Last Sunday represented a tipping point in the recent history of Belarus which has had an immediate effect on the lives of its citizens, including mine.
Independent exit polls and observers representing the diplomatic community, verified by the crowdsourcing platform Golos, show that, had it been a fair and transparent election, the uninterrupted, 26-year-long reign of Alexander Lukashenko would have ended in a crushing defeat by the opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher.
Instead, eager to maintain his authoritarian grip on the country and backed by his total control over the Central Electoral Committee, Lukashenko falsified the electoral results and declared yet another “victory”, stating that he won an overwhelming 80.1% of the vote. Voters did not believe the official result, however, and their distrust provoked unprecedented, mass, peaceful protests both in Belarus and in many countries around the world. People demanded respect and called for free and fair elections.
Rather than initiating a dialogue with the protesters, the Belarusian regime decided instead to brutally suppress the protests, possibly with the intention of intimidating the marchers and discouraging further action. What followed was unprecedented violence by state authorities: on the first night of the protests, police and special armed forces went to extreme measures to suppress dissent, using stun grenades, water cannons and rubber bullets, and caused massive injuries among civilians. Many of the most violent clashes took place on the streets in the central part of Minsk where I grew up.
Torture and detention
Over the next days, in the midst of a government-imposed shutdown of the internet which lasted for over 72 hours, the police continued to act with extreme cruelty not only towards the protesters but towards anyone who was in their path: people were beaten and detained outside their homes and on their way to local grocery stores and to work. For some, those actions recalled the still raw memories of the Second World War, during which similar crimes were committed by the Nazi army against local civilians. By the end of last week, at least two people had been killed, 80 had gone missing and 6,700 had been detained, most of whom are likely to be subject to physical torture and abuse. The majority are still missing or detained. Among them is my close friend, Andrey Poznyak, who was detained on August 11th on the way out of a barbers in central Minsk. Andrey is now held at Detention Centre No. 1, infamously known as Valadarka. For four days after he was detained, Andrey was not allowed to contact his lawyer and he has still to be charged.
Although this unprecedented violence has caused irreparable damage to thousands of innocent Belarusian lives, the brutal actions of Lukashenko’s police and special forces has achieved exactly the opposite of the state’s original intentions – instead of spreading fear, the Belarusian community has become more mobilised, determined and united around a common desire to stand up for their rights, to defend their dignity and to call for transparency around the vote count. People have taken to the streets in ever greater numbers as the days have passed.
Among the key features of this unprecedented unity are its mass character, its spontaneity and the remarkable self-organisation of the protests which have continued across the country. It is particularly striking that all of this is happening in a vacuum of political leadership, with President-elect Tsikhanouskaya forced to flee to Lithuania over concerns for her personal security. Every day tens of thousands of people continue to go on peaceful marches, strikes and to gather to peacefully demand accountability for the brutal and unjustified force used against peaceful civilians.
The ending for this national struggle may, however, be a long way off. This week Lukashenko stated that there won’t be new elections “until you kill me”. Although this could be a bluff, it implies that the people of Belarus may need to show perseverance and caution over an extended period of time in their fight for democracy. The statement is also overshadowed by Lukashenko’s talks with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, who has twice declared his readiness to provide military assistance in the case of a foreign military threat. This increases the uncertainty about how the situation will unfold.
What can the Belarusian community do?
First and foremost, the people of Belarus should continue demonstrating their desire for democratic change by any peaceful means available to them. The mass march which took place on Sunday, August 16th bringing together up to 400,000 people in Minsk alone is a great example of such activity. Second, all forms of support and solidarity for Belarusians, from mental to financial, are needed more than ever. Third, although decentralised activism has been a particularly successful feature of the protests, it is important to be ready for a dialogue with local and international authorities, and hence at some stage some form of organisation will become essential. People should seek local leadership which reflects their views and unites them.
What can the global community do to help?
First, as a global community, we should use all available means to call on the Belarusian authorities to release all political prisoners and all those who have been illegally detained immediately and unconditionally. Mass detention and torture of innocent civilians is unacceptable and should be condemned in the strongest possible way, including through international instruments of the International Court of Justice and UN Human Rights Council.
Second, it is essential for the world to display solidarity with the Belarusian people and support their desire for basic democratic rights. Living in an era of globalisation and digital technologies, the number of tools available for such support is unprecedented. From personal blogs and social media to international platforms for dialogue, it is essential to continue conveying that the world stands by the people of Belarus.
Continuous strikes among workers from state-owned enterprises, which for many years provided the backbone to Lukashenko’s rule, are likely to remain an effective method of applying pressure. It is therefore critical that we support in whatever possible way those who continue strikes despite fear of losing their jobs and political persecution. One of the ways of doing so is to donate to public fundraising platforms, which aim to support those suffering from the actions of the state.
Finally, we must call for Lukashenko’s resignation. In doing so, it is essential to ensure that the transfer of power takes place peacefully and in an orderly way to avoid further political and economic damage to an already scarred society.
With the future of Belarus hanging in the balance, the voices of global leaders are needed more than ever before. We must unite in our efforts to support and navigate the people of Belarus towards a peaceful and prosperous future in a modern, independent, democratic state.
*Maksim Dadonau  is doing his PhD in Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics. Picture credit: Maksimas Milta.