MOSCOW — Not so long ago, the image of Belarus was of a peaceful, if tightly controlled, former Soviet republic, squeezed between Poland and Russia. Now the country’s pro-democracy leaders are warning their country could turn into a North Korea in Europe: a state run by a dangerous, unpredictable leader who survives through fear and repression.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has been cracking down on his opponents since a presidential election in August. Mass protests broke out after Lukashenko declared himself the winner of a sixth term in office and forced his main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, into exile.
Lukashenko reacted with violence. According to the Belarusian opposition, more than 35,000 people have been detained since August — in a country of less than 10 million. Human rights activists in the country say there are more than 480 political prisoners.
In November, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the election had been rigged and that Belarusian security forces committed “massive and systematic human rights violations” in response to peaceful demonstrations.
After Lukashenko forced down a commercial airliner last month to arrest an opposition activist aboard, Belarus faces even greater isolation, with Russia its only ally. The Kremlin’s support for the Belarusian regime is likely to come up in this week’s summit between President Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, it is hard to know exactly what is happening in Belarus. A survey published in March by the Centre for East European and International Studies in Berlin shows that 53% of voters cast their ballot for Tikhanovskaya, while 18% picked Lukashenko. The poll also found that 45% of respondents agreed with the anti-government protests, while 31% disagreed.
NPR has spoken to five Belarusians about how they view the situation in their country. Here is what they had to say:
Svetlana, 60, retired music teacher, mother and grandmother
Svetlana lives in Gomel, Belarus’ second city, near the borders with Russia and Ukraine. After taking early retirement for health reasons, Svetlana taught herself how to ride a bicycle and joined her town’s cycling community. Following last summer’s election, Svetlana’s civic activism turned into political activism. Because she has already been detained three times and her home has been searched, Svetlana asked that her surname not be used out of fear of prosecution.
“We now joke that Belarus is even farther north than North Korea,” she says. “What’s happening in Belarus is a catastrophe. We’re living under the conditions of a real fascist regime.”
Many people Svetlana knows are now in jail or have gone abroad. “We’re sitting tight like mice,” Svetlana says about those, like her, who remain. “Just a few of us have the strength to post on social media.”
She is grateful for messages of support coming from the United States and other Western countries. Her biggest hope is that her two children will not be forced to leave Belarus and that her grandson will be able to follow his dream of pursuing a medical career in his own country.
“Lukashenko hasn’t prevailed,” she says. “There has been a huge change in people’s consciousness. None of us doubt that we will prevail.”
Piotr Markielau, 26, student and civic activist
Piotr Markielau is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of young Belarusians who have fled the repressions in their country. This spring, Markielau walked through the woods across the lightly guarded border between Belarus and Russia, then traveled on to the safety of Ukraine.
Markielau was expelled from his university because of his political activism and plans to study in the Czech Republic. He says he was detained five times and spent 67 days in jail. Markielau considers himself lucky because he wasn’t beaten, though he says prison guards poured bleach on the floor of his cell as a form of torture.
“My parents are doctors. They’re in Belarus, but they don’t want to leave, though I’ve asked them to,” he says. “I am concerned about their safety.”
Markielau, who comes from a family of activists, is frustrated with Belarusians who passively support the Lukashenko regime by doing nothing. He is disillusioned that change didn’t come as quickly has he had hoped.
“People thought that it would be possible to overthrow a dictator with flowers. But this is not always possible,” he says. “People thought now that 300,000 people have gone on the street, we won. Everyone was so euphoric. I was too — but just for a week.”
Ilya Bogush, 42, trucking company owner, father of two
Like Svetlana, Ilya Bogush is from Gomel in eastern Belarus, where he runs a trucking company that mostly does business with Russia. Bogush considers himself a Belarusian patriot as much as Svetlana does — only he supports Lukashenko and his crackdown.
“Yes, the government’s reaction was tough, but it was absolutely the right thing to do,” Bogush says. “The people I know work. They didn’t go to rallies on weekdays, and on weekends, they were at home with their kids. I’d be interested to know how those few hundred people made a living, standing on the street every day.”
Bogush says a few bruises are the price of keeping the country intact. Protests in other former Soviet republics have failed to bring peace and prosperity, he argues. For example, in Ukraine, a street revolution in 2014 was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a low-level war with Kremlin-backed separatists.
“In my opinion, no revolution anywhere ever did any good,” Bogush says. “Everyone wants changes — but they don’t know what changes. I think people have sobered up a little.”
Bogush says he’s suspicious of Tikhanovskaya and is sure foreign powers are behind her meteoric rise. The exiled Belarusian opposition has no experience and no plan, he believes, and it is hurting the country by calling for increased Western sanctions.
Pavel Batuyeu, 39, unemployed electrical engineer and political activist, father of three
Pavel Batuyeu is a longtime member of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, a political party dating back to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He lives in the town of Soligorsk, home to one of the world’s largest fertilizer plants, a major source of income for the Lukashenko regime.
Before the pandemic, Batuyeu worked in neighboring Poland. At home, Batuyeu says, he can’t find a job because of his political activism. He says he has already been detained three times.
“I feel like I’m in the gulag,” he says, referring to the Soviet system of prison labor camps. “Every day is a little scarier, and I’ve begun to fear for my freedom lately. My beliefs run counter to the current political system, and in Belarus, that’s enough to end up in prison.”
Many Belarusians understand that international sanctions may be necessary to get rid of Lukashenko, Batuyeu says. But in a town like Soligorsk, where fertilizer giant Belaruskali is the main employer, people are also worried about their jobs.
“Everybody is hoping that the meeting between the U.S. and Russian presidents will somehow influence Lukashenko,” Batuyeu says, referring to this week’s summit. But he is doubtful that the White House has the means to pressure the Lukashenko regime.
Russia, on the other hand, has close cultural and linguistic ties to Belarus. But many Belarusians’ traditionally warm feelings toward Russia have cooled, Batuyeu says, since Putin is providing essential economic support to Lukashenko.
Alla, 43, graphic designer
Alla lives in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. She volunteered as an election observer during the disputed presidential vote and was detained after a women’s rally in September. She asked that NPR only use her first name, given the regime’s repressive measures against dissenters.
“I am for democratic changes, and I’m for a European direction for Belarus’ development,” Alla says.
She disagrees with the belief that pro-democracy revolutions end in failure, noting that Ukrainians today enjoy much more freedom than Belarusians.
Following the regime’s heavy-handed police response to the protests, depression and apathy have taken hold of people, Alla confesses. But she finds hope in the solidarity she sees among her neighbors, who support strangers in police custody by making food packages and attending their court hearings.
“I went to several court hearings of people I didn’t know,” she says. “I went so those facing criminal prosecution would feel some support.”
Alla is in conflict with her sister, who lives in Moscow and believes Belarus can’t survive as an independent nation and would be better off being swallowed up by Russia.
“I’m skeptical about the opinion that change in Belarus depends on Russia,” Alla says. “I prefer the example of the Solidarity movement in Poland.”
It took a decade of resistance for Solidarity to bring down Poland’s Communist regime.