“We’re almost at the end”: Helping a Revolution through Transnational Activism around Belarus

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29.09.2021
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11 min read
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Contemporary Struggles, Grassroots Movement Building
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© Jędrzej Nowicki

Among many unexpected developments of the year 2020, on 24 May Belarusians began their peaceful struggle for electoral freedom, and they have not stopped since. In some sense, they surprised themselves in the last several months by transforming from a society which had come to terms with political stagnation into a nation which is proud of its activism, self-organization and mutual aid.

These actions have been extended beyond the borders of their country. Faced with increasing and unremitting terror inside Belarus, activists from neighbouring countries are assuming an ever-larger responsibility – whether it is because Belarusian activists are being pushed out of their own land, or the conditions for activism in Belarus have deteriorated because of state violence.

„Peremen!” − We want changes!

On the surface, nothing foreshadowed such a turn of events. In recent years, the subject of activism for the Belarusian cause had been losing traction, with other challenges coming to the foreground. In addition, due to cultural reasons, the Belarusian diaspora was not as active or united as some others tend to be.

The revolution began several months before the presidential election. However, from its very outbreak, it expressed societal changes and a worldview shift rather than any particular politics. The first wave of the pandemic was disastrous for Belarus, and Lukashenko’s denialism clearly demonstrated to Belarusians that they could not count on their state to take action. Out of necessity rather than any political belief, people started self-organizing against the pandemic. They created crowdfunding campaigns, activated micro-communities in their neighbourhoods, and often agreed beforehand not to discuss politics in order to avoid conflict among the organizers. It was then that they understood they were a nation of people who were capable to function well on their own, and the system hindered them rather than helped.

2020’s revolution changed everything, including the engagement of political forces in neighbouring countries, and even the mentality of the Belarusians themselves. The current radical transformation has brought about a wide range of new challenges for activists as well as once again unearthed ones from the past. They include: helping for a new wave of refugees, monitoring human rights violations, putting pressure on politicians despite the pandemic and regional governments’ authoritarian tendencies, and advocating abroad in spite of information chaos and a language barrier. Moreover, activists must overcome organizational problems, such as effective coordination or burnout.

State terror, human rights violations and accountability

Today, daily life in Belarus is comparable to 1930s Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. During the first four months of protests, nearly thirty thousand people have been arrested, with most brutally beaten or even tortured. Clearly, one urgent problem in Belarus is the lack of the rule of law and the impunity of the armed forces. These officers actively wreak terror in the country and commit crimes which bear the characteristics of crime against humanity. The Belarusian people are being repressed for peaceful protests. Protesters were labelled with spray paint and divided into categories. If they use the Belarusian language or the historical white-red-white flag, they are being beaten with greater force.

Because the corrupt judicial system refuses to hold state officers accountable for their actions, this is a major task for non-governmental organizations. It includes identifying the perpetrators, verifying victims’ reports, and finally creating databases which would allow lawyers to ultimately take thousands of these cases to court. Currently, the legal system in Belarus is simply not working, which means that these steps need to be taken elsewhere: whether by imposing international sanctions, or by international court proceedings. This is a great challenge for human rights lawyers as the nature of these cases makes it difficult to act from abroad. 

The first months of 2021 have shown that despite loud declarations, few countries decided to prosecute the perpetrators in courts. Some of them were added to sanction lists, but the number is far from satisfactory. The struggle for “justice here and now” continues for Belarusians and activists.

Lukashenko’s totalitarian methods have been increasingly effective in obstructing justice. Threats of imprisonment and violence as well as repressions against families are pushing an ever-larger number of activists out of the country. And once they have left Belarus, in addition to workaholism for the sake of the revolution, they are confronted with a new set of challenges: getting their bearings in an unfamiliar and unfriendly environment governed by its own rules. Many have a hard time adapting to a “reality of two speeds.” Whereas everything needs to be done today or “yesterday” in revolution-torn Belarus, organizations operate on a business-as-usual basis in the relatively peaceful neighbouring countries. Many Belarusian activists find it difficult to cope with this, because the matters of life and death they are dealing with do not seem as urgent to local institutions.

In practice, local activists often bear the brunt of these intercultural misunderstandings. They are suspended between a feeling of guilt for having avoided the trauma of violence experienced by their colleagues on site in Belarus, and the intense expectation to provide effective help, which is not only imposed on them not only by others, but also by themselves.

Aid to refugees

The regime terrorizes its citizens through direct physical repressions as well as systemic oppression. People are being dismissed from state-owned workplaces or forced to flee the country by threats of prison or physical harm. Due to this, activists in neighbouring countries are seeing a wave of refugees from Belarus. The challenges start at determining the exact number of refugees. In Poland, many Belarusians come on a tourist visa or the so-called Polish Card, which enabled them to leave Belarus more easily. Therefore, it is only after several months that they turn to organizations to help them legalize their further stay. Others have come to neighbouring countries under dramatic circumstances, such as escaping on foot over green borders. Some have required urgent medical help due to the injuries they suffered at the hands of their oppressors.

