Belarus: Freedom Day Protest

by Veronica Khokhlova

On Tuesday, March 25, police broke up an opposition rally in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, beating protesters with truncheons and detaining dozens of people. According to media reports, thousands of protesters showed up for the annual Freedom Day rally, banned by the government, and attempted to gather at one of Minsk’s central squares, which had been blocked off by the police. On Wednesday, the detained protesters – as well as several journalists – were sentenced to jail terms ranging from three to 15 days.

LJ users dranik80, ialeks, coipish posted very vivid photo reports from the March 25 rally – here, here, and here.

LJ user mmpbel, 30, posted a lengthy and detailed account (RUS) of his experiences at the rally and, later, inside a police bus:

[…] When we approached Victory Square, I finally saw the people who, just like me, intended to mark [Freedom Day]. […] [They] stood on all sides of the intersection. Along the sidewalk, there were traffic cops. There were mainly young people there, 20-year-olds and younger. I saw several middle-aged people, and a few families. There were [white-red-white flags], and they were distributing white-red-white ribbons (I wasn’t offered one). There were almost no flowers. I saw only one woman with a white-red-white bouquet. The mood was festive. I saw a small group of young people who walked out onto the road, one guy was waving a flag, encouraging people to follow him, but not many did and traffic cops managed to clear up the road very quickly. Soon, there was a solid cordon of traffic police along the road, and, a minute later, another one made up of riot cops. […]

People started moving towards Victory Square, the march began. Those in the front row of the formation were carrying a banner (but I didn’t see what was written on it). I could hear the usual slogans. (Too bad we’re not singing songs. I’m not the [slogan-chanting] type, but I would’ve joined in a song.) […]

Very close to the bridge, the formation halted. Must have been because of the police standing in their way. We stood for a few minutes. I saw [opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko] walk forward, to do something about it. After a while, those at the head of the formation began to turn around. At the same time or a bit earlier, a police bus drove towards the bridge. Then things began to move fast. I saw cops in helmets run. Young people with the banner began to reposition themselves quickly, in order to be at the head of the formation again. Someone was hurriedly hiding away a fishing rod with the flag. A guy who carried the banner turned around and called out a female name, but then someone screamed “Andrei!” and I saw a girl being grabbed and dragged to the bus. Quickly, people began to disperse. I’ve been in a stampede before, but it was the first time that cops were chasing me. Hesitantly, I also began to move faster, still not really believing this was actually happening. As I understood it, they were mainly seizing young people with flags. […]

[…] I felt it was all over and decided to try reaching the monument to [Belarusian poet Yanka Kupala monument, [to lay flowers]. […] I moved towards the bridge again. There was a police bus standing nearby, and from its window, a detained girl was making a Victory sign with her fingers. Young people stood next to the bus – possibly, friends of those who were detained.

[…] A few ordinary [not riot] cops stood at the park entrance. I asked one of them: “Is the park closed?” He said, “Yes.” […] As I walked down Yanka Kupala Street, I saw that the park’s side entrance wasn’t guarded by anyone and that the park itself was empty. A man and two women walked by: he was begging them to stop being scared and enter the park. […] I came to the monument and put the flowers down. My flowers were the only ones on the snow, but underneath the snow there were many more white-red-white flowers. An elderly man […] walked by. There was no one but us in the park. I stood a few seconds by the monument, trying to imagine “what He [Yanka Kupala] was thinking of the things that were taking place.”

I decided to leave the park through the exit guarded by the police. […] I had nothing on me that could make them suspicious. There was a bus I’d already seen there. […] A cop came up to me [and told me to get out.] […] Another cop came up to me and said: “What are you doing here?” I [exclaimed, in Belarusian]: “Why are you talking to me like that?” (normally, I speak Russian, alas). (I do look very young, but hate it when rude strangers address me [informally], especially the uniformed ones.) And here it began. The cop grabbed me by the jacket and dragged me to the bus, screaming something. […] The road was slippery, I almost bumped into the bus. […] They pushed me inside, hit me in the stomach, there were screams, and orders to show them what was inside my backpack. It was all being done just to scare me, without any system to it. The bus was small and narrow, there were about a dozen cops in it. Perhaps this explains why the blow to my stomach was weak. […] A cop called me to the back of the bus, searched me there, but didn’t look into my backpack. Told me to sit at the back seat. Then they forgot about me.

The cops were constantly chatting, joking, and appeared bored. Talked on the phones with their wives, explained to them that they were at an “event.” […] They were cursing constantly. […] They were discussing the cars they’d bought.

After a while, there was some screaming, the door opened, and they pushed in a tall, skinny guy of about 30 years of age. There was intimidation again, [they ordered him to drop to the floor.] […] They took him to the back of the bus and searched him. Found an asthma inhaler […]. Ordered him to sit next to me. Two women were brought on the bus after him (it looked like they didn’t push them in). One of them was the guy’s mother, the other was her friend. They looked very refined […]. The mother asked to let her son go, spoke of his and her own poor health (she had heart problems), was asking who was in charge. No one listened to her, the one in charge didn’t respond. Someone said that they’d violated the law on mass events, entered the park that was closed for repairs, had [anti-government] flags with them, were calling to the violent overthrow of the [regime]. The mother was begging the cops, tried to argue with them, was asking to be allowed to step out for some fresh air, to call the relatives. They refused to let her do any of it. […] We were ordered to switch off our phones.

