lukashenko is rapidly losing popularity in the provinces, especially after his irresponsible handling of corona. Bloggers and journalists attract a mass audience, but protests are heavily suppressed. Hanna Liubakova for Outriders reports from the countryside.
Arrests in the small town of Hantsavichy near Brest. Pictures by Siarhei Bahrou, arrested himself. He got a 15 day sentence
by Hanna Liubakova
Hantsavichy, a small town in the Brest region [in the west of Belarus], has never seen a political protest before. But it was the local police brutality that shocked local residents.
Ihar Dulik was on his way home when he noticed his friend on the city’s central square. The 45-year-old craftsman stopped and went out of his car when he heard someone shouting. Dulik pulled out his smartphone and began filming the police as they violently arrested two reporters.
At that moment, the police approached Dulik, grabbed him from behind and started beating him. When he was face-down on the ground, one of the officers dug his knee into his neck and kept it there for a while.
'I told the police I could not breathe, but they kept beating me with their fists and legs,' an astonished Dulik said several days later. He was taken to a detention centre, but ended up in hospital with kidney contusion and brain concussion.
On the evening of June 20, when Dulik parked his car in downtown Hantsavichy, the police had already brutally dispersed the first political protest in the history of this town. In videos taken by onlookers, the officers shove people onto the pavement, dragging them by the hair and handcuffing them.
Hantsavichy, a city of less than 14 thousand people, is best known for housing the Volga radar, a Russian strategic military object. But as police officers used the neck restraint against at least two residents, the local media quickly dubbed it the 'Belarusian Minneapolis'.
A Belarusian uprising
The protest in Hantsavichy was livestreamed by local journalists. The video shows a mere 20 people standing in silence in front of the city’s executive committee, observed by the ubiquitous Lenin. They clapped hesitatingly when cars occasionally honked in support. It was Saturday. Some people came with their children.
It was one of the many 'solidarity chains', opposing the arrests of presidential hopefuls and activists across Belarus. The one in Hantsavichy may have gone unnoticed if not for some of the most acute police violence in the country.
'They brought 40 officers from the city police, the department for security and traffic patrol,' says Aliaksandr Pazniak, a reporter with the local independent newspaper Hantsavicki Chas, who managed to organise the stream. He was punched in the face, on the head and body as he reported on air. Siarhei Bahrou, a cameraman and photographer, received a 15-day jail sentence.
Picture Siarhei Bahrou
It unleashed a fury across town. 'I had the rank of colonel in Soviet times, I wore a uniform myself, so now I feel ashamed by the police actions,' says Anatol Valoshchyk, 58, artistic director and chief conductor at the Hantsavichy House of Culture, a local official institution.
Everyone I spoke with in town criticised the police brutality. 'A few days ago, I saw one of the officers in a grocery store, and I didn’t know how to behave. I feel no respect for the police,' says Kaciaryna, 27, who was at the rally but managed to avoid arrest.
Local social networking groups and chats have come out in support of the jailed cameraman, publishing avatars that read 'We are Bahrou'. Residents donated money to the newspaper’s office to help pay the fines imposed on those detained. Hantsavichy is a tight-knit community, people here know each other.
For many the abrupt attack on residents has become uniquely personal. 'I was not active before, but now I turned to politics,' says Maksim Amelyanovich, 33, a leading specialist at 'Modul', one of the few manufacturers in Hantsavichy. Right after the protest, he and his wife Maryia Burvan decided to collect signatures to become members of a local election commission. They were refused due to their 'opposition views', explains Burvan.
The step from indifference to active citizen participation didn't take them long.
Picture Siarhei Bahrou
Most epic failure
People had reasons to protest. Hantsavichy is one of the poorest cities in the region. Men often leave to work in neighbouring Russia and Poland.
It is not unique across Belarus. There is anger, there is a kind of spiritual fatigue that spread to some of the smallest towns. Having a faltering economy was bad enough, but the bungled response to coronavirus was the final straw.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, is hardly the only political leader being criticised for mishandling the recent coronavirus crisis. But among nearly six dozen countries, Belarusians assessed their government’s reaction as one of the most insufficient in the world. Many felt personally affected by the indifference and incompetence of the country’s leadership.
And then there is the economy. During his quarter of a century in power, Lukashenko has faced sporadic protests linked to worsening economic and social conditions. This spring, however, sociologists noted a record low perception of people’s well-being in the past 20 years. In 2017, despite more favourable views among the population, protests already swept the country far beyond the capital.
What is different now, explains the Minsk-based political analyst Aliaksandr Klaskouski, is that three years ago, protesters demanded Lukashenko to cancel a tax on the unemployed. 'Today, they don't believe in the president anymore. They just want to change the man at the top,' says Klaskouski, analyst at Belapan, an independent news agency.
Many blame Lukashenko for the recession, low salaries and lousy pensions. This is the price for a dominant leader who single-handedly decides on economy.
