4 October 2023Belarus

The Unfinished Story

The winter will be long but we can keep each other warm

by Konstantin Charukhin

Optimists talk a lot about the obligatory victory of democracy. They often base it on historical inevitability and the assumption that all dictatorships fall, sooner or later. Writer and translator Konstantin Charukhin is a participant in the Belarusian protests and a double refugee. In his essay he questions this inevitability. At the same time he tries to determine the conditions under which the foundations that support evil can be rocked in spite of everything.

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The inevitability of the victory of worldwide liberal democracy was proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama in 1992. In the 2000s his book The End of History and the Last Man was discreetly given to jailed Belarusian political prisoners (yes, there already were political prisoners in Belarus in the 2000s!). It inspired hope and even certainty that we were moving along dependable political rails. Three years ago, in 2020, so comforting to the protesting Belarusians were the words of the Russian video blogger Maxim Katz when he said that we were, surely and definitely, just about to win because democratic uprisings in the modern world had almost always been successful!

Yet we failed. Well, that’s what happens. Of course, not every uprising (especially a peaceful one) has been successful and no one promised us everything we wanted. But our victory is imminent, isn’t it? We just have to wait bravely! All empires collapse sooner or later, dictators die and dictatorships necessarily go out of existence, don’t they?

Or perhaps they don’t. Is it not a centuries-old, virtually endless authoritarian rule that we can see in China (which on top of that is an empire in all respects); as well as in most countries of Islamic civilisation? Also in India, which is considered to be a democracy and where the pressure of the caste system on individuals is so high that no state authoritarianism could dream of such control. Moreover, not the slightest change for the better in the Global South is apparently expected and this ‘South’ is really close to us because the neighbouring ‘East’ is increasingly interacting with it. It turns out there is nothing to suggest that positive change will occur over time by itself, without any kind of conscious effort on the part of human society.

Actually, even if democracy had the power to establish itself, so to speak, in the course of natural development, if it had the power to arrive like spring arrives – could we be confident enough that we would be ready for it, we who have not learned the difficult science of democracy, we who have not passed the test? Let’s remember the words of Fareed Zakaria: ‘In today’s world … two components of liberal democracy essential to the Western political model are more and more diverging from one another. Democracy is blooming while freedom is not’ (The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria). If we consider not the whole world but Europe where democratic systems are already working, we will still have to face Richard Holbrooke’s dilemma cited by Fareed Zakaria in his book: ‘Suppose the election was declared free and fair, and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists. ... That is the dilemma.’ One can say that we Belarusians brought this dilemma to life almost 30 years ago: we chose our first and, to this day, only president by the majority of votes in a fair and democratic election.

Then he ‘elected’ himself. He established full control over vote counting and, in order to suppress popular unrest, he created and built up the Belarusian security and bureaucratic apparatus, far exceeding Soviet standards in numbers and loyalty. As a result, Belarus has one of the world’s largest police forces (our police is still called ‘militia,’ after the Soviet fashion) per capita, and the share of state employees in Belarus (4.2% per cent of the working population) is even higher than that in Russia (3.3%). When we, the eyewitnesses of the 2020 Revolution, say that most of the people in Belarus are opposed to Lukashenka, we must remember that hundreds of thousands of militiamen and state employees have loving families and loyal friends. How many are there who depend on them, those state employees, who are worried about losing their jobs, or their freedom, or even their heads (Lukashenka likes to say threatening things like, “I’ll rip your head off!”)? And even of those who wholeheartedly serve the regime (because we know that there are many people in the world who like ‘order and a strong hand’); how many among the ten million Belarusians are there who agree with the government and support the regime? No one knows.

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And how many Belarusians stand for democracy? According to the BISS report ‘Mental democratization Changes in the Sphere of Values of Belarusians’ (the independent Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies suspended operations in 2023), “…there are less than 50% consistent supporters of democracy in Belarus, but most likely they are not less than 30%.” Of course, we can assume that some respondents understood democracy broadly as ‘people power’ or even as ‘power for the people;’ others as liberal democracy; the rest as guaranteed liberal freedoms, perhaps, through certain limitations of the demands of the majority. Nevertheless, the conclusions can be considered encouraging.

But let’s think, what methods can help the liberal democratic-minded minority win hegemony in the state and society? And how, having achieved the victory they are aiming for, are ‘consistent supporters of democracy’ (in any sense), supposed to cooperate with their (to put it mildly) ‘inconsistent’ compatriots so as to avoid repeating the painful experience of the 1994 Belarusian presidential election?

There are no firm answers to the first question. Let’s recall that the main source of danger was Russia (though not recognized as such by everyone). The danger was real and in no way exaggerated. Had we won in 2020 we would have been facing foreign intervention just like the situation with peoples of the Warsaw Pact countries until the late 1980s. And changes inside Russia are, alas, beyond our control. The Belarusians (both inside and outside Belarus) have even less leverage over Russia than the Russians. We don’t have either legal political parties or ‘intellectual clubs.’ Our underground – the notorious ‘sleeper cells’ – is mostly able to act in the imagination of the special services.

Is simply waiting for the inevitable collapse of authoritarianism the only thing we can do?

Let’s imagine that what we have waited for has happened. Russia is out of the game, the authoritarianism at home has collapsed, in other words it is 1991 again. How will the second question be answered then? Will democratic activists be ready to establish their own ‘enlightened authoritarianism’ that would guarantee liberal freedoms? Will they have the patience and tact to hear the wishes and opinions of the shy and the inactive, of those who did nothing to win democratic power for the people, will they be able to reckon with them, and not only before the election?

