Today is Wednesday, which means that once more the streets of Minsk will be populated by the most guarded revolutionaries of 2011. It is one of the most militarised countries on Earth, and so wearing a mask, holding a banner or shouting are not activities we'd recommend.
Belarus is the home of Europe’s last dictatorship. While Arab nations have been springing themselves into chaotic ‘liberation’, Belarus sits stagnating at Europe’s heart – an embarrassment to the democratic franchise of the EU. Years ago Belarus had its economic miracle, profiting dramatically from the resale of Russian oil. For a country whose national identity had been forged by the inconveniences of global bullies like Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin marching endlessly across its face, this new Russian oil cash was a nice change. It was so nice that the country happily let another of history’s bastards crap all over it: Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko rose to power twelve years ago, abolished the two-term limits of a Presidency and began imprisoning his rivals. Belarus took this in its stride; after all there was money, food and all of Europe’s greatest military forces were keeping out of Minsk for the first time in ages.
But then the money disappeared (as it always does) and everyone got angry (as they always do). The Belorussian Pубель devalued dramatically and prices doubled. For years the only things Belarus produced have been tractors and inflated oil prices, but now their money is running out and they are unable to pay for any imports. The country owes Russia around 50 million dollars and so, this June, presumably sick of Lukashenko's sniveling excuses, the Russians cut Belarus’ power supply in half.
Confronted by poverty, Belorussians have become cautiously disobedient. They are sick of their dictator, but justifiably, they are also scared of him. Unlike the crushed generations of say, Libya, Belorussians are relatively middle-class and stand to lose a lot if they clash with the despot who has kept their nation steady. Most anarchists and political rivals have been imprisoned or vanished, leaving a vacuum where an alternative ideologue may have risen. But, even though opposition has been so deftly cleansed from the national agenda, the country is starting to quake.
Every Wednesday for over a month, now, protesters have gathered in Minsk and elsewhere to march against Lukashenko. Supposedly organised on social media by a dissident group of Belorussians abroad – they avoid chants, banners, and violence in an attempt to evade Lukashenko’s wrath. Instead they applaud. As a tactic to avoid punishment though, it sucks; Lukashenko’s hired foreign thugs have been attacking anyone they fancy. They've been pulling people from crowds and throwing them into the back of unmarked buses and kicking them all the way to prison. Over 1,700 people have been arrested since the protests started last month.
Last week, according to news reports, a man with one arm was arrested for applauding – a feet of Dadaist fascism only matched by the story of a man recently arrested for chanting anti-government statements. He was a mute.
Once you’re in the back of that van, you are taken to the police station by these unmarked 'coppers’ and told to stand facing a wall for hours. No one checks your papers and people are eventually bundled into cells in such quantities that there is only standing room. The lucky ones might be let out after 12 hours or so. The unlucky ones are generally held for ten days. The very unlucky ones can just disappear. A contact of mine in Minsk was arrested a week ago today, for applauding. He was unlucky and he won't be released until Saturday. According to some other Belorussians I've met, a female protester recently lost her baby after being beaten up in a Minsk jail. They called it the "first death of the struggle".
In the face of such repression protests continue. It’s not a country full of optimism and they’ve been so downtrodden for so long, that they’ve learned to shrug and get along with life. However, as the economy continues to capsize, the protests continue to gather timid momentum, as people go out and march – however quietly – against a regime that could maul them without blinking.
Last week protesters in Minsk changed the Wednesday tradition, by eschewing the main, Oktyabrskaya Square, and splitting up the protests across the city. God knows what’s happening today, but whatever does, it seems likely that a lot of Belorussians will be spending the next ten days at Lukashenko’s leisure.
WORDS: ALEX MILLER
PICTURES: ANTON MOTOLKO (website here)