In August 2020, the citizens of Belarus started the biggest protest movement in the history of their country. Belarusians rose up in opposition to the results of a disputed presidential election in which Aleksandr Lukashenka allegedly received more than 80% of the votes. The elections were Lukashenka’s attempt to prolong his authoritarian rule. The first wave of massive peaceful protests were repressed by Lukashenka’s security officers with a shocking level of brutality which not only drew condemnation from many apolitical Belarusians and the international community, but also sparked further protests.
Almost three months have elapsed since the elections, but Belarusians haven’t been deterred from protesting peacefully. Every Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people march on the streets of Minsk and other cities across the country. The intensity, longevity, and creativity of the protests surprised everyone, including the Belarusians themselves. Yet, the ambition of the Belarusian revolution is clear: the complete overhaul of the paternalistic authoritarian regime and the founding of a sustainable participative democracy with a strong rule of law.
Among the many unique aspects of the Belarusian revolution, we would like to discuss those important developments that are not known outside of the country and that reveal the staying power of democratic movement. In what follows, we provide a brief field report from the streets of Minsk and discuss the role of unfolding counter-publics for contesting the authoritarian rule of Lukashenka. Crucial in this emerging – yet overlooked – aspect of the revolution is the role of street art, happenings, flash mobs, and neighborhood activism in reclaiming the public space of Belarusian streets. These aesthetic practices, as we intend to show, have managed to bring people together, help them restore their suppressed dignity, and create new networks of mutual solidarity.
The idea behind this article was born through mutual conversation between two TCDS Global Fellows and close friends—one actively participating in the protests and the other following it closely from a distance. For Aliaksandr, a Belarusian, the revolution is a lifetime opportunity to actively shape the future of his country. For Karolina, a Pole, it is a moment of global significance through which she reflects on the conditions in her own country being torn apart by the populist regime of the Law and Justice Party.
The Art of Revolution
On August 8, the night before the election day, nobody knew how the situation would play out, but it was obvious that people were going to protest. The scale of the anti-Lukashenka campaign, emergence of fresh faces in the opposition, and popular anger over the ongoing pandemic (mis)management suggested that this would be the most significant elections in the history of the country. Yet, nobody expected the mass scale of upcoming societal changes.
In the 26 years of Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule, he has managed to remove all opposition leaders from the political scene by either killing them, imprisoning them, or forcing them to leave the country. The remaining opposition and civil society groups were fragmented and demoralized. A part of the unspoken agreement with the regime was political passivity and conformism of a large part of the Belarusian society. Fraudulent elections were part of this continuous public spectacle of authoritarianism.
Seemingly, things were no different this time around. Before the elections, the major opposition candidates, Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Viktar Babaryka along with dozens other opposition figures were arrested. Valery Tsapkala, another would-be opposition candidate, fled the country to avoid arrest. Tsikhanouski’s wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, then united the opposition and built her campaign on demands for free elections and the release of all political prisoners. Lukaskenka could not conceive of Tsikhanouskaya as a serious opponent. In his view, a housewife with no prior political experience could not possibly threaten his power. However, his arrogance returned to haunt him as the unexpected had come to pass. Tsikhanouskaya managed to inspire and unite the country, and it is widely believed that she won the election by a landslide. Still, she was forced to leave the country.
After August 9, Belarusians were subject to an unprecedented information blockade. Even before the polls were closed, internet access in the country was mostly shut down. Although foreign correspondents managed to report on the early stages of revolution and the growing mobilization of forces by the regime, many people in Belarus knew little about these developments. Belarusians had to share information with each other using mostly landlines and mobile phones. Already on August 10, people shared instructions on ways to bypass the government blockade by using either text-messages or Psiphon, a secured VPN app. In the first days after the election Belarus had more than 2 million users of this app.
Then came the state repression. Peaceful protesters were brutally detained, imprisoned, and tortured by security officers including regular policemen, internal troops, the infamous Belarusian riot police (OMON), the KGB, and even the Army. Despite the unprecedented brutality, and the use of dangerous riot control weapons such as flashbangs, rubber-bullets, water-cannons, and tear gas, the Belarusians kept occupying the streets—first in the city center and then in their own neighborhoods. Even the murder of peaceful protestors by the security forces did not break the spirit of the protest movement.
