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Belarus ramps up repression: a sign of the end?

July 19, 2022
topics: Political violence
by: Robert Bociaga
located in: Belarus, Ukraine, Russia
tags: Belarus, freedom of speech, protest, Russia, Ukraine war

At least 100 Belarusians have been detained recently for photographing Russian military equipment passing through Belarus on the way to Ukraine. Multi-year sentences are being imposed on those already imprisoned by the regime, and five trials of independent journalists accused of "facilitating extremist activities" began in June. Some hope these are the desperate moves of a weakened Lukashenko.

Protests in Belarus first erupted in 2020 as a result of the authorities' failure to adequately tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, the declining living standards in the country and the falsification of the results of the August 2020 presidential election

These were the largest protests in the history of independent Belarus, a post-Soviet republic that gained independence three decades ago.

According to reports, four people were killed by state security forces and at least 33,000 were repressed. Although the protests lost their steam by the end of March 2021, the Lukashenko regime is now intensifying its repression tactics in the face of renewed opposition and critique of his support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

DENIAL OF REPRISALS

According to Barys Haretski of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the authorities are systematically detaining journalists, activists and human rights defenders whom they identify in photos captured during protests. "With the outbreak of war in Ukraine came a wave of detentions in Belarus for actions against that war," Haretski told FairPlanet.

Huge reprisals were also launched against 'railroad partisans' after Belarusians obstructed the transport of military equipment on wagons. Some even destroyed tracks, traffic control devices, hacked software or otherwise obstructed rail logistics. "These were massive actions, people from different sides joined this, all over Belarus," Haretski added. 

Following the violent crackdown on dissidents, the black-and-red colours symbolising the revolution had vanished from Belarusian streets. However, arrests and torture persist behind bars and away from the eyes of the media.

"We do not have a single political prisoner in Belarus," claimed Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko. "Those who have been locked up are foreign agents who acted to the detriment of our state."

Activists argue that Lukashenko truly "believes in this fictitious reality and the fact that 80 percent of male and female citizens voted for him." Jana Shostak, a representative of the Partyzanka aid group, said that "his closest circle keeps him in this illusion."

"At the same time, he's a perfect liar, because it's impossible that he doesn't know about political prisoners," she added.

According to Shostak, people who initially vowed to fight against Lukashenko's regime until the very end eventually fled the country. "The revolution is a marathon, it requires perseverance. For now, there is no indication that the situation in Belarus is going to change," she added. 

THE SILENCED MASSES

According to data collected by the Viasna-Spring Center for the Defense of Human Rights in June, there are as many as 1,252 political prisoners in Belarus as of this reporting.

By comparison, in Russia, a country more than 15 times larger in population, there are 'only' 442 political prisoners, of which 355 are jailed for religious reasons. At least officially, Lukashenko's regime holds the European record for political repression. 

In addition, Reporters Without Borders last year ranked Belarus as the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the detainees are beaten and electrocuted.

Dissidents in hiding claim on Telegram that political trials take place almost every week. The defendants are not only popular bloggers, politicians, social activists or journalists, but also utterly anonymous people. People who took part in demonstrations as far back as a year ago are still being apprehended and tried in various cities across Belarus, as militias analyse photos and video recordings to identify participants.

People are also reportedly arrested for content posted on Telegram. And as activists claim on the Telegram’s Nexta channel, regime-loyal security personnel act as witnesses in court while judges are overwhelmingly prepared to convict dissidents. "There is no chance to defend oneself in Belarus," they write. 

Bielsat TV, a satellite television channel aimed at Belarus, has two of its journalists currently serving a two-year prison sentence. Additionally, proceedings are underway against the station's host who has been in custody for several months. 

"There is no indication that the situation for journalists in Belarus is going to [improve]. On the contrary, it will only get worse," Z.J, a Bielsat TV journalist who asked to be identified by their initials, told FairPlanet.

"And it's not only about the media. The repressive apparatus has gone so far that the services can come to any workplace and detain anyone they want. My friends who stayed in the country say: if they come, they come. We can't do anything about it."

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Belarusians are emigrating en masse. In 2020 alone, according to Eurostat, more than 60,000 people fled the country to EU member states. Commentators believe they are fleeing the regime's increasing repression and dire living conditions. 

Civilians also express fear of Belarus' participation in the war against Ukraine. Lukashenko has allowed Russian missile launchers stationed on its territory to shoot at Ukrainian targets, but denied that the country would get involved directly.

Nevertheless, many worry that Putin, if backed into a corner, can exert pressure on Belarus to join the invasion in the future. Importantly, young people are aware of the authoritarian direction in which Lukashenko has been steering Belarus and the extent to which he has made the country economically and militarily dependent on Russia.

All the while, conscripts are deserting the military as they are unsure whether or not they will be ordered to the front should Lukashenko join the Russian invasion. Many argue that the scale of emigration has made the problem visible even to the authorities.

For some activists, the mounting repression by Lukashenko's regime is an indication that the authorities are unable to govern effectively through ordinary political instruments, which they they view as a sign of the system's decay. "This of course also means that the closer we get to victory, the harder and worse the situation will get," Z.J.said. 

Image by uni-bremen.de/europablo.

Article written by:
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Robert Bociaga
Author
Belarus Ukraine Russia
Tens of thousands of opposition supporters marched through Minsk in August 2020, calling for an end to strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko's rule amid a heavy security presence and despite dozens of arrests.
© TUT.BY/AFP via Getty ImageS
People who took part in demonstrations a year ago are still being apprehended and tried in various cities across Belarus.
© SIARHEI LESKIEC/AFP via Getty Images
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