Interview with anarchist in Minsk about the Belarus protests
amarnaThe fight against the capitalist system and the authoritarian nation states driving the destruction of the planet must be an international one if it has any hope of succeeding. That’s why we decided to reach out to anarchists in Belarus to learn about the current wave of protests confronting the regime of Lukashenka. We did it by contacting the Anarchist Black Cross Belarus, but this interview represents the opinion of a single anarchist in Minsk and doesn’t reflects the position of any particular organisation or group.
From GAF we want to send our solidarity to everyone in Belarus
fighting against state oppression. Specially to our anarchist and
anti-fascists comrades, we hope all of you stay safe. We are encouraged
by the acts of defiance we are seeing every day coming from Belarus and
angered by the horrible violence of the state. We hope this interview spreads awareness of the situation in Belarus and inspires acts of solidarity all over the world.
What is the historical background that explains the opposition towards the current government? What circumstances precipitated the current wave of protests?
Aliaksandr Lukashenka occupies the presidential chair since 1994. In 1996 he organised a kind of coup d’etat (through a referendum with falsified results), and since then the country is a dictatorship with more and more repressive legislation and less and less space for political movement. Nevertheless, at the start of his rule, Lukashenka enjoyed some support from portions of the population. His assumption of an office coincided with relative economic stability after stark economic crisis of the early 1990s (and some people tended to falsely attribute this relative stability to Lukashenka’s rule).
Lukashenka in many ways continued to pursue the policy of his predecessor, prime minister Viachaslau Kebich (there was no presidential chair in Belarus before 1994). For instance, economic and political ties with Russia continued to be very strong. Another political bet of both Kebich and Lukashenka was to proceed with privatisation extremely slowly and cautiously. In contrast with neighbouring Russia, Poland and Lithuania, Belarus have not privatised many of its biggest industrial enterprises until now. It was made in order to reduce number of working places in industry slowly and hence to avoid social explosion. In case of fast privatisation, massive dismissals would be unavoidable. Social support for families with children continued to exist (especially with three, four and more children). Public health system is still free of charge for all Belarusian citizens (but not for citizens of other countries, even if they live in Belarus many years and pay all their taxes here).
But at the same time dismantling of social guarantees took place. For instance, in late 1990s short-term labour contracts (usually one year long) started to be introduced universally instead of previous system of contracts not limited in time. At the end of a contract year, an employer can dismiss an employee without a need to provide any justification. This measure was highly unpopular. But the regime managed to keep salaries rising, and the working population slowly accepted the new system. The short-term contracts are widely used not only to dismiss labour activist (e. g. unionists), but political activists (e. g. activist of political parties or social movements) as well.
There are almost no social guarantees for jobless people. Unemployment payments are as low as an equivalent to 10 euro per month, and conditions are applied (e. g. an obligation to perform public works couple of days per month), so most unemployed simply do not lose their time to fill papers in an unemployment office. Moreover, in 2017 Lukashenka tried to introduce something similar to general poll tax. Even unemployed had to pay a fixed minimal tax per year. Due to massive tide of protests, the presidential decree was rolled back. But this attempt was seen by the people as a serious breach of an unspoken social contract, and influenced current protests.
For a long time, political opposition was relatively unpopular, as some of its most vocal speakers are either economic liberals and advocate privatisation, or political conservatives who advocate e. g. ban of abortion (so far abortion is legal and free of charge in Belarus). At the same time, there are many currents within the opposition, including social democrats, left party (former communists) and greens who do not advocate neither privatisation, nor ban of abortion.
But this year the situation changed profoundly. During the first wave of coronavirus, authorities made many political mistakes and outraged citizens. First, they did not provide adequate information and in many times resorted to outward lies (e. g. statistics of deaths related to epidemics was falsified from the very start). Second, Lukashenka scorned and ridiculed ill and dead people, blaming them (not the policy of his government) in their illness. Such behaviour caused massive outrage even in-between former supporters of Lukashenka. Third, no social support was offered to people who lost their jobs or significant part of salaries. In Belarus, no services or industries were closed by governmental decree, but many industries suffered from the crisis anyway, e. g. tourism, transport, restaurants, export-oriented industries (as the demand declined). Fourth, many medics who had worked overtime under stressful and risky conditions, were not paid properly.
As a result, when presidential campaign was announced late spring, people immediately lined to give their signature to all oppositional candidates, but not to Lukashenka. The authorities answered with repressions: several candidates and some of their supporters were jailed. This tactics only enraged even more people, and already in July there were protest rallies during which some protesters fought back riot police (I have to underline, protesters did not attack riot police). However, authorities allowed one oppositional candidate, Sviatlana Cikhanouskaja, to run in the elections. Cikhanouskaja substituted her jailed husband, Siarhiej Cikhanouski. Election campaign rallies of Cikhanouskaja gathered crowds of supporters, even in tiny and deeply provincial towns. The authorities started to be so afraid that they banned all Cikhanouskaja’s rallies in the last week before elections.
The election results were falsified, as it happens always since 1996, but there is general feeling that in reality Cikhanouskaja overwhelmingly won. Her campaign mobilised those people who usually do not participate in elections, and Lukashenka’s ratings are close to historic minimum (24% in Minsk in March-April 2020, with obvious later decline).
What role are anarchists and anti-fascists taking in the protests? What are their main objectives when intervening in the protests? How are they seen by the rest of protestors? – What tactics are being used by protestors when confronting the state forces in Belarus? Have they been influenced by recent uprisings around the world, such as Hong Kong, Chile, Lebanon or Portland?
