People & Power follows pro-democracy protesters in their fight against dictatorship in Belarus.
For more than two decades, with the sustained if sometimes lukewarm backing of neighbouring Russia, Alexander Lukashenko has governed the Republic of Belarus with an iron fist – in the process earning himself the unfortunate sobriquet of “Europe’s last dictator” because of his habit of ruthlessly squashing all dissent.
But earlier this year opposition voices finally managed to make themselves heard.
Over just a few weeks, protests against a new tax to be levied on the unemployed quickly degenerated into more general anti-government affairs led by a charismatic opposition figure.
These soon spread from Minsk, the capital, to other towns and cities across Belarus. So would these demonstrations strengthen or weaken the regime’s hold on power?
We sent filmmakers Glenn Ellis and Katerina Barushka to find out.
By Glenn Ellis and Katerina Barushka
When we arrived in Minsk in early March this year there was already heady talk of a Belarusian Spring.
Peaceful protests across the country were gathering pace. This landlocked country, sandwiched between the EU and Russia, which has been ruled by the same moustachioed autocrat for 23 years, Alexander Ryhoravich Lukashenko, was showing signs of coming in from the cold.
A new tax on the unemployed was not going down well and, over the coming days, almost everyone we spoke to told us how grossly unfair they believed the measure to be.
For decades, Lukashenko had pretty much been able to take public acquiescence for granted, acting as a godfather of the nation, providing food, shelter and a basic income and encouraging dependency on the state in return for compliance.
But eventually – and perhaps inevitably – the smothering weight of a communist-style command economy that’s overly reliant on Soviet-era stalwarts such as collective farms, ageing, state-run steelworks and tractor factories, had pushed Belarus into a spiral of decline.
For years, complete collapse had been staved off with the help of heavy financial support from neighbouring Russia. But when Russia, following its annexation of Crimea, a war in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions from the West, had to draw back on subsidising the Belarusian economy, Lukashenko’s rhetoric suddenly changed.
Belarusians themselves were suddenly to blame for the country’s misfortunes, he declared, and would now have to pay. In particular, all those who hadn’t worked for more than 183 days of the year were “to participate in covering state expenditures”.
The apparent illogicality of taxing unemployed people, whose only real source of income was the state’s own feeble benefit system, may have been lost on a president without anyone in his immediate coterie willing to point this out. But to everyone else the policy was always going to be deeply unpopular.
To then compound the problem, as Lukashenko did, by publicly labelling such unfortunates as “parasites”, was a surefire way of stoking smouldering resentment into a major inferno.
In late February protests had erupted across the country and we’d come to find out where they might lead.
Struggling for political freedom
Mikolai Statkevich is a former political prisoner and a veteran campaigner and bitter opponent of the regime.
After serving two terms in prison for various hard-to-define crimes against the state, without ever appealing to Lukashenko for clemency, Statkevich had previously won widespread respect.
On his last release in 2015, he had re-emerged as a potent opposition leader that people trusted.
Now he and the rest of Belarus’ hard-pressed pro-democracy movement were hoping that public outrage at the new tax measures could provide a crucial spark in their long struggle for political freedom.
Following weeks of angry demonstrations across the country, Statkevich had called for a mass rally in the heart of the capital – gambling that this might be a pivotal moment.
“I cannot say what is going to happen.” he told us, “… or if it will be decisive … It really depends on how many people will come. Our force is now in our numbers.”
As the day drew near, social media buzzed with ever more daring calls for the president to step down.
Lukashenko, who to no one’s surprise blamed the unrest on Western Intelligence agencies and agent provocateurs, was having none of it and issued dire threats on state-controlled television: “We are not afraid of anyone. Any minor deviation from the law will be brutally suppressed.”
Thus the scene was set for an almighty showdown – which we hoped to be in the right place to capture.
But then on the eve of his mass rally, Statkevich was kidnapped.
“Statkevich disappeared. Nobody knew where … well, the regime knew where he was. No information … and it created a sense of total disarray,” Professor Ales Lahvinets, a pro-democracy advocate, told us.