All this makes it difficult to collect clear data on the scale of the problem as well as estimate how much work and resources were, are, and will be required to help them.

Belarusian refugees tend to seek opportunities for employment. However, the pandemic makes it even more difficult for local volunteers to help find employment for people who are absorbed with a different reality, do not speak the local language, but still would like to work in their learned profession.

In addition, Belarusian immigrant activists expect their colleagues from neighbouring countries to help them collect money for the cause. Unfortunately, available funds are limited, and much money is lost somewhere between local politicians’ promises and the bank accounts of foundations which purchase food and clothing for the refugees, not to mention other purposes. The friction is further intensified by the refugees’ belief that activists get remunerated for their volunteerism, and it is therefore their job to help. With the refugees’ high expectations and the limited local resources, activists in the neighbouring countries often find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

The problem of closed borders

Aid to refugees is only one problem exacerbated by closed borders. Starting on 1 November 2020, Belarus has made it extremely difficult for foreigners to enter. Even some Belarusians are not being admitted: those which have been deemed as dangerous by the regime, such as students studying abroad, doctors working abroad, and subjects of recent repression wishing to return home.

The conditions under which borders can be crossed are changed from week to week, or even within hours. In late October 2020, before the borders were officially closed, they were suddenly cut off for hours, with anyone attempting to cross being turned away. The situation at the borders requires constant monitoring and communication by Belarusian diasporas in neighbouring countries.

What is more, the restrictions on transnational mobility have made monetary aid to the injured or the laid-off increasingly difficult, with transfer recipients risking prison or torture. Thus, organizing and promoting safe and effective money transfers to mutual aid funds such as ByHelp or BySol has become a key task for activists abroad. These funds serve to pay the cost of medical treatments for the injured and high fines as well as to cover losses resulting from imprisonment or the dismissal of striking workers.

Keeping up the pressure

Many of these problems − such as state violence or obstacles to refugee aid – require systemic solutions, and therefore putting pressure on regional authorities is key. Surprisingly, the recent events in Belarus have actually given activists in Poland more bargaining power to finally solve a problem which had plagued them for years. In response to the recent influx of refugees, the Polish government introduced one-year humanitarian visas with a work permit included. It should be mentioned that it was a convenient moment for the Polish authorities: the subject of Belarus allowed them to draw the public’s attention away from their controversial, authoritarian decisions.

On the other hand, lobbying on the international arena is being hindered by many countries’ relationship with Russia – including EU members. Activists for the Belarusian cause must analyze the geopolitical situation in the world in order to localize these problems. One example of this is Cyprus, which had initially resisted the European plans of imposing personal sanctions on Lukashenko and his closest collaborators, but as a result of pressure – including by Cypriot activists – abandoned attempts to veto the sanctions.

Recent developments pertaining to sanctions in 2021 demonstrate that European Union is not going to act as fiercely as it was expected to. The EU’s three sets of sanctions hit the regime hard, but they have not tipped the scales. The decision not to proceed with further sanctions is surprising. It also requires twice the activists’ effort at a moment when the subject of Belarus has disappeared from press covers, and is slowly joining the war in Ukraine (which has been going on for six years) in the category of subjects which no longer interest the public opinion.

An informational challenge

Advocacy abroad, including raising international awareness about the Belarusian cause, and fighting disinformation required patience and a sustained effort from activists and citizen journalists. The international media assumed that the August 2020 presidential election would go as they usually had done historically: some or no protests would take place after the manipulated election, protesters would be dispersed, and opposing candidates arrested. History took a different turn. Although the wind of change was felt even before the election, it was difficult to persuade the media to talk about Belarus.

After the election, the challenge for citizen journalists and activists was to cut through the information chaos and provide documented, organized information to interested citizens and the media abroad. The political situation was difficult to explain as there are even fewer experts on Belarus than there are on Central and Eastern Europe in general. After several weeks of coverage, the audience grew tired of the subject, and other international events dominated the headlines.

Activists and citizen journalists had an even greater task of fighting disinformation and manipulations coming from Minsk and the Kremlin. Belarusians took to citizen media in search for reliable information. Because many journalists and newsrooms were forced to flee, they continue to deliver news to their country transnationally via the Internet – which poses its own set of challenges.

Activism in international relations

After the election, many members of the new political opposition which emerged during the election campaign were given the choice to leave the country or be arrested. Some decided to continue their work from abroad, forming The Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power. It comprises very few “professional” politicians, with most originally being social activists.

Their greatest challenge was to legitimize the legally elected Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya and counter the false narrative of Lukashenko’s ability to remain in power. They have successfully demonstrated to international politicians that Lukashenko is an usurper, which led to a change in attitudes towards him. Moreover, the opposition has been raising awareness about what the world can gain from the fall of the regime in Belarus. As a result, any doors of the EU are closed doors for Lukashenko for good. Or at least they seem to be.