Anarchists are on the streets, however, anarchists rarely mark themselves specifically as anarchists to avoid being busted (or worse). Therefore, the general public has little idea that anarchists are present. Anarchists come to demonstrations with banners and posters and spread leaflets to pursue anarchist agenda (e. g. anti-police, feminist, anti-nuclear).
Tactics of protesters in Belarus is hardly influenced by other uprisings. Belarusians are very provincial, participants of the protests rarely have an idea that in Hong Kong anything happens at all, not to speak about Chile.
So far the protests are largely peaceful. But when police attacks protesters, sometimes protesters fight back and e. g. do not let to bust fellow protesters. In early August, there were several occasions of symbolic improvised barricades made from garbage bins and construction fences.
What tactics of counter-insurgency are being used by the state to stop the protests? Are anarchist and antifascists being targeted in a particular way? How are they defending themselves?
On 9-12 August police used everything: tear gas, flash-bang grenades, rubber, plastic and steel bullets, water cannons, armoured vehicles to break barricades, tortures (including beating some protesters to death). There are several people dead (some shot, some tortured to death), couple of dozen missing, several hundred were severely wounded by grenades and bullets and several thousand were tortured in police stations these days. From 13-14 August, police violence was reduced. Police continues to beat and detain people, but there is only one report of a murder which happened in the second half of August.
Since 14 August, couple of thousand protesters faced arrests or fines. There are more than 70 political prisoners who face criminal charges, several thousand more protesters face criminal charges (in the status of defendant or suspect), but are not under arrest. Many of them have left the country. The most widespread accusation is “organisation of mass disorder and/or participation in it”.
In Minsk, anarchists are rarely targeted in a particular way, due to our invisibility. Otherwise, we expect arrests. Some anarchists were arrested for their active participation in women marches or for their involvement in human rights organisations. But in these cases, not anarchists, but feminists and human rights defenders were targeted by police.
In Hrodna and Baranavichy, anarchists were arrested when they formed anarchist blocks during demonstrations.
Three anarchists are under arrest and face criminal charges, two of them because already before the elections they were on the police list of ‘especially dangerous’ anarchists.
In the recent uprising in USA, sectors within the very own protest movement played a role in quenching the insurrections by calling for peace, civility and reform. Is something similar happening in Belarus or are militant tactics widely supported?
In Belarus, the whole protest started from the unfair elections. It was further propelled by extreme police violence in the early August. Protesters demand, inter alia, to hold “fair” elections and to punish police officers who killed and tortured. It is strange to assume that these same people who demand legality would call for an insurrection.
The protest is largely bourgeois (not totally, but largely), well-paid specialists and owners of small and medium-sized businesses march on the streets. They are demanding exactly peace, civility and reform. Why would they change their demands?
Militant tactics do not enjoy wide support, but militant slogans do. Protesters shout outward abuse at Lukashenka and his police, same slogans are repeated in graffiti, and the whole protest is very much carnivalesque (in all senses, including e. g. subversion of hierarchies).
Many people are ready to fight back the police to prevent arrests. This is not seen as violence. Most police officers are masked to hide their identity, and it became highly popular to demask them, to tear masks off.
Information is gathered and published on police officers who practiced violence, sometimes with their phone numbers and home addresses.
Some time ago three or four private cars of local police officers were burned down in a small provincial town of Drahichyn.
Has there been attempts by opposition political parties or forces to take control over the movement and co-opt it for their own political objectives? If so, what has been the response from the protestors?
Again, it is electoral protest. Most protesters want oppositional political parties or forces to take control of the country. The movement (or at least its largest part) wants to be co-opted.
What opportunities do the current protests present for anarchists and anti-fascists in Belarus and what would it mean for them the fall of the current regime?
The protest give anarchists a forum to speak and a space to practice ideas. In the last three years, almost all web-sites of Belarusian anarchist were declared ‘extremist’ by the Belarusian state, and all internet providers block them (it is possible to access these sites through proxy, VPN or Tor Browser). Almost all printed anarchist propaganda was declared “extremist” as soon as it was found and confiscated. It is punishable by law to share articles from anarchist web-sites or anarchist leaflets e. g. at one’s facebook page (big fines are applied). So it is hard to underestimate possibilities for propaganda which current protests have opened. However, one has to spread propaganda with caution. Some weeks ago, two anarchists had been detained in the centre of Minsk and subsequently were arrested for spreading leaflets.
The fall of current regime most probably will bring some liberalisation of the legislation. First, anarchists would like to depenalise expression of anarchist ideas (to abolish “anti-extremist” legislation). Second, there is whole range of social, environmental, legal changes which anarchists are anticipating and struggling for. A list of some of such changes was published by anarchist group Pramień: https://pramen.io/en/2020/09/proposal-of-program-minimum-for-the-period-of-uprising-in-belarus/ (this publication was followed by interesting discussion in Russian).
How can anarchists, antifascists and other anti-authoritarian sympathisers offer solidarity from abroad?
You can make solidarity actions, e. g. in front of Belarusian embassies and consulates (or simply at the central square of your town). You can organise benefits and donate money e. g. to Anarchist Black Cross Belarus (https://abc-belarus.org/?p=13148&lang=en) or to Pramień (https://pramen.io/en/2017/11/four-way-to-help-the-anarchists-in-belarus/#comment-36645). You can help Belarusian refugees, several thousand people have left the country, including some anarchists and anti-fascists (sorry, no ready recipes, please search for information and contacts yourself e. g. through Belarusian anarchist web-sites). And, obviously, you can spread the word.