Picture Siarhei Bahrou
It is evident that Lukashenko, who can no longer run for reelection trumpeting economic achievement, will rely on his own autocratic, brutally repressive version of law and order. He hints that he can act as former Uzbek president Islam Karimov during the 2005 Andijan massacre that left hundreds dead. But the reasons for discontent will not disappear and police batons will not bring back people’s love. Instead, Lukashenko is creating a powder keg.
When neighbours beat neighbours
This tension became visible in Molodechno, a city of less than 100 thousand people, some 70 kilometres from Minsk.
On June 19, protesters clashed with the police, trying to defend a man who was brutally arrested. After an officer pulled his handgun, the scared people dispersed. The Interior Ministry later explained that the gun simply slipped out of a holster, but many did not believe it was an accident.
Human capacity for patience and endurance in the face of blatant injustice is not without limits. Unlike their big city counterparts, members of the local police force are often neighbours. They are under immense pressure. In Hantsavichy, some officers and even their wives had to delete their accounts on social media after their names and pictures circulated on the internet, residents told me.
Aliaksandr Bondar, 33, who lives in Poland and came to his hometown for vacation, says he was among the first detained in Hantsavichy. 'When I was taken to a police car, there was an officer inside. His colleagues asked him to help arresting people, but he stayed in the car.' According to Bondar the officer silently refused to detain people.
Nevertheless, the siloviki, military and law enforcement services, remain one of the pillars of power that Lukashenko built. A breakdown of the old power structures seems far away, but the mere fact that the banker Viktor Babariko and former presidential aide Valery Tsepkalo decided to oppose the president in the election is a sign. As soon as these new figures from the elite gained popularity, their registration as candidates was annulled. Doubting the loyalty of ministers, Lukashenko recently reshuffled the government.
Doubts over the system
What is certainly new is the scale of anger among those who were previously silent: popular public figures. Sportsmen and Olympic athletes, musicians, showmen, actors and journalists at pro-government TV channels expressed their solidarity with those detained. It costed many their jobs.
Anton Martynenko, a TV anchor at the national channel STV, criticised police violence on his Instagram. His bosses immediately called him and offered to either delete his posts or leave the channel. 'I knew the consequences of my criticism: you don’t mess with the Belarusian state,' said Martynenko, 'but years of self-censorship were enough.'
He eventually quit STV, where he had worked for 12 years. He says that while the channel’s directors called him a 'traitor', his colleagues supported him in private conversations. Martynenko believes that 'the mood is changing'.
Arciom Hackevich, 23, sees many of his friends becoming politically involved since the recent arrests. He himself was brutally detained by plainclothesmen while waiting outside a café in central Minsk. The young man calls it 'kidnapping', because that is how it essentially looked, and believes it was a sort of preventive measure to scare others.
So far, it has the opposite effect. Over three days in June, more than 360 people were detained in nearly 20 cities and towns. These were not only opposition activists in Minsk who often faced repressions. A deaf man, a pregnant woman, an oncologist, buyers waiting in line outside a gift shop and, most recently, cyclists. Random passers-by. A man who went roller skating. Their relatives and friends have been left doubtful about the lawfulness of the system.
Picture Siarhei Bahrou
'Since my son was cruelly beaten and arrested for nothing, does that mean that the same happened to all those detained across the country?' Lidia Dulik, 69, whose son was beaten by the police in Hantsavichy, asks. Although she believes that the brutal attack on her son was an attempt to harm Lukashenko’s reputation, she now turned to independent media for information about what is really happening, she tells me.
'We are 97%'
The pandemic has created one clear winner: those who have access to information. Lukashenko’s endless repetition of fake news about the coronavirus did not reassure people and so they turned to bloggers and journalists.
'Independent outlets and social media got a virtual monopoly on people’s minds,' explains sociologist Andrei Vardamatski, head of Belarusian Analytical Workshop, a Warsaw-based polling organisation. People felt cheated. The inconsistency between the information offered by the government and people’s individual experiences during the pandemic undermined trust in the state media and in Lukashenko himself.
Blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski built his political capital on interviewing people across the country for his YouTube channel. The result was real support by the people, followed by mass protests. Now he and other popular and influential bloggers are jailed.
Bloggers and journalists destroyed the greatest myth of the official propaganda that the capital Minsk may protest, but the real supporters of the president are regional folks. But once these regional folks started talking, many realised that small town dwellers are not necessarily voting for Lukashenko. A tractor driver from the small town of Khoiniki published a video calling on election commissions to prevent vote rigging and 'stop dictatorship' and got nearly a hundred thousand views.
This made the meme of Lukashenko's approval rating of 3 percent so popular: for the first time Belarusians who want changes consider themselves the new majority. When the election results after 9 August will be published, it won’t be easy to convince them otherwise.