With Statkevich out of the equation it was impossible to predict what would happen. Would the thousands he’d hoped for heed his call and attend the rally; and if so, how would the authorities react?
‘Arrested, beaten up and hospitalised’
In the event, the day started inauspiciously with strong winds, sleet and snow battering the capital. As we made our way to the centre of Minsk, we passed dozens of detention vans and water cannon trucks parked down side streets, but for the most part the city was ominously quiet.
The area around the Academy of Sciences, where the march was due to set off, was cordoned off by large contingents of police.
Communism has been present in Belarus as nowhere else, because of the authorities and the personality of Lukashenko. His vision and outlook are totally Soviet. Everything he says or does reflects totally Soviet ideas about life. He has managed to stop time. He has frozen the Belarusians in time.
Gangs of plain-clothed KGB officials (still the official designation of the state security apparatus here) were watching and waiting. As 2 o’clock approached, the time Statkevich had allotted for the rally, it seemed that Lukashenko had already won: there were more reporters and onlookers than protesters.
Then, on the hour, a young woman unfurled a Belarusian flag, not the current green and red version favoured by Lukashenko, but the original Belarusian red and white flag, and suddenly the police and KGB swung into action, seizing the handful of protesters that had made it through their lines and throwing them into the waiting police vans.
In the far distance, we could hear the shouts of large crowds – but where were they?
Somewhere a major confrontation was in progress. We managed to persuade a taxi driver to take us down tortuous back-routes to get as close as we could. As he dropped us off, he soberly wished us luck.
We’d found one of the larger groups of protesters trying to converge on Victory Square. But like the rest of the centre, Victory Square had been cut off by security officers and the peaceful if noisy demonstrators were now confronted by hundreds of militia in full body armour.
They charged, breaking up the crowd and scattering everyone else into smaller groups. Police vehicles screamed to a halt and out poured baton-wielding riot police grabbing people off the pavements indiscriminately, dragging them back to their vans and driving off.
Elderly people, couples out shopping, even youngsters looking on with their parents … everyone apparently a target. We saw many people knocked to the ground and beaten. It seemed to be a lottery in which the qualifications for entry were simply presence in that part of town.
No one was exempt. Dozens of journalists were carted off, including foreign reporters. But despite a palpable sense of rage and disgust, the protesters remained peaceful and non-violent, shouting “Shame on you!”, “Fascists!”, “Freedom!” and “Long live Belarus!”
It was impossible amid the furore to say how many people had heeded Statkevich’s call, but it was obvious that Minsk had been locked down to prevent people from forming a critical mass, and anyone found inside this steel circle was considered fair game.
We managed to join two different groups of protesters that morning, both numbering in the thousands, and were alerted by text that there were other large crowds trying to get close. But as Lukashenko had promised, they were all to be “brutally suppressed”.
More than 700 people were arrested and dozens beaten up and hospitalised. We also heard numerous reports later of demonstrators getting punishment beatings while in detention.
Simmering resentment and an economy on life support
In the coming days Statkevich was released unharmed by the KGB, but hundreds of others were charged with public order offences. Some have since been charged with planning illegal mass disturbances and may face years in prison.
Other attempted protests in the following weeks met much the same fate until gradually people returned, bloodied if not completely unbowed, to what passes for normality in this hard-pressed country.
So for Lukashenko the immediate crisis seems to have passed and the threat of a Belarusian Spring has been averted. But with simmering resentment and an economy on life support no one really knows how long the status quo can continue.
Could this autocratic regime really survive another year, another decade? Or have the events of this past few months been the first reading of its funeral rites?
What we do know is that our many and various attempts to put this question and others raised by our filming to the president and his officials were unsuccessful.
So instead, we met with Svetlana Alexievich, Belarus’s only Nobel laureate, winner of the prize for literature in 2015. Her lifetime of writing on the tragedies and injustices of her native land have done little to endear her to Lukashenko.
She offered us this grim and not very optimistic assessment: “Communism has been present in Belarus as nowhere else, because of the authorities and the personality of Lukashenko. His vision and outlook are totally Soviet. Everything he says or does reflects totally Soviet ideas about life. He has managed to stop time. He has frozen the Belarusians in time.”