Belarus: a social media revolution clashes the fear
This is a developing story, check back for updates. Last updated on June 18, 2020 at 11:00 PM PST
“The people and the government came to the roundtable. The people were holding the Constitution, and the government came in… the tank.”
That’s how Belarusian independent journalist and blogger Tatyana Martynova described a myriad of pre-election events in Belarus, also known worldwide as the last dictatorship in Europe.
Tatyana is one of many Belarusians who took to the Internet in their fight for a better future. A month ago, she founded a Facebook group called “Stop fear!” It quickly grew and now has about 1,000 new posts a day. The public message in the About tab is clear and simple:
“Joining our community “Stop fear!” all participants confirm their civic position and demand the acting Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko not to take part in the presidential elections on August 9, 2020.”
“One morning I just woke up and thought to myself, why do I have to put up with this any longer? When enough is enough?” Tatyana said in the interview with LiveFEED.
Despite a very lucrative geopolitical position, Belarus continues to suffer from a steady economic decline, a steady fall in salaries, and steady political repressions against the opponents of the regime. President Alexander Lukashenko has been ruling the country for 26 years since 1994, after the two-time presidential term limits have been withdrawn. UN human rights experts described Belarusian elections as “neither free nor fair.” Peaceful demonstrations have been met with brutal force and mass arrests.
According to independent ratings and social polls, Viktar Babaryka is the strongest opponent of Alexander Lukashenko and has the highest chances of winning in a “fair fight.” For the past 20 years, he was the head of one of the major banks in the country, Belgazprombank, a subsidiary of Russia’s Gazprom, a global energy company. In early May, he made the decision to run for president and resigned from his position at the bank. As the popularity of Babaryka was growing, so as his political troubles. June 11, the Belarusian State Department of Financial Investigations announced a criminal case against Belgazprombank regarding alleged tax evasion and legalization of proceeds of crime. Notably, for 20 years of Babaryka managing the bank and before him emerging on the political arena, there were no known mismanagement cases.
According to Belarusian laws, everyone who wants to run for a president must collect at least 100,000 valid signatures in order to become a presidential candidate. As of today, Babaryka has collected the largest number of signatures in his support. According to the statement on his official website, the current number of collected signatures is 426,001, which is the record in the history of Belarus.
However, it’s still unclear whether those signatures will get to the Central Election Committee’s doors. This morning on their way to deliver the signatures, Viktar Babaryka and his son were stopped and taken in an unidentified car. Independent media and social channels have stated that they were taken to the State Department of Financial Investigations for questioning. Babaryka’s attorneys were not allowed into the building. Journalists on site reported search in Babaryka’s house.
According to the statement on the official website of the potential presidential candidate, as of evening June 18th, the State Department of Financial Investigations did not release any official information in regards to detaining Babaryka and his son. If an official arrest and charges follow, they will join hundreds of other opponents of the regime, thrown in jail even before the signature collection stage is completed.
One of the detained, Pavel Sevyarynec, the founder of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party, slit his wrists in protest of the inhuman conditions imposed on political prisoners in Belarus. Sevyarynec was detained June 7 after taking part in collecting signatures in support of another presidential candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband was also arrested. Sevyarynec ran for president in 2010, and was arrested and charged shortly afterward. Amnesty International has recognized him and hundreds of other Belarusian democratic activists prisoners of conscience.
In his recent interviews and video streams, Babaryka stated that “Belarus has already changed, and the new country will sweep away the remnants of the old regime.”
As Babaryka and his son remain unreachable, the nation holds its breath. On June 18, thousands of Belarusian citizens took to the streets of the capital, Minsk, and stood in the two-kilometer long lines (1,3 miles) for seven hours in the Solidarity Picket, to show their support to hundreds detained democratic activists, including Viktar Babaryka, Pavel Sevyarynec, Mikalai Statkevich, Sergey Tikhanovskiy, and others.
Despite the rain and strong police presence, the people remained standing in their peaceful protest up until midnight, shouting, “Let them go!”
Will the Belarusian government listen?
Check back for our video interview with Tatyana Martynova.