In my opinion, this is a dual problem: How to survive the ‘winter’ without getting frozen and how not to drown in the mud in the ‘spring.’

∗ ∗ ∗

I am now going to express some cautious (if not timid) optimism. Leaving aside the increased knowledge and awareness levels and the value trends reported by BISS, I notice, especially in our horrible 2020s, something that is hard to put into words.

Empathy and solidarity. These have really changed lately. The exceptionally strict Soviet system, while declaring collectivism, destroyed, among other things, mutual support practices and suppressed altruism, respectively. These are interrelated. In the 1980s it was often heard that one had to ‘work with one’s elbows,’ shoving the people in the crowd, whereas sober cynicism and practicality started to be valued highly even earlier. However, over the decades when the atomising and attention blurring care of the state eased up, people began to learn cooperation. I’m not only speaking about non-governmental organisations, although their impact in Belarus was substantial as they were the first to set the example of self-organisation (it was not without reason that in 2021 the authorities carried out a large-scale purge of Belarusian NGOs) I am mostly speaking about unorganised, informal and even ‘shapeless’ micro level structures. At the time they were not very noticeable.

But in 2020 the situation flared up. The amazing, the evident and absolutely ‘impossible’ thing was the massive readiness for mutual support shown by the people. Hundred thousand-strong street protests were only a striking consequence, only a superficial manifestation of other, more profound processes.

© Image courtesy of the author

In fact, everything started as early as at the beginning of 2020. The pandemic. Half a year until the presidential election. While Lukashenka and his henchmen were boorishly expressing their attitude to Covid victims: “I mean how can one survive, weighing in at 135 kg?” ”Well he’d turn 80 the next day! Why would he want to walk about, why would he want to work at all?!” … While the authorities were refusing to acknowledge the problem, while they were telling lies and shaking fists, being simply unable to provide health facilities with the appropriate protective equipment, a new volunteer campaign rolled all over the country. The #ByHelp initiative started off on social media where volunteers distributed the work among themselves and purchased materials which were then taken to other volunteers who in their spare time sewed medical protective clothes from spunbond fabric, made face masks from snorkelling masks (missing pieces were printed on 3D printers) and then distributed everything to hospitals. Also distributed were hot meals, water and food for health workers. #ByHelp volunteers refused to rent out their flats, offering them for free to doctors so they could continue to work in dangerous areas and have a safe place to rest in order to avoid contact with elderly family members. The people showed to the state what they were capable of doing without the state … and the state didn’t like it at all.

When in May 2020 the election campaign began, those same people – businessmen, workers, programmers, doctors, students – inspired by their own ‘We can!’ slogan, started to join initiative groups of alternative candidates. A surge of popular enthusiasm, mutual support and solidarity engulfed not only the capital but also the provinces.

With the beginning of the mass protests against the persecution of presidential candidates and their campaign staff members, against the election fraud and severe beatings of peaceful protesters, the solidarity wave rose even higher. People were helping each other with everything, including money of course. A citizens’ fundraising initiative was launched: BySol. It grew into a foundation, which was later branded ‘extremist.’ Before that, the foundation in 2022 alone managed to distribute 1 million 114 thousand Euros worth of aid.

The authorities proved to be afraid of human interaction. They began persecuting those who were involved in the raising and distribution of funds to pay lawyers, to help families of the detained. The persecution is still going on. The authorities are punishing with savage prison terms anyone they can get their hands on, sniffing out anyone who supports the persecuted. More than three years on since August 2020 the persecution for supporting others not only hasn’t ended, it has taken a wild, insane form. For example, the court sentenced a Minsk resident to a five-year imprisonment for a donation of $20 he made five years before.

A former massage coach of the Belarusian biathlon national team was tried twice within three months for financing ‘extremist’ and ‘terrorist’ activities. He was sentenced to nine and a half years in a high-security penal colony.

In July 2023 alone, Belarusian courts handed down 11 sentences for making donations. Over the past few years the total number of such sentences has amounted to dozens if not hundreds and not all of the cases have become known to Belarusian human rights defenders who monitor repression in the country. Family members of some of the detainees and prisoners fear that publicity can be harmful to their loved ones. That is why helping the persecuted in Belarus is becoming almost an underground, partisan activity. Bringing food parcels to detention centres and prisons, keeping in touch with imprisoned relatives and supporting them has become the meaning and the form of today’s underground.

On July 29 exiled Belarusian media and human rights organisations held a We Care!’ online solidarity marathon to support political prisoners and their families. This initiative was supported by politicians, bloggers, musicians, sportsmen, foreign diplomats, former political prisoners and relatives of those who are still imprisoned. In the first 12 hours of the marathon 335 thousand Euros were raised and by midnight of July 30 over 574 thousand Euros more. In their home country, Belarusians get prosecuted for donations but from the safety of another country they keep helping their compatriots in any way they can. The solidarity marathon was an outstanding event but in most cases this kind of help is not made public. People help other people in a quiet, reliable and confidential way.

The state understands that the main source of danger is horizontal cooperation between people. That is why it attacks any tangible expressions of this cooperation. What the state needs is an atomised powder of dissociated individuals.

This means that Belarusian society has hit upon the right approaches: empathy and solidarity, compassion and mutual support.

I don’t think that any kind of national reconciliation (‘national unity’ as propaganda media puts it) is feasible in the near future, or that we can find common ground with supporters of the current government and with opportunists. Instead we can conduct a wordless monologue by means of our actions, thus conversing with everyone. Can this guarantee our victory? Can this give us a glimmer of hope that our victory will come? No one can say. But we can be sure that time will not be wasted.

Translated from Russian by Alexander Stoliarchuk

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