Until recently, for many of us in the UK, Belarus has been a nation that has rarely entered the scope of our perception; certainly, this was the case for me until I was at least around 18 years old. In fact, up until the age of 18 my perception of Belarus was shaped entirely by my studies of the Cold War from history lessons at school, and admittedly, Belarus was less than a footnote in those studies – pigeonholed as one of the few remaining Russian satellite states, offering the former USSR something akin to a barrier against the perceived encroachment of NATO and the EU.
However, this limited perception began to change for me following the standard British ‘lads’ holiday’ myself and a group of friends took to Bulgaria’s Sunny Beach during the summer of 2013. The holiday was a textbook example of this ‘rite of passage’ that many of my generation will have experienced at the end of our A-levels; foreign beaches, cheap alcohol, loud electronic dance music, appalling street food and a somewhat foolhardy attempt to stay out of the way of troubling the locals.
Nevertheless, on this trip, our group made thick and fast friends with a group of Belarusians who were there for the same experiences, and of course, when it was time to leave, we all did what was socially expected of us and added one another on Facebook. Which, in fact, I remember being something surprisingly new, and foreign, to our newfound Belarusian friends, compared to the VKontakte social media site that was popular in the East at the time we met.
Since then, I have managed to remain in somewhat regular contact with one of these Belarusians friends. As a historian, I found it enlightening to gain insights of the great cultural divide from the perspective of someone in the East, and remember having regular frank and open discussions with them particularly around the time of Russia’s expansion into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
However, these discussions have recently centred around Belarus itself following the disputed election results of the 9th of August. According to ‘official’ results, the long-serving Lukashenko claimed victory, once again, with roughly 80% of the popular vote. These results were immediately disputed, with international monitors having raised alarms about elections in Belarus being neither free nor fair for years. Instead, it appears that the election, and populaces vote, was principally in favour of independent candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Running in place of her detained husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Sviatlana’s electoral campaign was based around freeing the many detained political prisoners in the country, reversing several authoritarian changes to the constitution which had taken place since Lukashenko took power in 1994, moving Belarus away from the union treaty with Russia, and holding another set of free and open elections within 6 months of her victory. These pledges appeared to have struck a common chord with many Belarusians, who turned out in droves to support her in the run-up to the election.
Nevertheless, with Tsikhanouskaya’s ‘apparent’ defeat following the results of the election, thousands of Belarusians have since taken to the streets of the country demanding change. However, from reports both within and outside of the country, these protests have been met with considerable amounts of violence. Belarusian police have admitted to using live ammunition in response to clashes with demonstrators, and further to this, there are numerous reports describing mass detentions and torture for those unlucky enough to be arrested during the protests.
With the scenes coming out of Belarus, that have made their way to the front pages of national newspapers in the West over the last week, many here in the UK have started to draw comparisons between these events, and those which took place precluding Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. Sadly, it appears that this wouldn’t be such a dramatic jump to make, with Lukashenko claiming that Russia has already offered to provide ‘security assistance in the case of external military threats.’
Accordingly, with Belarus appearing to be on the precipice of a significant regime change, I thought it would be insightful to interview my old Belarusian friend to uncover the perspective of a Belarusian national who grew up in Belarus under the rule of Lukashenko. With reports of widespread torture in Belarus affecting protestors, and those brave enough to speak out against the regime, I’ve decided to conceal the identity of the interviewee for their protection.
So, Aline, tell me about your early life in Belarus, do you have pleasant memories of your childhood?
I grew up in the northern part of Belarus, in a small town called Novopolotsk. For those who don’t know Belarus very well, Novopolotsk and the surrounding area is actually considered to be one of the richest parts of the country. This is primarily due to its proximity to a significant national oil refinery, chemical processing plants and its strong industrial sector that specializes in producing technical instruments for a wide range of industries.
With that being said, I don’t remember my schoolmates, or friends of the family, being very wealthy at all, in fact, something such as travelling abroad was rather exceptional and far from normal.
I didn’t travel much at all until the age of 16, and therefore I had nothing to compare Belarus with. Nevertheless, my childhood was happy, we always had everything we needed, although I never remember us having any money to spare for luxurious items or outings. In fact, I remember living with both of my parents, and an enormous Rottweiler, in a single room apartment until I was around 4 years old.
Returning home now makes me feel somewhat sad, I feel as though nothing has changed in the 6 years since I left Belarus. I still see the same holes in the road where they always were. People still can’t afford to dress nicely; they rely on Russian and Turkish imported clothes which aren’t fantastic quality. I often feel shameful returning to my old town, from Minsk, to visit my parents with clothes and bags I could only dream of when I was younger, especially when they would cost the equivalent of most people’s monthly salaries in Novopolotsk.
You said you always had everything you needed and rarely struggled to make ends meet, what do your parents do for a living?
Well, my mother is a laboratory assistant and my father is a sales representative for a large German company.
For the last few years, however, the chemical plant my mother works for has been financially unstable due to the economic situation in Belarus. Lots of people have lost their jobs at the plant, but thankfully my mother has been lucky enough to be kept on. My father’s job, on the other hand, has never been stable, as much of his work is tied to the temperamental nature of the economy in Belarus. With that being said, when things are going well, he’s very well paid when compared to many people in Belarus.
