It’s been exactly a year since the August 9 presidential elections in Belarus.
We believe that the little-known Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya won, but strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has now ruled the country for 27 years, refuses to leave office. He has managed to hold power by force: repressing, torturing and threatening Belarusians. We, the democratic movement, now mark a year since we started our struggle for a better future in Belarus without Lukashenko, and we don’t plan to give up.
For outsiders, the situation might look like political stalemate. But it’s not.
The regime is desperately trying to fight the fires that ignite every week and in new places. They aim to eliminate all possible sources of unrest and wear down what remains of civil society. In just one year, the regime has repressed over 36,000 people, expelled and imprisoned hundreds of journalists, and destroyed charity organisations and NGOs. Currently, there are 610 political prisoners, and the number is growing every day.
Former President Lukashenko crossed a red line after the Ryanair incident, making himself an international terrorist and a threat to the international community. This summer, Lukashenko weaponised illegal migration to create a crisis at the border of the European Union and take revenge on neighbouring Lithuania who hosted and endorsed Tsikhanouskaya and her movement. Just last week, the regime attempted to kidnap athlete Tsimanouskaya, who criticised her coaches, from the Olympic village, and bring her into the hands of the KGB as it did with journalist Raman Pratasevich.
All of these incidents are signs of the insecurity and fragility of this regime, not its strength.
Lukashenko managed to suppress mass gatherings, but he can’t stop what is going on inside of the regime. There are multiple signs of growing discontent among those who were supposed to be loyalists but who are now looking for a way out and don’t want to share responsibility for the regime’s crimes. The constant rotation of ministers and siloviki is another sign of Lukashenko’s mistrust and fear of betrayal.
Moreover, the regime doesn’t have anything to offer to people except violence and terror, which remain their only source of legitimacy. There is no positive agenda at all: only threats and demonstrative punishments and theatrical confessions on camera. The regime is not capable of conducting reform, and this has become clear for those near Lukashenko and those in the Kremlin who watch the regime’s behaviour closely and push the idea of political change through constitutional reform instead of revolution.
However, last year, Belarusians already survived several revolutions: electoral, civil, and cultural. Belarusian society strengthened its identity and acquired new qualities. This new Belarusian society doesn’t need the “father,” or boss, to solve its problems. It is self-organised and self-sustainable, with its own vibrant (albeit virtual institutions), media, and social infrastructure. Moreover, the society has developed an immunity to dictatorship which will ensure a smooth democratic transition with no return to authoritarianism in the future.
Obviously, the point of no-return has been passed, and Belarus will not go back to the reality of May 2020.
But does that mean that revolution has won? Definitely, not.
There is still a difficult and complex path to its ultimate goal: free elections. We will prepare for the next wave of protests, which may look different than a year ago, and which will not necessarily start in Minsk this time.
We are preparing for the nationwide strike, which failed last year because of a lack of organisation. Sixteen thousand workers have already joined the “Workers Movement,” aimed at stopping central state enterprises when the right moment comes. In contrast to 2020, we have our own special service, ByPol, formed by former law enforcement officers who provide intelligence and recently launched the unique digital tool “Peramoha,” aimed at coordinating underground resistance. The vast network of media, YouTube, and Telegram channels, are countering propaganda narratives, and have helped us to reach social groups, which have never been involved in politics before, such as army officers, doctors, or pensioners.
We will continue putting multiple points of pressure on the regime until it agrees to negotiations. This pressure includes internal resistance but also international efforts. Sanctions are not a silver bullet, but they help keep the regime under stress and force it to change its behaviour. But in order to be effective, sanctions must be comprehensive, joint, and coordinated. This was one of the main points Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya raised in meetings with US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this month.
We prepared a vision of a new Belarus: we have already drafted the Constitution and aimed to guarantee a division of power, so in future elections, we will not elect a new Lukashenko. We also have prepared white papers on reforms in the economy, social sphere, healthcare, and IT. Our IT diaspora, forced to flee the country after the crackdown, helped us to design the project of digital transformation and e-governance, so when change comes to Belarus, we will be ready to embrace the best technological know-how from the most advanced countries.
The Belarusian struggle is not a choice between the west and east. It is the fight between past and future.
One year ago, Belarusians clearly stated: we have had enough; we want to move forward and live in a democratic society. The regime is mistaken when it thinks it can stop time. The process has been launched already. It will never win the minds of the people again.
We are as close to democratic changes as ever in our history, and it’s our chance. It’s also a chance for Europe to show that democratic values matter, and it’s ready to stand for those who fearlessly fight for them.
Franak Viacorka is the senior advisor to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran for president in Belarus' August 9, 2020 elections.