Gathered just outside the barbed wire fence, a group of protesters young and old raised their voices in song. Accompanied by a guitar, they sang, “Leave, leave peacefully, this is the will of Belarusians,” to the guards at Detention Center No. 1.
This is the Belarusian KGB’s main prison in Minsk, and the 200 or so demonstrators were there to demand the release of Sergey Tikhanovsky, the blogger, activist and husband of opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Tikhanovsky has been detained here since he was arrested in May. Tuesday marked his birthday. His wife and children fled to neighboring Lithuania, after she replaced him as a candidate and stood against President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus’ elections, which many say were rigged in favor of the longtime leader.
On Tuesday, Tikhanovskaya appeared in a video clip, calling on protesters to act on behalf of her husband and others like him. “He and other political prisoners are sitting still, but he is asking for you not to sit still. For you not sit still and do everything to be able to live in a country that is suitable for a life,” she said.
The same day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the government of Belarus to release its political prisoners immediately.
In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Merkel said Lukashenko should “start a dialogue with the opposition and societal groups to solve the crisis,” according to German government spokesman Steffen Seibert.
Siebert said Merkel had urged authorities in Belarus to refrain from using violence against peaceful protesters – hundreds of thousands of whom have marched through the Belarusian capital in recent days, in what are believed to be the biggest demonstrations in the country’s history.
Capital transformed by protests
The past week has seen Minsk transformed – once an orderly, even drowsy city, in recent days the capital has, at times, felt more like a giant festival site.
People here have shed decades of fear in the span of a few days. Over the weekend, dressed in white, they gathered on the streets, their voices united in a roar of rage at their strongman leader, Lukashenko.
“Belarus has awakened,” said Egor Yemelyanov. Wrapped in a white and red flag, his voice hoarse from chanting opposition slogans, he told CNN: “I can’t stop crying, my heart is filled with so much joy now, even after all this ugliness that happened … This is the first time I’m truly proud of Belarus.”
It was a scene that would have been unimaginable just a week ago, when people were grabbed on the streets of once-sleepy suburbs by plain-clothes police or pulled from their cars to be beaten with batons.
In the face of such violence, Belarusians have been hailed for their peaceful protests – no cars were burned, no storefronts smashed, no street left dirty after rallies throughout the weekend.
Last week’s police crackdown was meant to quash the unrest. It shocked many here, but seems to have had the opposite effect, prompting the opposition to double down on its efforts to unite.
Belarus’ embattled president has so far shown no intention of stepping down, even insisting that there won’t be new elections “until you kill me,” but his support appears to be diminishing by the day.
Last Friday, protesters gathered in front of the central elections committee’s offices and screamed “Conversation!” in the hope that someone would come out to discuss their demands for a recount of votes in the August 9 election.
By Monday those chants had disappeared; the slogans “Leave!” and “Tribunal!” now dominate, as demonstrators call for Lukashenko’s resignation.
Lukashenko tried to salvage the situation on Monday, addressing a group of workers at a striking factory in what was supposed to be a carefully-staged appearance meant to show he could still rely on the support of his blue-collar base. Instead, workers outraged by scenes of police violence heckled Belarus’ longtime leader with the same refrains heard on the streets.
In recent weeks, Belarus has been split between two parallel worlds. One is represented by Lukashenko, the Soviet-style red and green flag and state TV showing images of wheat fields, even as protesters were being beaten up on the streets.
The other is represented by the red-and-white flag of Belarus’ pre-Soviet past, victory signs and more and more photographs showing the purplish-black bruises on the backs and legs of young men arrested across the country.
Now the images have begun to merge, as cracks appear in Belarus’ institutions.
Workers in dozens of factories – the backbone of the country – have gone on strike to demand new elections and the release of prisoners.
Images of widespread discontent have trickled into news reports on state media. About a dozen prominent state media journalists have resigned in the past few weeks in Belarus, with at least 300 staffers of the main state broadcaster signing a petition calling for the election results to be canceled.
Some of those who resigned refused to disclose their motivations publicly, but others cited media censorship as the reason.
“I’ve decided to quit because many of my friends ended up locked in prisons and tortured,” said Ekaterina Vodonosova, the former anchor of a culture show on the BT channel. “And these are not just some people I read about – these are the people I know personally.”
Solidarity, coordination, crowdsourcing
On Monday, Belarus’ health minister Vladimir Karanik was heckled by crowds after announcing that two people died during last week’s protests; about 160 others remain in hospital.
Bottled up frustration over the country’s poor coronavirus response may have played a part too – some attribute the solidarity shown by protesters to the public’s efforts in fighting the pandemic.
In the spring, Belarusians gave masks to doctors, collected money for ventilators and tried to spread the news about the virus, even as Lukashenko dismissed it as “mass psychosis” – before saying he had contracted it himself.
Now they collect lists of missing people, bring water and food to detention centers, rally support and offer financial help to law enforcement officers who switch sides.
“[Lukashenko] just didn’t care … we then realized that he doesn’t care if we live or die,” said Elizaveta, a protester at the rally in Minsk on Sunday, who did not wish to disclose her last name. “We had to do something, we had to coordinate, crowdsource things and inform others about it, and this is what we are doing right now too.”
Demonstrations continue each day, but it is unclear what they will bring to Belarus.
Some fear Lukashenko might be trying to drag Russian President Vladimir Putin into the unrest after a series of phone calls in which the two leaders discussed a mutual defense treaty that obliges its members to provide help in case of an external threat.
Lukashenko even floated the idea that turmoil in Belarus could mean trouble for Russia, its main business partner and closest ally.
So far Russia has shown no sign that it is interested in repeating the 2014 invasion of Crimea. In a call with Merkel on Tuesday, Putin insisted that any outside interference in Belarus’ internal affairs was unacceptable and risked “a further escalation of the crisis.”
But many in Belarus believe Putin may be the only person who can make or break Lukashenko.