Three days after the election night and the first round of state repression, women, dressed in white and carrying flowers, went to the streets to oppose the brutality and called for the end of violence against the citizens. “I fell in love with the people of my country!” exclaimed Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel prize-winning author and one of the handful leaders of the opposition Coordination Councils who still remain in the country. Every week, different social groups joined the protests; the spirit of Belarusian revolution manifested in the faces of students, women, athletes, pensioners, culture workers, doctors, university professors, IT-specialists, and factory workers.
By the third week of the protests, the weekday activities mostly moved from the public squares and streets to semi-public courtyards of Minsk apartment blocks. In response to the authoritarian crackdown, which left the protest movement leaderless, a grassroot network of neighbourhood activist groups emerged in Minsk and other Belarusian cities. By reclaiming public space and demonstrating the power of the people, their aim has been to erode the culture of civic passivity, societal isolation and mistrust. Neighbourhood groups have become an important forum through which ordinary citizens conceive of this revolutionary moment and engage in political debates. The plurality of these aesthetic counter-publics that we are going to discuss, though lacking a common name, are united in the creative passion of the engaged participants.
DJs of Changes
In Minsk, one of the pioneers of neighborhood or “courtyard” activism was the community living in the housing complex, Kaskad. The complex is one of the newest commercial housing projects of the last 20 years. The residents of Kaskad are mostly people with above-average incomes, demographically younger and better educated than average Minskers; many of them work in the once booming Belarus IT-sector and are more independent from the government than most citizens.
The residents of Kaskad started to organize themselves within the first week of the protests. The housing complex became famous in Belarus for hanging huge white-red-white flags used by protestors between their houses. However, the most recognizable symbol of the Kaskad community is the mural, “DJs of Changes,” first created on August 18. The mural featured two sound technicians who became famous for playing a protest song. “Peremen”/“Changes” the song composed by Viktor Tsoy, one of the pioneers of Russian rock during Perestroika, has been one of the most popular protest songs in the post-Soviet space. In Belarus, as well, the lyrics of the song—“Our hearts demand change/Our eyes demand change/In our laughter and in our tears and in the pulsating veins/Changes!/We are waiting for changes”—became the anthem of revolution during the anti-government rallies.
The local residents named the courtyard where the mural is located “The Square of Changes” and the “DJs of Changes” mural became a central point of contestation between the emerging neighborhood community and the Belarusian authorities. Usually, such protest art is quickly painted over by the communal services. The residents of the complex, however, repeatedly managed to restore the mural one way or another. At some point, the communal services destroyed the mural and painted the wall black. Moreover, to prevent the residents from restoring the mural, the police stood guard over the wall. The absurd image of Minsk riot police guarding a pitch-black wall was widely ridiculed by the Belarusian public. Despite the numerous efforts of authorities, the mural was re-created time and time again and now serves as a backdrop for the many musicians and artists performing regularly for the residents of the complex.
The example of Kaskad and those of other similar residential complexes with young, active residents, inspired spontaneous organization in neighborhood communities in older parts of Minsk. The local activists have organized neighborhood tea-parties, yard-sales, film screenings and theatrical performances, concerts, spontaneous demonstrations, and flash mobs. During one of them, late at night, activists would use the screens of their phones to create a sign “My Razam”/”We are Together” and filmed it from a drone. Again, as in the case of the “Djs of Change” mural, the authorities were trying to hack the activists’ message and use it for its own propaganda. The short film was posted on the social media of a pro-government youth organisation to advertise staged solidarity among the pro-government citizens.
Protest street art ranging from simple slogans and illustrations of the white-red-white flag to beautiful graffiti and murals inundated neighborhood publics. In ways reminiscent of the Orange Alternative, a Polish anti-Communist underground movement of the 1980s which had reclaimed the public spaces of Wrocław, streets and walls of Minsk were turned into symbolic battlegrounds. Just as in Kaskad, the authorities repeatedly interfered in these spaces and destroyed the street-art, only to have local activists re-create all of it .
Activists and citizens from different parts of the city have communicated through secured social networks, such as a popular messaging app, Telegram. The neighborhood chats grew rapidly. For example, the local chat in Zalataya Horka neighbourhood, where Aliaksandr resides, grew to more than 1200 users in about two weeks. Importantly, emerging Telegram chats which united neighborhood activists bridged the generational gap between the older residents, middle aged or pensioners, who usually own their apartments and the newer residents, predominantly younger people who usually rent theirs. In the past, these two groups rarely intersected and communicated. Still, the neighborhood chats allowed them to come together, discover similar political views, and express their frustration with the existing regime.
