05 September 2020

The Atlantic: “The 22-Year-Old Blogger behind Protests in Belarus”

In the videos posted last Sunday from Belarus, thousands of people can be seen streaming into the center of Minsk, walking up the broad avenues, gathering in a park. In smaller cities and even little towns—Brest, Gomel, Khotsimsk, Molodechno, Shklov—they are walking down main streets, meeting in squares, singing pop songs and folk songs. They are remarkably peaceful, and remarkably united. Many of them are carrying a flag, though not the country’s formal flag, the red and green flag used in the Soviet era. Instead, they carry a red-white-red striped flag, a banner first used in 1918 and long associated with Belarusian independence.

It was a marvelous feat of coordination: Just as in Hong Kong a few months ago, the crowds knew when to arrive and where to go. They knew what they were marching for: Many people carried posters with slogans like leave—directed at the Belarus dictator/president, Alexander Lukashenko—or freedom for political prisoners! or free elections! They carried the flag, or they wore red and white clothes, or they drove cars festooned with red and white balloons.

And yet, at most of these marches, few leaders were visible; no one ascended a stage or delivered a speech into a microphone. The opposition presidential candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who probably won the contested election held on August 9, fled the country last week. How did everyone know exactly what to do? The answer, improbably, is a 22-year-old blogger named Stsiapan Sviatlou, who lives outside the country and runs a channel called Nexta Live on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.

Anne Applebaum

In the grand scheme of 2020, a popular revolt against a soviet-style dictator barely feels newsworthy, but since it is happening so close to home it reminded me of our own revolution against communism 30 years ago. Interesting how revolutionary movement have first moved online and now are migrating to private and secure channels like Telegram, as authoritarian leaders try to suppress the internet and the free flow of information and communication.

A demonstrator waves an old Belarusian national flag atop the Fountain of Independence in Minsk
A demonstrator waves an old Belarusian national flag as he stands atop the Fountain of Independence in Minsk, during an opposition rally on August 16, 2020 Sergei Grits / AP

I have seen comments on Twitter about Europe not doing enough to support the civil society in Belarus. As far as I can remember, there were no official statements of support for the Romanian Revolution in 1989 – granted, I was under 10 years old back then and our access to international press was extremely limited, so I might have missed or forgotten critical details.

The geopolitical situation was rather different: soviet states in Eastern Europe were in the process of switching to democracy, the USSR was in turmoil following reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, lacking the will if not the means to intervene and stop the unraveling of the soviet bloc. Let’s not forget that Tiananmen Square happened earlier in the same year, but was unsuccessful because the stronger Chinese state intervened in force. In contrast now, Putin, despite some domestic issues, looks prepared to intervene to support his long-time ally in the region – more a satellite state if we’re being honest. The United States under Donald Trump will certainly not intervene in what Russia considers almost an internal affair, and I doubt the European Union has the appetite for an open confrontation with an assertive Russia.

I fail to see how public declarations in support of democracy would help in this situation. A better approach would be to negotiate a quiet retreat from power for Lukashenko, but the thornier issue is what would Putin ask for in exchange for a peaceful transfer. Many consider the poisoning of Alexei Navalny as his warning sign to the Russian opposition he will not tolerate a similar uprising there. As things stand, Lukashenko’s back is up against the wall, caught between the anger of the protestors and his own insistence that we won the election. His relationship with Putin is not exactly perfect, and I suspect Putin would not mind if another leader sympathetic to Russia would take over the country.

Until such an agreement can be made, I fear the protests in Belarus will continue without a clear resolution in sight, a damaging stand-off for the country. Hopefully, it will not degenerate into open violence, giving Putin a pretext to intervene. I fear the ultimate outcome will look more like the Arab Spring: a return to authoritarianism in the shadow of Moscow, despite overwhelming support for democracy.

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