‘Our Country Has Become Trash’ – Young People in Belarus on Why They’re Protesting

Experts believe it now falls on young people to end Lukashenko's 26-year reign.
August 20, 2020, 1:03pm
Ksenia and Sergey.
Ksenia and Sergey Photo: VICE News

Every day for the past two weeks, thousands of pro-democracy protesters across Belarus have taken to the streets to demand the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, following national elections that many consider to have been rigged. Dubbed “the last dictator in Europe”, Lukashenko has responded to these demonstrations by setting riot police and plain-clothed officers on peaceful protesters. He shut down the internet for days and has invited the Russian government to send in tanks.

Since the protest began, at least 7,000 people have been arrested, with at least two demonstrators dying in police custody. A report by Amnesty International found that many of of those arrested are being “stripped naked, beaten, and threatened with rape.”

Opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has fled to Lithuania, fearing for her safety, while her husband has been arrested and imprisoned.

Despite all this, the protests are only getting bigger and the unprecedented pressure on the president grows daily. Earlier this week, Lukashenko shut down the internet to stop people from spreading a video of him being booed as he gave a speech to workers at a military truck factory – a group that he thought were among his most loyal supporters.

It’s hard to predict what will happen next. Lukashenko is as vulnerable as he has ever been in his 26-year reign, but he seems as determined as ever to use the powers of his office to quash dissent and cleave on to power.

“Lukashenko has said that people would need to kill him to make him leave,” Franak Viacorka, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, told VICE News. “He does not see himself as an ex-president, and the situation is impossible to predict…it can change at any time. Lukashenko has used violence before, and he can use violence again. He can do illogical things.”

For things to change, Viacorka believes it will fall on young people to continue to take the lead and maintain the pressure. “The protests include all kinds of groups, but young people play a special part,” he said. “Many of them never participated in anything like this before. While the violence, used by the government, has been tough to [see], the young people have not been so easy to scare and have responded with non-violent measures such as women standing along the streets with flowers and balloons dressed in white.”

To understand where this movement might be headed and what they think will happen next, we spoke to several young people at last night’s rally in central Minsk.

PAVEL, 33

Pavel with his sister.

Pavel (right) with his sister.

VICE: Why are you here?
Pavel: I am here because our country has become trash. When we had the election, nobody counted the votes. Some commissions tried to count freely, and it was very different from the official result. And when people tried to say something and go on the streets, you saw what happened – how many were arrested and how many were beaten by our police. I have had enough.

What is normal life here? Here it is normal that when I walk with my wife and child down the street without taking part in any protests, I can be arrested. The most important thing is to change our president. It is not normal when a country has a president for 26 years. It is not normal.

Do you think things will change?  I think that things will change. I am certain that things will change. I don’t remember that our people have ever been so good at helping each other or so consolidated before.

VLAD, 18

Vlad

VICE: After what we saw with police brutality last week, coming here is a risk. So why are you here?
Vlad: I am here because I want to help our citizens to reverse our government – Lukashenko and his friends. To protect our country and make sure that we get free elections. It is essential for me.

What is life like in Belarus?
Vlad: I have lived with Lukashenko all my life. I feel like his regime is choking me. I have worked in Russia for a while and it is hard for me to be back home, where I feel less free than abroad. I am supposed to feel free in my own country. It is tough here.

Are you not afraid?
I am not afraid. I am complying with the constitution, I cannot see that I am violating it.

DARYA, 22

Darya, 22.jpg

VICE: Why are you here?   
Darya: I want to say to the government that we need to stop the punishment of our people because we have so many victims. We do not know where we can find many of them, and we did not choose Lukashenko as our president. We need to change our government as soon as we can.

There is a risk, but I feel like many people in the factories, who are striking, need our support. I do not want to return to the life that I had before. We are moving towards a democratic government.

What is life like in Belarus?  Life is difficult because the elite are robbing us. The government controls the economy and, therefore, our lives. People are just in power to get money because they have no other way. People can go to jail for almost nothing.

As an artist, I made some portraits of our president, inspired by his comments about women, and I wanted to take part in an exhibition in the Palace of Arts. They said that my art was too radical. This is just one example of how the government wants to limit our freedom of expression.

IVAN, 21

Ivan

VICE: Why are you here?  Ivan: I am here because I want to get rid of those bandits. I am not confident that the government will change by themselves, so I am here to put pressure on them.

What does your family think?
My mum is also a big activist, trying to make an independent worker society. It is dangerous work, so I do not fear being here. It is just how it is. I want to live in a beautiful country, where all feel safe, but we must work for this, and it means taking risks.

KASTUS, 19 and JULIA, 19

Julia+Kastus.jpg

Julia (left) and Kastus (right).

VICE: Why are you here?
Julia: We are 19-years-old and have lived all our lives under Lukashenko, and the standards of living here is terrible. It cannot be compared to how people live in the civilised country, and we believed that we need to change things now. We are adults now and can do this.

What is life like in Belarus?
Kastus: It might look fairly free when you come here to Minsk as a tourist, but there is a lot of restrictions on your life. You cannot have any alternative point of view because the government will do what it needs to do to silence you. 
Julia: We can say that there is no freedom in Belarus. It is an illusion. The quality of life is so low that people cannot work and earn enough. It is also the case for me. It is so hard.

Why are things different now?  Julia: Something happened in the relationship between the state and its people. The lies that Lukashenko has told, also related to coronavirus, have affected us all. Belarusians have realised that the state does not care about its people – our health or wellbeing.

HANNAH, 22

Hannah, 22.jpg

VICE: Are you not afraid to be here, if things turn violent again?
Hannah: I am here because I have medical equipment in my bag, and I want to help. So I am not scared. And all this is happening because of the violence and because the government is breaking the law. There are so many peaceful people here in Belarus, standing with flowers. We do not only want fair elections, we also want fair laws; laws should protect our people.

What is life like in Belarus?
Before all this demonstrations, it was a really peaceful country. All people help you if you are in trouble. I am very pleased to live in Belarus; I like my city and my country. I have no financial problems, but many people can’t say that they are happy with their situation, and I understand those who are in trouble, but there is a chance to change things.

SERGEY, 19, KSENIA, 19

Ksenia and Sergey

Ksenia (left) and Sergey (right)

VICE: What change do you want to see?
Sergey: We want to live in a democracy but our president thinks that he knows everything about medicine and everything else.
Ksenia: We are gathering here for change. Our citizens want to free all prisoners who were arrested during the protests after the election.
Sergey: After the election, it was a hard time as the army and the guards fought with the people who just wanted to have a voice and wanted to be heard. So their voices were lost.

SASHA, 18

Sasha

VICE: Why are you here?  Sasha: Because we want a free country. To feel free and to be able to breathe here. Because there is no air, we cannot even go out with our flags. Because it’s forbidden to say ‘no’. So you can be thrown into jail only for your opinion, and I think it is not what you want in a democratic country. It is not healthy for a democratic state. And we are in the centre of Europe; it is nonsense! I want to be able to breathe and to be able to feel free to express my emotions and opinions.

What are those emotions?  I am angry and disappointed. Desperate in some moments because we cannot live in this country anymore. We want to change. I want to live here and feel freedom. I want to be able to stay in this country and just be able to live and express myself.