The neighborhood activism has created a sustainable horizontal link between those active citizens who desire durable political, social, and cultural change in the country. It also brought a stimulus for previously apolitical and passive citizens who joined the spontaneous movements taking place in their own neighborhoods. The new sense of local identity rapidly emerged and immediately required the creation of new symbols. Neighborhood flags were created as modifications of the white-red-white flag, which simultaneously reinforced the common identity of the whole protest movement and underlined the local identity of individual neighborhoods; in the weekly Sunday marches the newly-created flags of local communities are now even more popular than the regular white-red-white flag of the Belarusian revolution.
We Have a Right to…
The aesthetics of neighborhood protests have gradually opened up a space for a new kind of political imaginary. The neighborhood or courtyard movements now strive to gain certain legal protections for neighborhood communities by using the half-forgotten Belarusian legislation on local self-governance. This is, of course, a difficult task in the country where laws are applied only to the benefit of the ruling regime. Nonetheless, the desire to formalize their communities manifested in creation of several tongue-in-cheek neighborhood constitutions reminiscent of the Constitution of Uzupis, a famous artsy neighborhood in Vilnius. These local constitutions passed during unofficial late-night meetings are a loose assembly of ideas, thoughts, jokes, and guidelines that should govern public communication. Yet, they have become important tools through which people could come together and restore their dignity as political subjects who have a voice in the context of and against state oppression.
During these meetings, which are open and have no hierarchical structure, previously anonymous neighbors have a chance to know each other and lively discuss the meaning of symbols, statutes, and neighborhood activism. These neighborhood assemblies are illustrations of what Elżbieta Matynia calls “performative democracy;” they are free spaces of collective deliberation, argument, entertainment and arts, which foster and cultivate a democratic culture. These cultures are enacted through utterances and performances by citizens who were previously forbidden from engaging in democratic practice in public.
Local activism is naturally linked with the main protest events. During the weekly Sunday marches, the neighborhoods become safe havens for protestors escaping police crackdowns, as local residents open entrance halls of their apartment blocks or even their apartments to hide the protestors. It is often in these intimate spaces, around kitchen tables and over tea and sweets, that people also engage in, to use Jeffrey Goldfarb’s concept, “the politics of small things” by trying to experience public life hidden in a private space. During particularly brutal crackdowns, the neighborhoods themselves become the centers of protest, as the security forces find it difficult to suppress multiple small protests across the city.
The Faith in Democracy…
The efforts of activists and citizens to come together and unite are being suppressed by the regime’s use of state force, misinformation, and propaganda. The situation is constantly evolving with authorities trying to implement various measures to suppress dissent. Just last week, police tried to detain the administrators of the Zalataya Horka Telegram-chat who had to flee the country. Several dozens of chat users were doxxed by the police-run anti-protest Telegram chats to intimidate them. The authorities have been even trying to organize paramilitary units to patrol the neighborhoods to further suppress the local protest activities. This week they also started to arrest artists and musicians who perform for neighbourhood gatherings.
Despite these efforts, the networks of neighborhood activism continue to grow and spread. Hundreds of local chats, big and small, are active across Minsk and the whole of Belarus. City streets and squares are being mobilized by the activists through the organization of spontaneous concerts and art performances. Buildings, walls, and fences are being reclaimed by the protesters who use them for rebroadcasting their anti-government message.
The rapidly developing events in Belarus restore hope in the power of people coming together to counter authoritarianism. Nobody knows how long Lukashenka will stay in power, but it is clear that he has already lost his control over the Belarusian citizens. The emergence of grassroots solidarity and mutual support networks, the restoration of dignity and trust have already happened. The power of democracy that is performed and (re)enacted cannot be broken. The new technological tools, such as Telegram, other social media, online parallel vote count, VPN tools, SMS-updated protest maps, and a multitude of other innovations are being successfully used by the democratic protestors to fight against the increasingly digital authoritarianism of the regime.
This means that, even in a repressed and atomized society like Belarus, the basic human desire for solidarity and trust can overcome authoritarian power structures. This brings hope not only to Belarusians but also many others facing similar political challenges: those losing faith in their institutions; those whose rights are under attack— from the Polish women defending their reproductive rights to Black Lives Matter activists countering racist practices and discourses. The inspired activism of Belarusians affirms those who believe in the power of people coming together as equals to defend their democratic rights.
Aliaksandr Bystryk is a PhD Candidate in Comparative History at Central European University.
Karolina Koziura is a PhD Candidate in Sociology and Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research.