I’ve never felt like I should complain about my life and childhood growing up in Belarus, we were always living above the average income thanks to my father’s job working for a German manufacturer.
If it’s okay, I’d like to ask you a bit more about your education in Belarus as it seems you’ve managed to do well for yourself outside of the country. What were your experiences of the education system in Belarus?
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t satisfied with the education I was afforded in Belarus, it wasn’t at all easy, but it was certainly necessary. In fact, I even regret having not tried harder in some subjects now!
With that being said, we never learnt about or discussed anything political at school. We never spoke about the president for example. I actually was relatively disinterested in politics until I grew up and began to understand the realities of the situation in Belarus more.
Additionally, it’s important to note that the entirety of schooling in Belarus is taught in Russian, and is very Russian-centric. We had subjects such as Russian History, Russian Language and Russian Literature.
Did your parents ever discuss the current regime, do you ever remember them thinking highly of Lukashenko? I don’t know anybody in Belarus who thinks highly of Lukashenko, my parents certainly never did. I remember hearing that my grandparents voted for Lukashenko when he came to power in 1994, but never again since that initial election.
We always discussed politics at home though, within the family; but I never heard it discussed by anyone else. The reality is, I think people were scared to talk badly about the current government and Lukashenko.
As an outsider it certainly sounds like the regime has been able to maintain control of dissident voices within Belarus, how do they do this?
Well, less easily now that’s for sure. With the increasing development of the internet in Belarus, they find it harder keeping in control of all the anger people are feeling - people have been angry for 26 years remember!
As I mentioned, I never used to hear anybody talking about politics. I never used to hear any negative comments regarding Lukashenko before, but things have changed now. How the government dealt with the Coronavirus pandemic was the last drop of patience the people of Belarus had.
When I was younger, I remember that a group of people went to protest about something that was affecting them. I don’t remember specifically what they were protesting about, but I certainly remember the response. They were just clapping and chanting, but the police came all the same and arrested the lot of them. Everybody in Belarus always knew that Lukashenko got rid of all his opponents, even those who would simply speak out against his policies.
Did you ever have any experiences with the regime disciplining those who voiced dissent or negativity towards Lukashenko?
Thankfully, I personally never had any such experiences directly as I left the country for Poland at the age of 17.
At what age had you decided to make a new life for yourself in Poland, and what made you take such a drastic decision?
By the age of 16, I had already made the decision that I wanted to live in western Europe. It’s difficult for me to try to pin it down to an exact moment or event, more generally speaking, it was my dad’s job that motivated me to leave Belarus. He always made sure to bring the family back nice presents from Germany whenever he left on business trips.
With that being said, if I did have to be more decisive in my reasons for leaving, a two-week trip to the UK I took was definitely influential. Arriving and seeing the UK for those two weeks was such a shock, it was like I’d been transported to a different planet – one where a luxurious life was possible. People were friendly, nice and polite. The choice of shops, restaurants and cafes was staggering. It might sound silly, but something as simple as visiting a Starbucks in London was a brand-new experience for me! That trip certainly opened my eyes to the difference between Belarus and western Europe. That’s how I wanted to live!
Does your family still reside in Belarus?
Yes, all my family still reside in Belarus and they don’t plan to leave. I can understand that though, it’s hard to change your life so drastically when you’ve built a life somewhere else. You don’t want to leave your home, your friends and all the family you have around you. It was different for me though; I was so young when I left – I had nothing to lose.
Now that you’re living in Poland, how do you feel about the current situation in Belarus?
Admittedly I feel very worried about my people, but at the same time, I feel very proud. Something like this has never happened before in Belarus, prior to this everybody was too scared to make their opinions and feelings heard.
It all started peacefully, the protests I mean, but the crueller the police were in their response to the protestors the angrier the people of Belarus have become. From my perspective, Belarus is now split, it’s divided between those who are ‘for the people’ and those who are simply ‘fascists’.
When a man was killed by the riot police, I honestly wanted to cry. They use rubber bullets, flash grenades and water cannons against protestors; the police beat women, elderly people and children, they don’t discriminate. There are increasing calls for strikes across the country, many plant workers are protesting and refusing to work.
Additionally, the internet has been offline for days. I haven’t been able to contact my parents at all, but thankfully my mother managed to send me an SMS letting me know they were safe.
That’s terrifying to hear! Do you fear for the safety of your family, as well as their future in Belarus?
Yes, I do fear for the safety of my family, the situation in Belarus scares me. I feel particularly scared because it doesn’t matter whether you’re protesting or not, you can still be beaten by the police for absolutely nothing.
I hope and pray that nobody I know will be wounded in the coming days, but it still hurts me to see my people suffering at the hands of the police, especially the young children. It seems like Lukashenko is willing to do absolutely anything but give up his warm cushty place as head of the state - these people are monsters!
Do you think the situation will be resolved without further violence?
I want to believe that sooner or later Lukashenko will run away, but I fear that it’s close to impossible. His power rests on violence, but people don’t want to live under his violent regime any longer.
* Following the publication of this article on the 17th of August, 100's of Russian National Guard trucks have been sighted heading towards Belarus, along the Moscow-Minsk and St Petersburgh-Pskov highways.