Home and Away


Image by Jason Motlagh. Belarus, 2011.

Before Belarus's police crashed Independence Day protests on July 3rd and arrested nearly 400 people, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the country's authoritarian president, gave a speech blaming the previous weeks of hand-clapping unrest on shadowy forces operating from “the capitals of other countries”. Dressed in full military uniform, his young son Kolya a pint-sized replica at his side, Mr Lukashenka boomed that their aim was “to put us on our knees and to bring all the achievements of our independence down to zero”. “This", he added, "is not going to happen!”

But the real culprits are fresh-faced twentysomethings armed with laptops and grievances. Viachaslau Dziyanau may be the arch-villain. Soon after Mr Lukashenka's goons cracked down on protesters following a stolen presidential election in December, the 24-year-old activist fled the country, winding up in Krakow, Poland. There, he devoted his attention to an online protest group he founded in 2009 on vkontakte, a popular Russian social-networking website. The group now boasts more than 215,000 members.

With Belarus's opposition leaders cowed or still in jail, and an ever-deepening economic crisis, scores of rowdy young Belarusians have been gathering in Oktyabr Square, in the capital, Minsk, every Wednesday for hand-clapping rallies. The planners reasoned that if they weren't chanting slogans or bearing posters, the authorities would have no excuse to move against them.

For a couple of weeks it worked out that way. But Mr Lukashenka is now making good on his vows to “whack” the protesters. Last Wednesday, police deployed tear gas and batons at rallies and at least 250 people were arrested around the country. Some were beaten by skinhead types in tracksuits; others were thrown in prison on "hooliganism" charges.

Pessimists point out that that for all its resilience, the movement remains limited and has largely failed to attract support from the traditionally loyal working classes. The irony is that reckless economic policies aimed at keeping up public-sector wages are what kicked the economic crisis into overdrive, resulting in runaway inflation that has cramped foreign imports and domestic purchasing power.

New restrictions designed to curb the black market have made things worse. Increasingly, the young aren’t the only ones who are upset. Last month, angry motorists held separate protests against rising petrol prices, and later, rules that limit trips across the border with Poland.

Kyrill Atamanchyk, another activist, who decamped for Lithuania several years ago, believes that if the youth-driven protests in Minsk can hold out until the end of the summer, they may get a second wind from the working classes worried over the cost of fuel and basic foodstuffs. Mr Atamanchyk studies at the European Humanities University, a university in exile that reopened in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, in 2005 after the authorities in Minsk shut it down.

Two-thirds of the university's students live inside Belarus, crossing the border just twice a year for exams. Mr Atamanchyk says that a few dozen of them have been rounded up for taking part in the protests, and says he would be happy to join the demonstrations if he weren’t on a blacklist. Instead he helps from Vilnius, staging protest events and fundraisers.

The same goes for Antos Cialezhnikau, a prominent young Belarusian activist I met recently in Warsaw. A computer programmer by day who looks the part, he says his organization, Zubr, has a vast network of members working at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement in Belarus and abroad. No matter where the various groups are based, he says, every dissident from Krakow to Kiev is virtually connected thanks to social media. Such networks, he says, are also useful to foreign journalists seeking trustworthy contacts in his homeland, which is swarming with security agents.

We were joined by his friend Dmitry Borodko, the campaign manager for Mr Lukashenka’s main rival, Andrei Sannikov, who is now serving a five-year prison sentence. Mr Borodko had recently managed to escape to Poland with his family, and plans to continue agitating from beyond the border. Although we were drinking black coffee, the pair raised their mugs and joked about a new toast that has gained currency among the anti-Lukashenka crowd: “Shos”, which translates loosely as: “Let him [Lukashenka] croak.”