After the August 9th elections in Belarus, citizens at home and abroad launched massive protests at the news that Alexander Lukashenko had claimed an overwhelming victory, with a purported 80.23% majority win.
Workers at key factories went on strike by the thousands and activists launched independent media channels as a detour to state broadcasters that had been shut down. Some 200,000 protesters took to the streets of Minsk August 16thdemanding a new election and the reinstatement of the democracy their country claims to embody. In response, Belarussian armed forces fired stun grenades, rubber bullets and slugs, blanks from Kalashnikov-type rifles, and tear gas into the large crowds.
Even before the election, unrest had been building following the arrest and imprisonment of the leading opposition candidate and Belarusian blogger, Siarhei Tsikhanouski. His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, stepped into his role, registering as a candidate and becoming the face of the opposition. After the elections, she was forced to flee to Lithuania for her safety, according to Alan Taylor in The Atlantic.
“I consider myself the winner of this election,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya told the BBC. “But no matter how much we asked authorities not to turn on their own people, we were not listened to.”
Protesting From Afar
Among those frustrated by the outcome is Mira Novotzky (not her real name), a young Belarusian studying in Vienna. Novotzky has been following the news from here since the COVID-19 outbreak while constantly checking in with her family and friends at home.
“I think it was clear a couple of months prior, that this election will be not as usual,” Novotzky said. “There was a lot more competition and some potentially strong people who could compete for the win. But after they got arrested and put in prison, it was extraunordinary [more unusual -ed].”
From April on, the atmosphere in Belarus became tenser amidst the threat of COVID-19. The Belarusian president had been criticized for not implementing the necessary social distancing and mask precautions, while claiming that no one in the country would die from the virus.
His solution – drinking Vodka, having saunas, and driving tractors.
‘You just have to work, especially now, in a village. Tractors will cure everyone! The field heals everyone!’ said Lukashenko on one occasion, according to the Daily Mail.
With virus infection numbers soaring in many parts of the world, Belarusians began to question the numbers reported by their government, increasingly losing faith in the current authorities.
There is a “general lack of trust of the official statistics,” Katsiaryna Shmatsina, of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies told Euro News.
Shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19, Belarus commemorated the 75th anniversary of Soviet victory on the side of the Allies in WWII. In spite of the pandemic, Lukashenko ordered that the celebration go on. Thousands gathered and many elderly veterans attended the ceremony, despite being at greater risk of contracting the virus.
The Fight Continues
As more people go missing, as workers remain on strike and protesters continue to take to the streets, the people of Belarus too, continue to live in fear.
“There are several places [of unrest] in Minsk, [some just] a 15 minute walk from my house. When my parents were sitting at home, they could hear shooting sounds.”
“And people we know live beside the jail, where they torture people,” said Novotzky, constantly worried for the safety of her family and friends. Using resources like Telegram, a cloud-based instant messaging, videotelephony and voice over service, she tries to update herself daily, often hourly. She does what she can from Vienna, casting her vote at the Belarus embassy on August 9thand protesting at the various Belarusian gatherings within the city.
“I [need] to feel like I am doing something for my country. I have been proud to see the recent peaceful protesting going on in the past week, women holding white flowers as a symbol of peace. Belarusians don’t want war, we just want an honest election.”
The gathering on August 21st marked Vienna’s seventh protest, according to Balthasar Jarstein, local protest organizer.
“We started protesting two months ago, when we saw the first wave of arrests happening. We knew then that it was time to do something,” said Jarstein.
Showing up at 18:00 on the dot, Jarstein was carrying opposition flags in hand and waving them through the air as people arrived.
Jarstein and his family left Belarus in 2004, when their safety became threatened because of their political affiliation. Still committed to supporting his country, Jarstein made it a priority to attend each protest.
“Thankfully, so far we have succeeded in what we wanted to do: Austria has said that they do not recognize the elections as being valid or Lukashenkoas the winner.”
Jarstein hopes that sanctions from other countries will also be put in place. “These sanctions will help us, so that the dictator will not be confident anymore, knowing that the whole world is against him”.
While the protest on Mariahilferstraße continued, activists delivered heartfelt speeches from the podium and the crowd joined in Belarusian songs of dissent. One song ”Стены Рухнут,” “The walls will collapse,” has become a nation-wide anthem during the unrest, capturing the country’s mood.
Many people came to the protest in traditional garb, or draped in the red and white colors of the old flag. The crowd was a mix of ages, from infants to the elderly, one child wrapped in the flag and held tight in its mother’s arms.
Many protestors held photographs of citizens beaten by police both in and outside of prisons, while visions of flags moved through the scene, children gripping them tight as they ran through the crowd.
“Go away Lukashenko!” shouted a child who looked about five.
As the sun began to set and the protest came to a close the protestors gathered together in order to take a commemorative photo.
“Zhyve Belarus!” Long live Belarus! the crowd roared together again and again, and only gradually, began to disperse, clearing the square for the night.
As they moved off, comments revealed that few are under any illusions about the challenge ahead. Still, a sense of hope was palpable throughout the evening. Protests will continue and information will be posted on Vienna’s Belarusian Telegram channel. Ongoing gatherings are scheduled for the Sundays to come, in the hope that each new meeting will bring them closer to victory.