The "Belarusian World" in 2023
In the summer and fall of 2020, the streets of Minsk and other cities were filled with people protesting the fabricated results of the presidential elections. Belarusians found their voices and denounced the regime that had eliminated a free press, quashed independent websites, and used mass arrests as a means of maintaining a dictator in power for a generation.
The authoritarian leader, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, survived once again by using his security forces to use violent means to suppress dissent or alleged dissent, backed by the potential use of force by Russia. He secretly inaugurated himself as president for a sixth term, but society changed radically over the course of the protests. Nothing was the same as before.
The Russian Invasion of Ukraine
In February 2022, Russian troops carried out a joint exercise with their Belarusian counterparts before crossing the border into Ukraine in an attempt to occupy Kyiv, heralding a new era for Belarusians.
For almost a year, they have lived with the war in Ukraine. Though the Russian attack on Kyiv failed, thousands of Russian troops have returned to Belarus. Missiles on Belarusian territory are fired into Ukraine. Belarusian hospitals treat wounded Russian soldiers. And military equipment uses Belarus' rail service to transport weapons to the Russian army.
Russia is putting intense pressure on Belarus to send its own troops over the border into Ukraine. To date, Lukashenka has baulked, no doubt taking into account the unpopularity of such a move.
The Last of the Last Dictator?
Belarus is effectively occupied, but the Russians have not replaced Lukashenka and he is trying to find a purpose, some means to rebuild his damaged image. He has amended the Constitution with a new model that resembles the Russian one, ended Belarus' neutral and nonaligned status, and elevated a People's Assembly as a consultative body closely under his control.
But he has destroyed his so-called "social contract" with the population. In 2020, he railed that the protesters needed to be punished--evoking the image of a father lashing out at his children, who chose to rebel against his tyrannical control. He even declared that any who clashed with one of his security forces should have their hands severed.
Arrests, beatings, torture, even murders followed. And they have not ended.
Some forms of protest cannot be stopped. They include the actions of the cyber-partisans, who first emerged in 2020 but have continued to elude the authorities while breaking into government accounts and publicized their findings, including the passport of Lukashenka and several of his associates.
The cyber partisans use P-Telegram, which contains an SOS link that deletes all conversations and confidential information, essential to avoid arrest. They have linked up with the Kalinouski regiment, which is fighting for the Ukrainian army against the Russian invaders. Both hope that a Ukrainian victory will signal the end of the regime in Minsk as well as the current leadership in Moscow.
The actions of the cyber-partisans, regiment soldiers, and the Tsikhanouskaia shadow government regularly capture media headlines. But in Belarus itself, the fate of the former protesters and society, in general, is often ignored by international media, which tends to equate the country directly with its Russian ally, ignoring the past protests and current repressions.
A War Against the People
The embattled regime has struggled on, asserting what powers it retains by savagery against its own citizens, who have no voice, no outlets to reach any audience. Viasna founder Ales Bialiatski received his 2022 Nobel Prize from his prison cell in Minsk and is expected to receive up to 12 years of incarceration.
Since 2020, the Belarusian regime’s machinery of repression has remained intact. There are around 1500 political prisoners in the country. Entire families have been arrested. For example, in January 2023, a famous tutor Yauhen Liviant was detained together with his wife, their daughter and son-in-law. Searches and detentions continue.
Last year, over fifty Belarusians were detained for “signs of involvement in extremist activities” when they returned to Belarus from abroad. In one case, the police destroyed a passport and Polish ID card of a Belarusian who was returning home. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians risk arrest after crossing the border into their homeland, but they often have little alternative. Many European countries have toughened their policies towards Belarusians blaming them for Russia’s war against Ukraine and the Lukashenka regime’s involvement in it.
The regime is pursuing a policy of militarization and russification of Belarusian children and youth. Since 2020, it has expanded and increased funding for a network of "military-patriotic clubs" that actively recruit young people for military, ideological, and sports training. In the summer of 2022 alone, over 18,000 children underwent such training.
At a time when society is largely plunged into terror and repressions, Belarusian officials are waging a military-propaganda campaign aimed at reaching the most susceptible and vulnerable: children. Through militarization and indoctrination, children are being taught that they should love and defend the regime and that the former protesters are enemies of the state.
