Belarus at the Crossroads
Interview with Olga Dryndova
Belarus is not a well-known country, but this year the post-Soviet state has been going through a surprising sea change in the lead up to its presidential election. These are, of course, unprecedented times, but even more so for a country that has lived under the same autocratic leader for the past 26 years, President Alexander Lukashenko. There have been presidential elections — although not free and definitely not fair elections — but Lukashenko has won five, nevertheless.
We often consider autocrats to be tyrants — what Plato saw as the opposite of his ideal “philosopher king.” Leaders like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao come to mind in this modern era. What are today’s dictators but monarchs without the fancy crowns, with their main philosophy revolving around their desire to remain in power.
Lukashenko is an autocratic dictator, no doubt, but he is neither bloody nor overtly tyrannical. The recent protesters in Belarus, for example, have been treated much more humanely than those in the United States. Lukashenko has not retained power these 26 years by embracing an ideology of hate, like the recently aspiring autocrats of Poland and Hungary. He is, or at least was, a president of the people.
Everything changed this year, however, with the arrival of Covid-19. Lukashenko, it seems, changed too. He made grievous mistakes that cost the lives of Belarusians. Is he beyond redemption? That will be up to the people of Belarus to decide. The path forward from this pandemic is not clear to anyone, for politicians especially, as they will be judged not just in our time but for many generations to come. We are all living in a major historical moment.
There has been talk of Belarus as the next Ukraine. This is in part because of the 2014 unprovoked Russian aggression and illegal annexation of Crimea. It is still in recent memory and the problems with Ukraine and Russia are still ongoing. But this about Belarus, and Belarus is definitely not Ukraine.
To best understand Belarus, as much as an outsider can, one should talk to a Belarusian. So I was lucky to be able to talk to Olga Dryndova with everything that has been going on in her home country. Dryndova is an editor with Belarus Analysen and works with V-Dem.
Jim Blackburn: You can find Belarusians working creatively and living in almost any European city. Why do so many talented people leave Belarus?
Olga Dryndova: I would say both economic reasons and a lack of opportunities for young people. If you live in an autocratic state, even if you are not political, working in certain spheres as an artist, journalist, writer, actor, or really anything — what you are doing can become political very fast. So there is a tradition of self-censorship. We don’t have any laws that prohibit you from doing or saying anything, but people always have to consider if they will have problems with the state. You live in a constant condition of trying to censor things that you do, but you also want to be creative. Then you see more freedom in other places and decide you must leave your home to pursue your dreams. It’s even illegal to gather in groups, you must get official permission from the state. There is no freedom of assembly in Belarus. It was easier for my parents’ generation that grew up in the Soviet Union. They didn’t know about certain civil liberties or much about how people lived elsewhere. The new generation in Belarus has a border with the EU, they have the internet, and they have international friends. So young people see the difference. They learn foreign languages. They don’t want to live in an autocracy in the 21st century.
What would you like to say to people who might not be familiar with the history and culture of Belarus?
We are located between Russia and the EU, and this year we celebrate 30 years of Belarusian independence from the Soviet Union. There were attempts for Belarusian independence in 1918 and it was finally recognized in 1922. Belarus had its first and only democratic election in 1994. Belarus itself is a peaceful state. If you read our national anthem it starts, “We Belarusians are a peaceful people.” The problem with Belarus is it’s hard to keep good relations with both eastern and western neighbors at the same time because they have different values and expectations. The EU expects every state to be democratic and respect human rights and so on. And then Russia has a completely different system. So it’s at times difficult for a smaller state to negotiate these differences.
There’s this idea that Belarusians are lost between the East and West but really, we are not; we just don’t want to make this choice. With opinion polls, it depends on how you ask the question. If you ask people, do they want to be in a partnership with Russia, many people would choose this because we have a shared language and history. But if you ask them, should Belarus be an independent state, then the majority agree with independence. There is a lot of room to misinterpret what the Belarusian people want because conducting surveys isn’t easy in an autocracy.
Belarus has its own cultural identity. Lukashenko began to punish anything to do with Belarusian culture and language when he became president in 1994, because his opponents at the time were Belarusian nationalists. Many people don’t know that Belarusians also have their own language beside Russian; it isn’t frequently used, much like Gaelic in Ireland. In 2009, only 3 percent of the country spoke Belarusian every day. It’s not prohibited — you have these two languages — but the extent that people use it isn’t great. What is actually spoken often and doesn’t show up in the statistics is that most people use a mixture of Belarusian and Russian. Even the president speaks like this. According to UNESCO classification the Belarusian language is now marked as vulnerable.
There was a change when the Ukrainian crisis started in 2014 because Lukashenko understood that being too close to Russian culture could be dangerous for him. Putin used the excuse that they were helping the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine by intervening there. Since then Lukashenko has allowed the return of national symbols to be sold in shops. I was surprised because it was not possible before. It became a sort of fashion.
I often get asked the question: why do you speak Russian if you are from Belarus? But the same can be said of Switzerland and Austria where they speak German. Of course, they are their own countries and cultures too. Belarusians are still trying to understand themselves, trying to get a sense of their own identity. We want to have the right to speak Russian but still have a distinct Belarusian identity. This idea that we are close to being Russian is a sort of stereotype because people just don’t really know Belarus.
