2020 has been an unprecedented year for the entire world, yet Belarus stands out. The country has been making international headlines throughout the year due to government’s response to COVID-19, rigged presidential elections, unseen before peaceful protest movement and unimaginable state violence. Belarus is undergoing the most dramatic political crisis in its history, and is facing economic recession, foreign policy default and human rights catastrophe. For the ninth consecutive year, Pact offers our choice of top 10 developments that took place in Belarus in 2020.
Pact Belarus team
Unprecedented Political Participation and Solidarity
The 2020 presidential elections were unique from its very beginning due to the emergence of unexpected candidates and unprecedented electoral activity, as well as severe government repressions that fueled civic activism and solidarity. During the election campaign, hundreds of volunteers joined the alternative candidates’ teams. Belarusians spent hours in queues to sign and then vote for candidates. Starting from August 9th, non-stop peaceful protests and solidarity actions continue to take place across Belarus. Over million Belarusians have taken part in protest actions at least once. The largest of the weekly Sunday’s rallies gathered hundreds of thousands of protesters becoming the most massive public protest event in the history of modern Belarus. The peaceful protest is diverse and inclusive – students, women, retired citizens, athletes and celebrities, healthcare workers, people with disabilities, IT professionals, private businesses and others participated in a variety of forms: street marches and solidarity chains, public appeals, quitting government service, strikes, sit-ins, street murals, protest songs, cyber activism, non-payment of utilities, blacklisting companies that support the regime, blocking the railway, de-anonymization of police, establishing people’s embassies abroad and many others.
New Civic Initiatives Mushroom
The first sign of a new breath for civil society was observed in the midst of the 1st wave of the COVID-19 pandemic when Belarusian society managed to adapt to the new situation much faster than the state. #ByCovid19 volunteer campaign raised funds to buy protective gear and medical equipment for Belarusian doctors. Later, the election campaign and a wave of repression sparked an explosion of initiatives related to alternative vote counting, support of victims of repressions, monitoring and collecting data on state violence, accelerating new initiatives and many others. Some examples include: Golos and Zubr platforms that produced documented evidence that the election results were rigged in favor of Lukashenka. Probono has united over 250 organizations to help the repressed. The 23.34 and August2020 collect evidence of arbitrary arrests and tortures. Spiski.live searches for people who have been detained for participating in protests. Complaint Generator helps citizens create formal complaints to government agencies. Politzek.me creates connections with political prisoners.
An impressive phenomenon of 2020 is the formation of civil society at the grassroot level, also known as the Yard Revolution. In response to the unjust and aggressive state actions, people started to get to know their neighbors in order to solve local problems themselves and support each other. During the warm season, dozens of courtyards, primarily in Minsk, conducted neighborhood picnics, concerts, and meetings with scientists. The authorities even drew up a map of most active communities in Minsk labelling them as “unreliable districts” and put pressure on such neighborhoods: for example, for three days, residents of Novaya Borovaya district were deprived of access to water. Recently, the Sunday rallies are held in a decentralized format: demonstrators march in their neighborhoods.
Unprecedented Crowdfunding and Self-Help
In the midst of the election campaign, the authorities banned Ulej and MolaMola crowdfunding platforms. However, that did not stop the solidarity Belarusians. The first fundraising record of the year belongs to the campaign #ByCovid19 that collected over $360,000 for doctors. The elections, however, broke this record when Belarusians raised $7,850,000 for victims of state repressions. Crowdfunding and other help is facilitated by a number of thematic platforms, most of which emerged after the elections – ByHelp (reimbursement of fines and lawyers), BySol (support to workers who lost jobs because of their political views), Honest People, Imena, Media Solidarity Belarus, Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, Belarusian Culture Solidarity Foundation, Medical Solidarity Fund and Solidarity Fund of Belarusian scientists. By December 1, BySol and ByHelp paid $4.4 million in assistance to some 7,000 victims.
Unprecedented Role of Women
When back in spring 2020 Alexander Lukashenka claimed that the Belarusian Constitution was not designed for a woman, the events of the election campaign and afterwards have proven that statement wrong. Sviatlana Tikhanouskaya, 37, a former stay-at-home mother, became the main rival of the incumbent and continues to remain a leader of the democratic democractic movement. Sviatlana along with Maryja Kalesnikava, the campaign manager for opposition candidate Viktor Babariko, and Veranika Tsapkala, a wife of the opposition candidate, gave a hope to Belarusians for change. Hundreds of women in white dresses and with flowers filled the streets of Belarusian cities to stop the inexplicable police brutality that was observed during the first several days of peaceful protests in August. Women’s Marches were held regularly on Saturdays, and Nina Baginskaya, became an icon protester who never stopped resisting injustice at the age of 73.
Belarus is now called Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists with nearly 450 press freedom violations in the past four months. Since the election day, the journalists were detained 382 times; at the moment, 4 journalists are behind bars. Nine journalists are targeted by criminal investigation. Over 70 news portals are blocked in the territory of Belarus, while the largest Belarusian independent news provider TUT.by was deprived of its mass media status.
Reemergence of National Symbols
The white-red-white flag and the Chase coat of arms used to be official national symbols in Belarus between 1991-1995, and were replaced during Lukashenka’s rule. They have now returned as symbols of peaceful protest and demand for change. In the past, those symbols were primarily used by the scarce Belarusian political opposition. Now you can see the white-red-white colors everywhere, though the authorities fight any manifestation of them “tooth and nail”. Belarusians display the flags in private apartment windows, cars and balconies, and recreate protest colors in public spaces – in murals, decorating spaces with ribbons, freezing flags under ice, making colored paper snowflakes and developing district flags. This revival of national symbols is linked to the strengthening of the national identity of Belarusians – the protesters do not display European or Russian flags, but show precisely the Belarusian-centric demands and expectations.
Civil Society Transitions Online
In 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak became the first serious challenge for the civil society, and certainly impacted its work and plans. Civil society groups managed to digitize their programs in an efficient way, and set up remote team work models. CSOs launched special online services to provide technical, information and moral support amid the pandemic; educational “marathons” and festivals; self-help groups and even singing together on Youtube. Some large offline events that traditionally gathered thousands of people, such as the Freedom Day, were adapted to the online mode. CSO-related projects were kicked off to monitor socio-economic data (CovidEconomy), to search for policy solutions (CovidResearch) and to monitor the authorities’ response to the pandemic (CovidMonitor).
Telegram Becomes Main Information and Communication Tool
Internet was shut down in Belarus during the first three day of post-election protests. Only Telegram and some other online resources were available inside the country. During that period, Telegram gained phenomenal popularity, having become a powerful engine of change in Belarus, acting both as a messenger and a full-fledged media. For example, the audience of Nexta Live Telegram channel reached 2 million subscribers. Telegram channels of independent media also grow their audience rapidly. Professional and local communities create Telegram chats to coordinate their actions – Dze.chat platform unites over 1,000 local chats, engaging between 6% to 15% of Minsk population. Fearing Telegram’s effectiveness, the state targets and persecutes local channel administrators, and the authors of Nexta are included on the wanted terrorist list.
And now for something completely different: Oxford Dictionary picks ‘Belarusian’ among the Words of an Unprecedented Year
The word ‘Belarusian’ has been selected by the Oxford English Dictionary as one of the Words of an Unprecedented Year with the following explanation: The August re-election of Alexander Lukashenka in Belarus saw the adjective Belarusian rise up the corpus charts rapidly as the story made the news around the world.