The Difficult Question Facing the Belarusian Freedom Movement

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

Even in the pouring rain, there seemed to always be life in the cobblestone streets of Old Town Vilnius. I’m weaving through the streets with a new friend I made, Vitaly, who wants to show me the Belarusian community center in Vilnius.

I met Vitaly the week before when I was walking through the street and noticed a small protest in front of the Bank of Lithuania. He and the group were protesting the decision by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to give $1 billion to Covid relief to Belarus.

You see, one of the major catalysts for why Belarusians first started getting angry at their dictator Lukashenka was the fact that he completely denied the existence of Covid. So the people had to literally fundraise to pay for hospital equipment to provide treatment for Covid victims because the government refused to acknowledge Covid.

You can only guess what that $1 billion for “Covid relief” would go towards.

Anyway, there was me and Vitaly, weaving through the streets on our way to the Belarusian community center. We go through a courtyard and enter an old building modernized on the inside — typical Vilnius.

If I wasn’t already the foreigner as an American in Vilnius, now I was really the foreigner with everyone around me speaking Russian. The cool thing about language though is that even though you can’t understand words, you can typically understand what a person is saying.

Vitaly introduces me as his American friend visiting with advocacy experience that is interested in what is happening with the Belarusian revolution. People look at me curiously and are all welcoming.

I ask Vitaly, “how do I say hello?”

“Привет”
Privet

Dang it, you knew this one.

We walk up the staircase and go to the second floor. He shows me to a room with about 10 or 12 people sitting around a table. I learn that a number of the men in the group just recently escaped from Belarus to Lithuania.

Ever since Lukashenka trafficked Iraqi and other refugees into Lithuania to manufacture a migrant crisis he knew would cause an emergency in Lithuania, it has become more difficult for Belarusians to escape to Lithuania.

The difficult escape was still worth the risk. If they stayed in Belarus, they may have seen a similar fate as Vitaly and be forced to stay in brutal prisons conditions. I heard stories of 20 people being packed in 4-person cells, pain medicine being withheld from prisoners with ribs broken by police, and bleach being poured in cells to cut circulation.

Some of the stories are just bizarre forms of torture. In one story Vitaly shared, prison guard thought it would be amusing to turn up the music and strobe the lights, turning the prison into their own discotheque. Meanwhile prisoners stayed in their cells lacking food, water, and remaining in pain from beatings received from the guards.

Also, did I not mention that migrant crisis earlier? There’s so much going on with that dictator’s unquenchable thirst for power, it’s hard to cover it all.

Long story short, Lukashenka convinced Iraqi and other refugees he’d provide safe passage and a path to citizenship in Europe. Instead, his people dropped them off in the woods outside Lithuania and told the refugees to just walk.

Now, the Lithuanian government and a Catholic charity called Caritas scrambled to pull together migrant camps on the border. I still don’t think they know what to do to provide for the migrants when Winter comes. That chaos was what Lukashenka hoped for.

Well, because of the migrant crisis, now it’s more difficult for people afraid of persecution by Lukashenka to escape to Lithuania. So the group of men ran through the woods to escape to Lithuania.

Now, they were in the room with me, in a new land with a new language. They needed help with food, where to stay, how to live, and working through any other issues.

Vitaly was telling me about all the escaped Belarusian families in Lithuania, now looking to place their kids in schools where their kids could understand the language.

Vitaly then led me to another room where there was a series of artwork decorating the walls. If the Belarusian revolution deserves worldwide fame, it deserves the fame for the women running the revolution in opposition to a misogynistic dictator.

Vitaly steps aside, he’s getting interviewed, so I take a look around some of the artwork. I find this piece:

Well, the future is certainly female in Belarus.

Vitaly ends his interview, and I join him in the foyer. He starts chatting with someone who was petting her dog.

I look to her and introduce myself. She introduces herself, and I learn she’s a student studying film. She wishes she could go back to Belarus, but that’s just not possible right now.

I ask the name of her dog - “кипарис” (pronounced Kiparis. Means “Cypress”). I mean, Kiparis is a cute name and it perfectly fits this tiny fluffy white dog.

Two children come over, and they want to come play with the dog. The student releases the dog, and the kids start playing with the dog.

It’s a surreal moment.

I feel the strong sense of community of everyone in the building. Everyone either knows each other or has a strong connection to each other.

But it’s not normal.

People in one room recently ran for their lives. In another room reporters are interviewing another activist. Meanwhile these kids are playing with a dog and don’t know when or if they’ll get to go home.

Everyone just wants to live a normal life. But some power-hungry dictator won’t leave office, so now the dictator forces them to play politics.

It’s the only way forward to a normal future home.

To any of my Belarusian readers, I’d like to take a moment and convey that you are not alone in this fight. The world is watching your struggle, and stands behind you. This is not an easy fight, but you are not alone.

Now, I’d like to take a step back — let’s talk strategy. How do we get Belarus to win its freedom?

Here’s the way I see it, and my view is neither original nor unique, but here it is anyway. A lot of the ideas were borrowed from this study.

The Problem.

The powers that be (Lukashenka, his family, the military, the bureaucracy) need a reason to leave, or at least a reason to hand over power.