Do you think if Lukashenko wins, he will continue to promote the culture of Belarus?
Where is an autocratic president on an issue? He is wherever he can have more power. It’s not about Belarusian identity. If Lukashenko can get more power from one direction, then he is going in that direction. He didn’t try to promote Belarusian culture because he cares about it. It’s just because he understood he could lose his power, because Belarus is mostly Russian speaking and Putin could use this as an excuse to do who-knows-what. It’s not about the people or a better society, it’s all about keeping control. This is a basic example of how autocracy works, even with the language people speak.
What happened when Covid-19 first spread to Belarus?
I live in Germany, and by the time it started to show up in European countries, Angela Merkel was addressing the issue by asking people to be careful and stay at home. At that time, I saw some advertisement about an aquapark in Minsk online, and it was just mentally difficult to understand how there can be these two parallel realities happening at the same time. Everyone in Germany is talking about this dangerous virus and 1,000 kilometers away, people are going to an aquapark.
What happened soon after was a dramatic drop in trust with the government and the president in Belarus. It isn’t a state where people generally trust the authorities, but during a pandemic, you expect at least some information, support, and a bit of empathy. The president started by victim blaming and gaslighting. He talked about the victims as if it was their fault. If someone died it was because they had a chronic disease or because they were 75 to 80 years old. People realized right away, this isn’t the reality of the situation.
The first official victim was a theatre actor named Viktar Dashkevich from Vitsebsk, where he was well known. He was older but still worked in the theater and did rehearsals every day. When he passed away, Lukashenko blamed it on him being outside as an elderly person, even though the president had been denying it was a serious disease. This reaction shook the other actors and his family. Belarusians just didn’t understand how he could be that cruel and arrogant.
Then there were some other statements about obesity. Lukashenko said, “How can a person live when they are over 135 kilograms (300 pounds). It was really disgusting, and from these kinds of statements, he lost a lot of the small electorate he had. I mean, it’s not human. People were shocked. As a political scientist, I thought that he must be destroying his own electorate because he knows he has an upcoming election in August.
People then started comparing the irresponsible information policy around Lukashenko and Covid-19 to that of the Soviet Union during and after the meltdown at Chernobyl. The Soviet authorities didn’t inform the Belarusians about the severity of Chernobyl till it was too late for many people. Belarusians today are in shock because they realized they’re living through something they read about in a history book, and they now know they’re being lied to by their government. Lukashenko used to be known as a president for the people. He was thought of as a populist leader who came from the people and understood those people, and now all of a sudden, his reputation is destroyed after the pandemic.
It’s hard to take him seriously after he stated that the virus can be killed by drinking vodka or that the disease was more of a psychosis. But he was going around without a mask, shaking hands, and trying to show by his own example that the virus wasn’t that dangerous. It became surreal because Belarusians have the internet and they saw what their neighboring states were doing. People knew it was real when their friends and family started getting sick. People really got scared.
But on the other hand, there was an amazing level of solidarity and self-organization that occurred in Belarusian society. When people saw that the state wasn’t going to deal with the reality of the situation, they decided they had to fight the virus themselves. This led to the #bycovid19 movement, which is a voluntary campaign that has become a sort of parallel health ministry. They fundraise for hospitals, provide factual information, and work with the Belarusian diaspora through their website. On this site, hospitals can put in orders for supplies. Within a couple of months through this voluntary online platform, many were able to fill most of what was needed.
I think this wave of solidarity was transferred to the upcoming elections. People realized that they as citizens are able to do something incredible themselves. We started to have trust in each other. Belarusians learned the value of solidarity dealing with this disease themselves in a way they never experienced before.
What does the Sasha 3% mean?
The Sasha 3% is actually a good example of Belarusian political humor. It’s a joke that in Belarus, a small percentage of people still support Lukashenko. It came from several unofficial polls that put Lukashenko’s support at around 3 to 6 percent. It has now become a popular meme that you can find anywhere from t-shirts to graffiti and even balloons for kids. After these results, all unofficial polls were banned in Belarus. You have to understand Lukashenko is an autocrat and he needs legitimacy.
It is hard to get an accurate poll and of course and nobody ever knows the true poll numbers, but in 2016 there was a survey that put his support around 30 percent. I do not think he really has just 3 percent because the president has the whole system of state employees and support in security structures. There was one official poll from this April from the National Academy of Sciences, which put the level of trust in the president just in Minsk at 24 percent.
How does censorship in media work in Belarus? Did it have any influence on the popularity of the new opposition?
It starts with understanding state censorship and the rise of independent news that is found mostly online. The internet is the only real way people can see what is going on in Belarus. For example, in the state controlled media you would never see the arrest of protestors and journalists that took place on July 14th.
To describe the state news in Belarus is to understand how the media worked during the Soviet times. It basically reflects the president’s opinions and ideology. The main difference is that now independent media can be found online, and nothing like that existed in the Soviet Union. But if you cross some sort of red line, even your online social media accounts could be shut down or you could be given a large fine that would be difficult for the average person in Belarus to pay. This self-censorship is something that is not written anywhere, but you might simply have to ask yourself twice before posting or publishing anything.