[…]

Things were quieting down and the cops were getting bored.

A cop who looked like he was in charge came in and ordered the women and the guy to leave […]. […] They were not allowed to take their white-red-white umbrella with them.

I was left alone again. I felt like a Red Army soldier imprisoned by the fascists. Hatred and the feeling of complete helplessness. If they took me to the forest to shoot then, I wouldn’t be very surprised. There was no sign of any legal rights whatsoever.

[…]

The bus began to move […]. [Then it stopped.] […] [I was told to get up and go.] I got up and went. […] The cop in charge, standing by the door, called to me […]. I came up to him. He hit me on the ear near he back of my head. I heard laughter coming from the bus. I turned away, the door closed, and the bus drove away. […] I switched on my phone and called my wife. It was around 8:30 PM by then.

It did occur to me to file a complaint with the prosecutor’s office, but I didn’t consider the idea for too long.

LJ user annie-minsk, 21, described (RUS) what it feels like to be at a rally in Belarus:

You do not feel fear when you find yourself in the midst of everything – the police, people, flags.

No, you harden even more. Tears, fear and shaking hands are long forgotten, replaced with […] a wicked smile and cold calmness of a convicted person. […] You’re no longer shy and stop [using the polite form of address]. […] Your blood fills with adrenalin. Everyone is equal here, everyone [is your buddy] – welcome to hell!

When you look at the photos on the web the following morning, you feel it all again. As if you’re back there. Back into this dirty, wet, nervous mess made up of people, cameras, fat riot cops with brass knuckles and unruffled traffic cops. And the groaning of the black-clad bastards [riot cops] – “Reh-eh, reh-eh” (this is how they scream when they are pushing people, in order to move in sync) – it doesn’t horrify you anymore, not as much as it did then, the first time, in the cold March of 2006 [a GV translation from that time is here]. Then it seemed wild. Monstrous, inhuman. We hoped for the better, believed it was just a threat. They’d scare us and let go. And everyone would go home, and there’d be kitchen talk, and someone would write about it in LJ.

[…]

I’ve heard one and the same question so many times: “What are you trying to accomplish with your rallies?” My reply is, come, have a look, find it out. And don’t bother me, because we won’t understand each other anyway.

There are indeed quite a few observers out there who question the approach of the Belarusian opposition.

Mark Grigorian – LJ user markgrigorian, a London-based Armenian journalist and political analyst – wrote this (RUS) on his blog on March 26:

I’ve been following the events in Belarus for a long time.

And I see how year after year the same story gets repeated: the Belarusian opposition announces a march, demonstration or rally devoted to the date that’s important for the country and for the Belarusian nation as a whole. The authorities order them to change the route or the date or the place of the event, moving it from the city’s center to its outskirts.

The opposition disagrees, holds the march (rally, demonstration) where it wanted to hold it. Often, it ends in clashes with the police. […] There are dozens of detained as a result (including journalists), there are short-term arrests, the noise about human rights violations and sympathetic articles in the Western press.

I understand that I risk eliciting extremely negative reactions from my Belarusian [friends]. But I do have to mention that the stubbornness with which the opposition keeps holding events of the same type, which end with in a more or less predictable way, makes one think of the lack of imagination.

Also: I don’t know what the response to these actions is inside Belarus. Outside – yes, it is effective. The press keeps writing about it, European and American politicians draw conclusions. But inside the country? What changes in Belarus? Are there more opposition supporters? Or, the opposite, are there fewer of them? […]

If there is a political component, one has to consider this: what are the political results inside the country? If they are negative, why hold the new [protest] actions?

[…]

And if dispersals, beatings and arrests are so easy to predict, then why push young guys and girls at the riot police cordons?

[…]

Here is one reader’s comment on Grigorian’s post:

pisalnik:

I think it’s a mistake to think that it’s the politicians who push the young people towards the riot police cordons. I wouldn’t overestimate the impact that the adult politicians have on the mood in various oppositional youth groups. It’s actually the young people who often criticize adult politicians for being too moderate and not radical enough. The theory of manageability of the unwise youth by adults (including those from abroad) offers, by the way, the most convenient explanation for such events, but this theory happens to be, more often than not, an unacceptable simplification and cannot serve as a basis for the conclusions that you’ve arrived at. Belarusian opposition is far from being monolithic, and that’s why we shouldn’t presume that it can coordinate its actions. That is – what we observe in Belarus isn’t the issue of the lack of creativity and imagination, but the problem of discord within the opposition and the “fathers and sons” conflict.

As for the political consequences of such seemingly pointless actions, sometimes one has to wait for a very long time. But there’ll be no results if resistance stops.

[…]

I find it hard to imagine how it is possible to diversify the situation, when the regime always has an obvious advantage in its confrontation with the protesters, mainly in the form of the disciplined and obedient repressive machine. […]

In the end, it’s all about the impossibility to coordinate the activities of the conflicting […] opposition groups – and the regime makes use of it more or less successfully. Coordinated activities and readiness to express solidarity within the oppositional camp – that’s the main problem. How to solve it? I don’t know.

As for the impact of the opposition’s protests within Belarus, some bloggers think there isn’t too much of it.