Poor old Belarus – things just don’t seem to get any better in Europe’s last dictatorship. Right now it’s being dwarfed by the media by controversies in Russia, but it remains stifled in a regime under which thousands of dissidents have been incarcerated. While Pussy Riot captured the world’s hearts, Belarus’ political punks have gone mostly unnoticed. Last March, almost 100 people were arrested for simply attending a punk gig and no one heard about it.
We’ve told you about protests in Belarus several times now, but all you really need to know is that it’s a dangerous activity. This week sees Belarus enter their fourth election under President Alexander Lukashenko, faced with a ballot paper sometimes literally providing them with one option alone. So we thought we’d catch up with the punks who dare to stand against the regime.
Somewhere in the silence, a group of frustrated Belarusian youths are fighting back. Taking inspiration from Greece’s "cells of fire", they launched high-stakes attacks against reviled state symbols, focused primarily on Lukashenko, who we’ve run a couple of stories on before. In power since 1994; Lukashenko was banned from attending the 2012 Olympics for his atrocious human rights record. Nice guy. More recently, he labelled opposition in the Belarusian election “cowards” for boycotting what is widely believed to be a fixed vote. Belarus needs a break, and in a country where street demonstrations are brutally suppressed, perhaps the surprise attacks of an anarchist group will help to provide an ignored and oppressed people with the platform they need.
I spoke to an anarchist inside the regime, who explained that the motivation for the attacks was born from a frustration at there being “no legal way of getting people's attention or making a public event for more than 10 minutes. This, alongside the popularity of the Greek protests, led to new methods of struggle”. They have little choice – after all, most legitimate forms of opposition are banned.
“It is almost impossible to register a party or a political movement in Belarus”, says my contact, “and there is a law that bans activity on behalf of an unregistered organisation. Every action has to be approved. Illegal actions are punished by short arrests". If you fail to comply with the government “You can be expelled from university, or fired, if the special forces ask for it. Sometimes they don't have to ask – managers do it to prevent unnecessary attention from the KGB. Simple leaflet distribution can be viewed as an illegal mass media production.”
The current nascent anarchist movement has its roots in the punk and hardcore scene, with squats and other counter-cultural projects increasingly emerging in Belarus over the last decade. Actually, despite a history of being crushed by various dictators, Belarus has a history of anarchism, with "Propaganda of the Deed" going as far back as 1905. If anarchy is in its blood, there are a bunch of reasons for it to bubble up right now, stemming from what our source describes as “a growth of disappointment in 2008-2009, at the methods and ideas of the opposition”. The sudden rise in their numbers, he explained, was particularly evident “during the annual Chernobyl march, organised by the opposition but supported by anarchists who were against a new power plant being built in Belarus”. Apparently the anarchist bloc “outnumbered any other opposition movement” that day.
Arson attacks started in 2009, when underground anarchists launched a clandestine campaign, attacking the army’s General Staff headquarters with a smoke grenade. They went on to fire flares at Russian-owned casinos, set fire to a police station and firebomb the Russian Embassy and a state-owned bank. After films of the attacks were posted online in a bid to inspire others and the KGB inevitably set about arresting people, further solidarity firebomb attacks on detention centres and the KGB headquarters were carried out.
Today, five anarchists accused of the attacks are currently in penal colonies, serving sentences ranging from three to eight years. These prisoners, among thousands of others, face nightmare conditions in post-Soviet prisons that enforce brutal structures of hierarchy within the inmates. The bizarre caste system ranges from the Blatnye (professional criminals), down to the Opuschennye (outcasts), who are regular targets for sexual violence.
In 2010, Lukashenko's landslide election win provoked mass protests, and the regime remains on edge about the prospect of repeated unrest in the fallout from the coming result. One autocrat recently assured citizens that "We don't need revolutions and shake-ups”. Actually, that’s probably the only thing they really do need, but the government are going in as hard as possible to prevent any disquiet. Last week, plainclothes security officers beat an Associated Press photographer and detained seven other journalists, simply for covering a protest attended by just four opposition activists.
Of the 109 winning candidates announced yesterday morning, all were from the pro-Lukashenko parties. In response, the anarchists are certain that it’s only a matter of time before the mass protests return, noting an increasing number of young people, disillusioned with the impotence of the opposition, joining their ranks. “Parliamentary elections are never popular; we have less than three average candidates for a position. Most of the opposition boycotts them and big protests usually happen afterwards." However, counting on support can be tricky, as he explains; “The thing is that our country is autocratic, not dictatory, which means if you don't fuss with the politics and don't care about some human rights violations, then you’re OK. When the people have nothing to lose, then there will be a majority in the street. But while the regime is supported by credit from Russia, it will survive all smaller protests.”
Follow Brian on Twitter: @brianwhelanhack
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