There is also the problem of the police. Now what is happening with the journalists is just about intimidation. It is about showing you that no matter who you are, you can be both physically and mentally abused by the state. It is about paying a price for using your voice or expressing your views, especially now that the authorities are worried huge groups of demonstrators will come out after the election.
A positive point is that the internet is harder to control. The problem in an autocratic state is if they cannot control an app like Telegram then there is the fear the president could just ban it. Also, there can be cyber attacks or even suppression of internet access, which has happened at a few of the political gatherings for the oppositional candidates.
YouTube channels have grown recently in Belarus, and the use of Telegram is also very popular. That is why the state started arresting popular administrators of Telegram channels because the authorities started to realize how much political influence they were having in Belarus. But they started to do this too late, I think, since people had enough time to politicize themselves. One of the problems facing autocrats today is possibly whether they should try to use the internet for their own propaganda or try to limit it.
They also arrested a popular YouTube blogger Siarhey Tsikhanouski, who wanted to be a candidate for the presidency. He was traveling around the country interviewing Belarusians and giving them a platform to talk about their problems. YouTube is a very new platform for political discourse in Belarus and there was one woman who got over one million views on his channel. Belarus only has a population of about 10 million, so he had an incredible reach throughout the country.
This video is important because in it she talks about a big or mighty cockroach from a popular cartoon from the Soviet Union. Everyone in Belarus knows this cartoon. In it every animal is afraid of this cockroach with a big mustache, so nobody notices he is in reality very small. Then in the end a bird comes and eats him and frees all the other animals from the illusion of his size. This video inspired Siarhey Tsikhanouski to drive around with a giant slipper on his car saying he will squash the cockroach, meaning Lukashenko, and then people started calling the protests against the government the “Slipper Revolution” for a time.
Now people have rallied around his wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who spontaneously decided to run for the presidency, only because her husband was put in prison.
What is special about the popularity of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya?
It is really like a movie. It is amazing that a woman with no interest in politics is the first person that has really gained massive support against Lukashenko since he came to power 26 years ago. She doesn’t exactly want to be president. Her main goal if she wins is to prepare for an actual real election in Belarus six months after this one.
People will not be so much voting for her but the change she represents in the future. Plus, the two other major candidates are also now represented by women: one of them is head of the team of the most popular potential candidate, who is has been arrested, and the other one is the wife of another popular non-registered candidate. Never have women been so prominent in Belarus politically.
In Belarus you must gather 100,000 signatures to become a candidate. This is a lot especially with a pandemic going on. Usually people go house to house, but now there is no chance anyone would answer the door. Unexpectedly for both the state and Belarusian society, the people ended up forming huge lines to give signatures for the oppositional candidates. People waited sometimes for over four hours. This is unheard of in Belarus. But this is not necessarily about democratic values, it is just about the fact that after 26 years, people want new leadership.
So that is why Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya can be compared to a Cinderella story. This situation developed organically without any strategy at all. I mean she is a housewife with two children who was never really interested in a career. Now her children have been sent to safety somewhere in the EU. It would be very easy for the police to put her children in an orphanage or something like that, to pressure her to give up. She didn’t plan to run until her husband was arrested. Authorities allowed her to be a candidate because they did not really believe she could get the required 100,000 signatures.
The focus of her campaign is something new to Belarus. What she and her female team are speaking about is love. The only reason she is in politics, she says, is because she loves her husband and wants to free him from prison. It is that simple.
Of course, many skeptics will say it is not serious and people might not vote for her for that reason. Belarus is still a rather patriarchal society. Even Lukashenko said the Belarusian constitution was not written for women. But now the most popular alternative candidates against him is a woman, so it is very surreal on many levels. Their main message has been about solidarity and empathy. In the past, it was often about going against the bloody dictator or something like that. It is a new positive approach and people like what they are hearing from these women.
This whole story of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is something special no matter how it ends. I think it has started to really change the perception of women in Belarusian politics and that alone is something positive. And it brings up a conversation around gender that will be continued after the election. How did we get ourselves into this situation where the president can say the constitution of our country does not represent women at all? It is humiliating to women who have reached a level of success in their lives.
What do you think will be the outcome of the election?
Who really will win? We may never know the real results, because for the first time, no international observers were invited to Belarus to watch over this election, not that it made much difference in the past. The only way to possibly know the outcome is through state officials, and they have been reduced because of the pandemic, which is funny, because I guess the coronavirus to Lukashenko only exists now at polling stations in Belarus.
But in the end, it isn’t all about winning the election. What has happened is the majority of the Belarusian people have been shown proof they are being cheated. Not just in elections, but in their everyday lives. In Belarus there has been an unofficial social contract, which means people expect security and economic stability from the state. In exchange you are politically passive, and you accept the status quo.
As we see now, people aren’t politically passive anymore because the president has broken his contract with the people of Belarus. They don’t have a clear idea of what they want. They only know that they don’t want Lukashenko.
You can read more from Olga Dryndova in New Eastern Europe.