This was achieved partly due to the fact that many of the „opposition politicians” associated with the revolution had little to do with politics, or even activism until early 2020. The mere fact that it took just half a year for these regular people to create an effective, convincing political force, which was prepared to participate in top-level international politics, is proof of a certain irreversible change in Belarus. For Belarusians, Cichanouska remains an activist, although she has also become a respected politician. The values to which the united campaign referred are cultivated by activists all over Europe and the world. Through a change of outlook and awakening hope in Belarusians, Cichanouska – with Veranika Tsapkala and Maria Kalesnikava – were able to effect political change in the international approach towards Belarus. The West has understood that Lukashenko does not represent the interests of Belarusians, and has noticed Belarus’ significance in the region. The Russian military presence there has a hold over all the neighbouring countries. Belarus’s sovereignty (not necessarily understood as it joining the West) would reduce Russia’s influence in the region.

Although it could seem that these high-level talks are the domain of politicians – even new ones, such as the president elect − most of these successes were achieved due to the actions of activists who have been investigating power structures in Belarus for many years. When the opposition was collaborating with representatives of democratic states to design plans of economic restructuring for a country so dependent on Russia, activists were invited as experts to share their detailed knowledge on the workings of Belarusian politics and economy.

Difficulties in coordination

Currently, the Belarusian diaspora is responding to many needs. Some émigrés in cities abroad – both large and small ones − have devoted their time and money to help their fellow citizens or even quit their jobs. Some turned to organizations which have existed for many years, others have established new ones, and others still organized into informal activist groups.

Such fragmentation caused difficulties in coordinating action. With no central organization, many people took on the same tasks, unaware of others’ actions. For example, several different handbooks (e.g. 1 or 2) for refugees in Poland were being written at the same time, and none contained all the necessary information. Today, activists remain surprisingly badly coordinated, and each attempt to centralize aid in Poland has failed.

Meanwhile, state funding was granted mainly to older, well-established organizations, some of which were not able to rise to the occasion. This caused friction among activists, some of whom felt that this money could have been better spent to help refugees. Some organizations even proved to be untrustworthy. However, seeking justice for those in need for undivided attention is another highly troublesome subject altogether.

Outsiders looking in

It is especially demanding for activists to experience the Belarusian reality vicariously through the Internet while remaining outside the country. For many, this proved to be a leap into the deep end: the revolution has been raging for almost a year, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

Under these circumstances, activists should take great care of their mental health. Burnout is a real risk as many worked day and night during the first several weeks. As many work through social media and the media in general, they are flooded with images and accounts of inexplicable violence and suffering. Those who have only worked from abroad are often struggling with the regret and guilt of not participating in person, while those who have been there are haunted by traumatic memories.

Although this is not nearly as traumatic as daily life in Belarus today, the cognitive dissonance − with images from Belarus clashing with the activists’ immediate surroundings – and the physical distance make transnational activism an exhausting and demanding endeavour. Nevertheless, it is reassuring that Belarusians, who have surprised the world with their decisiveness and unrelenting peaceful resistance, continue to inspire many other societies in their struggle for freedom.

New generation, new perspective

In Poland, a great benefit which stemmed from the transnational character of activism for Belarus was the popularization of creative non-violent resistance tactics among activists for other causes. For many years, Poles have felt responsible for the entire region and in some sense even wanted to teach Ukrainians and Belarusians how to transition into a democratic state. However, the new generation of Polish activists is not following that narrative. They admire Belarusians and draw freely from their strategies and tactics (although sometimes resorting to inadequate comparisons between the current situation in the two countries.)

Many actions within the recent Women’s Strike against an abortion ban were inspired by Belarussians. Like them, Polish women have started using the Telegram app to communicate, blocking traffic in order to protest despite the pandemic or shaming police officers who abuse their power. Women’s rights activists have also formed a deliberative body similar to the Coordination Council.

Even Russians admit that the recent protests in their country were also inspired by the Belarusian revolution. And despite the different structure of the social movement which seeks to remove Putin from power, it uses similar methods of building courage and hope for a better tomorrow. Moreover, whereas Russians have a single leader who unified the opposition, Belarusians have had several, and each time the regime managed to control one, another emerged. This is how Cichanouska became nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – as a sort of coincidence.

This exchange of ideas clearly shows that today’s young generations feel very at home with technologies used for transnational activism. Harnessing their power in a productive way could open up a new future in advocating for causes across borders. The engagement of activists from the entire region could also facilitate the final step of the Belarusian revolution – a step which seems simultaneously short and distant. After all, it is literally hundreds of kilometres away. Activists working for the Belarusian cause do not fully know how to take this step. Exhausted, they cannot wait to finally be able to look back and tell stories about the bittersweet end of the revolution rather than be perpetually stuck in it.

About the contributor

Nikita Grekowicz
Member of the Board of The Free Belarus Initiative

Nikita Grekowicz has been a volunteer for The Free Belarus Initiative since 2009. A graduate of Liberal Arts at the University of Warsaw, he has been writing about Eastern Europe, mainly Belarus, for OKO.press since June 2020.