Anyone that’s cooked with a pressure cooker before knows that before a pressure cooker is opened, the pressure needs to be released.

The pressure is building on Lukashenka and those holding power, but how will it be released?

What’s Being Done Now

The Belarusian people and world leaders are doing a great job of applying pressure.

Other than the $1 billion gift from the IMF to Lukashenka for ‘Covid relief’, heavy and strategic sanctions are being applied. Also, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is playing her part to get the international community to continue imposing pressure on Lukashenka and his cronies.

The Belarusian people who continue to protest, send support for Belarusians in Belarus, and take actions online are doing heroic work, and I wish you the best in continuing your work.

What’s Next

Now, I know discussions are just starting about next steps to release the pressure, or give a way out for the people benefiting from the current regime.

These discussions are going to be difficult.

In my own family — there was a man who had ‘befriended’ my mom who she later learned was a KGB informant. Unfortunately for him, the KGB document showing his relationship with my mom showed the relationship wasn’t fruitful for him. After Lithuania’s independence, he became a low-level bureaucrat in the new government.

These people know how bureaucracy works, and it is difficult to imagine a government without these people who ‘know where the keys are’. To my Belarusian friends, I hate to bring the uncomfortable truth that I think you need to start thinking about the role people working for Lukashenka will play in a new government. Some of them, just like some former KGB in Lithuania, may even prove to be loyal true patriots in the new government.

This doesn’t just apply to the bureaucracy. Military elites, Lukashenka, and his family will have to go somewhere when Belarus is free, and maybe it will have to be a “golden parachute.” I’m thinking Putin’s Palace might be a good place to go.

Preparing for the Long Haul

This may just be me, but I think when the one Belarusian activist from my previous blog post said “The Revolution is just getting started” a full year after the fraudulent election, she was probably right.

Something useful in preparing for the long haul is developing an infrastructure to continue the fight.

Martin Luther King Jr. built the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Mahatma Ghandi was president of the Indian National Congress, and Nelson Mandela was President of the African National Congress during the end of Apartheid.

The infrastructure Belarusians have in place right now, between Tsikhanouskaya and her team, Nexta, and BAZA in the United States all seem prepared to fight for the long haul. The infrastructure needs to continue to build, and one of the key alliances that will need to develop is the infrastructure with the US Congress.

In July, Congress formed the “Friends of Belarus Caucus”, which will act as the main infrastructure in Congress to advocate for Belarusian issues. All members of Congress can join this Caucus. If you want freedom for Belarusians, even if you’re not Belarusian, you can email you members of Congress and ask them to join.

A Wild Idea

The wild idea: Form a new Eastern-European super country ranging from Estonia to Ukraine.

This would put more pressure on Lukashenka and his people to leave and it could provide for some of the bureaucratic infrastructure within Belarus that doesn’t rely on current people loyal to the regime.

It feels unrealistic, so until we form a new country, we need to act like one people. Let’s all work together to secure the freedom for Belarus.

The Uncomfortable Question

I doubt we’ll be forming a new country any time soon, which means that I think Belarusians will be faced with the question: ‘What do you do with Lukashenka and his loyalists?’

Some should be kicked out — definitely. But how? And who do you kick out? Who do you keep in government?

To get freedom for Belarus, I strongly believe this will be the most important question to answer.

No matter what, as Belarusians continue their fight, I will continue being a strong ally.

Жыве Беларусь!

This post is the fifth in a series called “10 Thoughts from Vilnius” by Vytautas Aukštuolis. Posts released Tuesday mornings. Please subscribe to my channels on Medium, Twitter, Facebook, and Baltivist.com.

Thought #1: A Journey Hosted by the Dead

Thought #2: Hi, I’m your distant cousin. Do you want to see where your ancestors lived?

Thought #3: A Poem Offering Peace

Thought #4: Frontlines of Belarusian Protests

Thought #5: The Difficult Question Facing the Belarusian Freedom Movement

Thought #6: Discovering Jewish Life of Vilnius

Thought #7: Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust

Thought #8: First 100 Baltivist Members!

For my American readers, I ask you to please ask your members of Congress to join the House Friends of Belarus Caucus or the Senate Free Belarus Caucus. Due to the infrastructure package in Congress now, it may be difficult to call, so email might be the best way to contact now. If you have the option, please ask for a response from your petition, as this may increase the chance they will join the caucus and you may learn more about what Congress is doing to support Belarus.

Here is a sample script:

Dear [Representative/Senator],

I care deeply for the freedom of Belarusians. (Insert 2–3 sentences of why you care if you wish). To press for democracy in Belarus, fight for free media, and to support neighboring countries in efforts to help the people of Belarus, the Free Belarus Caucus and Friends of Belarus Caucus were started in the Summer of 2021.

The Free Belarus Caucus is chaired by Senator Wicker (R-MS) and Senator Shaheen (R-NH). The Friends of Belarus Caucus is chaired by Representatives Keating (D-MA), Kaptur (D-OH), Smith (R-NJ), and Wilson (R-NJ).

Would you please show your support by joining the respective Belarus Caucus?

Best,

Name.

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