In November 2022, Belarusian prosecutors in Brest went to a local kindergarten “to construct patriotism and tell the children about the genocide of the Belarusian people during the war.” The latter is a new construct, introduced during what was termed "the year of historical memory" (2022), a narrative that undermines and perverts the memory of the Jewish Holocaust, raising Belarusians to the status of chief victims of the Nazi occupation.
Since 2020, over 10 children under 18 have remained behind bars for political motives at an educational colony in Babruisk. Either they took part in the anti-authoritarian protests in 2020 or expressed their opinions on social media. The children are forced to wear dog tags and some are in a critical condition. Mikita Zalatarou from Homiel, 16 at the time of his arrest, has epilepsy. He was brutally beaten by the police and held in solitary confinement for a long time.
Silent, but Polarized Society
The protests of 2020 revealed a rift in the Belarusian society around people’s core values. Over two years of unprecedented repressions have pushed popular resistance underground. However, they have not eliminated contestation of different sets of ideas about what Belarus is.
According to Center for New Ideas, almost all Belarusians who participated in the protests in 2020 or supported them experienced a major trauma. Hundreds of thousands had to flee, but many remained in Belarus. Distrust between this group and pro-regime supporters has only deepened. Talking about her friend, Belarusian A. said: “L. [and I] are still getting on well. But I cannot fully trust her, she supported him [Lukashenka] two years ago.”
Sources of Information
State brutality paralyzes society and induces fear among citizens. A key issue is access to information. Almost all independent media outlets are blocked, including the popular tut.by, as part of a ban on "destructive resources." People continue to gain access from social media, including Instagram and Facebook, but many are afraid to follow any pages. In today’s Belarus, adding 'likes' or commenting on social media can lead to arrest.
Sometimes people have their phones checked at workplaces. Belarusian resident D. shared: “Our director came with a policeman. They asked us to put our phones on the table and unlock them. They checked what we had written. I only had Viber with my family chat, I am afraid to have anything else and clean my stories every day.”
Since 2020, Russian propaganda has replaced that of the Lukashenka regime. The latter has always been less powerful and often ridiculous in the eyes of the population. D. added: “They used to show him [Lukashenka] in a potato field, or shouting at the ministers. Now, it’s all about war and enemies around us. It’s a very toxic content. I asked my husband not to watch it. I think it is better not to watch and read anything at all under present circumstances.”
Nevertheless, according to a survey by Belarusian sociologist Andrei Vardamatski, television remains the main source of information for about a third of the population, slightly lower than Telegram and YouTube.
Despite mass repressions and Lukashenka’s retention of power, popular resistance still exists in Belarus. It takes various forms, from small-scale acts of dissent, such as white-red-white stickers or anti-regime and anti-war inscriptions on buildings, to railroad partisans who destroyed Russian military equipment on Belarusian territory.
Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine became another trigger for Belarusian society. Anti-war sentiments are deeply rooted among the population: over 80% oppose Belarus’ involvement in the war.
In 2022, against the backdrop of Russia’s war, a theater in Belarus staged a performance of the play Mamki (Mommas). Three women – Ukrainian, Russian, and Jewish - live in Crimea. After the start of the war, they all hide in the house of the Ukrainian resident. They start to discuss the war. The Ukrainian woman cannot understand why it is happening. The Russian replies:
“They have to get rid of the Nazis.”
“But there are no Nazis here, you see me and my house, I am not a Nazi”.
At the end of the performance, all three die in the war. All the flowers that Belarusians in the audience brought to the play were presented to the actress who played the Ukrainian. This play is no longer on stage.
Echoes of 2020 are still part of daily life in Belarus. It is difficult to paint a comprehensive picture. But Belarus is certainly far from being peaceful and satisfied. With almost no opportunities to make their voice heard, people try to continue their lives, keeping memories of the breath of freedom they inhaled in 2020 and facing complete uncertainty about their future.
“I do not see how it can positively change in the future. We did what we could... There are many people who supported the protests two years ago, but now have switched sides again. Maybe, they are just afraid,” J. commented.
“I do not know what I can do now, but I am not blind or deaf. Despite everything, I want to stay and live in my country. But I do not see a future for my children here.”
 For the safety of those cited below, we have kept names and locations anonymous.