Odds are you hadn’t noticed, but Belarus is a mess. Alexander Lukashenko has transformed their democracy into a repressive dictatorship, and the people have responded with a subdued and intimidated series of protests. You can find out about that here. A friend of ours in Minsk, the Belorussian capital, was arrested a couple of weeks ago at a protest. We spoke to him the day he was released after 10 days in prison. Obviously, he didn’t want his name in print.
VICE: Hey man. So you just got out of prison, today?
ANON: Ah yes, I was released this morning.
Why exactly were you arrested?
Well there are a series of protests in Minsk. Basically the idea is that people gather in the central square of the city. They don’t have any flags or anything, no posters, they basically stay silent and sometimes they applaud. They went well the first two times, then the government police started arresting people. After that started, the idea was for people to gather around other squares in different neighbourhoods in Minsk.
So, last week I went to protest in my neighbourhood. There were 200 people, and not too many policemen. They were in civilian clothing, and they were filming it. After a while, they grabbed one guy who was clapping and started to move him towards their unmarked van. It was more like a kidnapping than an arrest. The guy was with his mother, and she started screaming and crying as they dragged him away. But then people actually started to defend the guy.
They stood up to the police?
Yeah, well for like five minutes. When other people saw that they’d stood up to the police, they started clapping. Then the police started throwing people into their van. They arrested some guy on a bike who was taking pictures. I tried to help him out and grabbed the policeman from behind and threw him on the ground. The next thing I know, they’re pulling me and I am in this van.
What happened to you after then?
They drove us for like 200 metres, they told me to get out, and that was the first time I saw a policeman wearing uniforms. Then they moved me to a bigger bus, with four policemen. There were about twelve of us, including this mother, her boy and the guy who was riding a bike.
We went to this police station. They wouldn't let us call anybody, and because of the fact that I threw the cops on the ground, they were especially pissed off with me. So basically they slapped me on the cheek, and punched me in the stomach a couple of times. A policeman asked me, “Are you a junkie?” and I said, “no.” Then he said, “But I think you’re a junkie. We can find heroin any minute you know. We can find it on you, or in your apartment.” That scared me a lot, we have very tough drug laws here.
Did they throw you straight in prison?
Well, they wrote twelve absolutely identical statements and threw us in this famous jail in Minsk – Akrestina. It wasn’t as bad as I'd expected it to be, but there weren’t any windows, it was really hot, it’s really old, and there were like seven people in a small room with not enough beds.
We were taken to court the next day. It was supposed to be an open court, but, in my case, the judge did it during the lunch break. This meant none of my friends or my family could come in. It was just me, a policeman guarding me, a judge and this girl who was typing. There were two written charges from cops. The judge asked what really happened, and I told her. I was sentenced to ten days’ prison, and it was all over in less than half an hour.
Did the judge seem kind of sorry that she had to do it?
No. What it reminded me of was… When Nazis were arresting Jews, not everybody was pissed off with the Jews, but they were just part of the system, they just did what they were told. She just looked like she was doing what she'd been told to. She told me that I had to go to jail for ten days, and then just looked up and said, “Oh my God, I didn’t have my lunch break.” That was all she cared about. They were not pissed off with us, and they didn’t hate us, they were just completely indifferent. Weirdly, I was arrested for swearing and all I'd been doing was waving my hands.
Better that than getting done for assaulting a policeman. Where did you go after that?
Then they moved us to the jail. For the first five days, I was in a room with five other people. For the second five days, they moved me to another prison where there were ten people to each, tiny room. Luckily, it was all protesters. We weren't mixed with other inmates.
So what did you do to stop going mad?
Well, we had the newspapers and we did crosswords. But at some point you start to go crazy. I mean there’s nothing you can do but walk around the table.
Did the police intimidate you while you were in there?
Well, I can’t say that, people who are working in this jail, they were OK.
The police on the streets are violent and then everyone else is a kind of normal person doing their job.
Yeah. Once, when they were transporting us to Radin from Minsk, the plain clothes special police were talking to us. They were the same people who arrest protesters. They believed we were protesting for money. They were absolutely sure we were being paid. They were so brainwashed.
Were they Belorussian?
I’m pretty sure they were.
Has this experience made you scared, or made you want to protest more?
Say, if I was just simply arrested for ten days, and if this guy in the police station hadn’t said anything about finding heroin in my house, I would not be scared, and I would want to revolt more. But this whole thing with drugs scares me.
Do you think the protests will do any good?
In my opinion, peaceful protests are useless. They just beat us and put us in jail and let us out and we go and protest again and then they beat us again and send us to jail again. I don’t think it works.
In peoples' heads, I don't think they are ready to fight. They’re ready to protest peacefully, but they’re not ready to fight. I am pretty sure that our President will never leave peacefully. It’s kind of the same story with Gaddafi and Libya, I think pretty much the same.
But I guess Belorussians have more to lose than Libyans.
Yeah I mean nobody is starving yet, you know? This is the middle-class protesting really, it’s not the poor. The poor probably suffer the most from the devaluation of currency and all this, but, and I don’t want to sound really sceptical, it’s kind of similar to 1984 by Orwell. They’re like the proles, basically they drink and they forget all their problems.
Could nobody mobilise them?
As long as they have something to eat, I don’t think they will protest. Maybe they’re waiting for some strong political figure to lead them and they don’t see the point in all this clapping. The point is that all strong political figures are either jailed or killed. There’s nobody to lead them.
Do you think that will happen this year? Or will it take more time?
We have the 66 per cent devaluation of currency. Everybody is pretty much expecting our rouble to drop even more. So some people are expecting heavy outbreaks of protests in the autumn. As for me, I am not so sure.
Thank you very much mate, good luck with everything.
WORDS: ALEXANDRA VEGAS
PICTURES: ANTON MOTOLKO