On August 9, 2020, longtime president of Belarus Aleksandr G. Lukashenko claimed 80 percent of the vote in the country’s latest presidential election. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival in this campaign, was forced to leave the country. This isn’t the first year that Lukashenko’s win at the polls has been suspect, nor is it the first election that has seen both journalists and opposition candidates arrested, or even the first election whose overwhelmingly pro-Lukashenko results have been protested.
However, with both an economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic creating added tension in Belarus, the opposition to this month’s election results has reached a new level. Peaceful protests across the country, including the capital city of Minsk, have been met with police violence including tear gas, stun grenades, and both rubber and live bullets. As of this writing, at least one protester has died. The United Nations has condemned the police response to the protests as “a clear violation of international human rights standards.”
Vitali Alekseenok is a Belarusian conductor based in Germany. He is music director of the orchestra of the University of Munich, and is active in organizing the Belarusian resistance in Germany. “But now,” he said, “I wanted to make myself useful in Belarus.” Here are his impressions from the protests.
I am writing these lines in a popular café in the center of Minsk. The café is fairly empty today. It’s about to close. Usually it stays open until 10:00, but recently the guests have been gone by 6:00—this neighborhood is often chaotic after dark, and the owners of the café wanted to avoid any trouble. But now, after the election and the three terrible evenings that followed it, the protests have spilled out into the daylight. They start early in the morning and last the entire day. They include large swaths of Minsk society. Uncountable masses of people take to the streets dressed in white. They carry flowers and posters and flags. White, red, and white again. Cars honk, uninterrupted.
Silence is a bad sign. Silence means police violence somewhere nearby.
In Minsk, developments that normally take months are squeezed into a couple of hours. Modern Belarus has never experienced such solidarity and even love among strangers. Flower stores are reducing their prices although demand is exploding. Taxi drivers bring demonstrators home from jail, no charge. Likewise, car mechanics repair horns for free. They want the acoustic symbol of freedom and solidarity to remain audible. Medical centers are offering free care for the injured. Thousands of volunteers throughout the country have been helping out in every possible way. Worldwide, several million euros in donations have been collected for victims of violence.
I spent the evening of August 9 outside a polling station with friends, waiting for the results of our presidential election. Several voting commissions delayed the announcement for hours, hoping that the people assembled on the street would get tired and go home. Other commissions tried to sneak past the voters. In the news, I read that some polling stations did finally release the true results. I didn’t experience that.
Special police commandos showed up to every polling station in order to protect the election commission officials as they left the building. Everywhere, people cried out, “The results!” or “Shame on you!” At one polling station, barricades were set up and only removed when the polling results were released.
Due to a government blockade, the Internet has been largely inaccessible. The goal of these measures is to silence critical voices. As a result, we find ourselves in an informational desert.
I spent August 10 in the center of Minsk. One of the oddest sights was that of people going to work, as if nothing had happened the violent night before. The protests didn’t start up again until after dark, and things became even more terrible than they were on the 9th. A few composers and I had wanted to go to the site of the demonstration. This was impossible; the entire center of the city was closed. The subway went five stops without letting passengers on or off.
But we were still fairly close to the center, so we were able to experience firsthand the brutality of the police special commandos. They looked like operatives from a foreign power, dressed in black clothes and balaclavas, driving dark cars with tinted windows and no license plates. They drove through the city, grabbed passersby seemingly at random—mostly strong-looking men—and shoved them into cars.
We evaded them, but just barely. Three men who were just a couple of feet behind us were attacked. My mind was racing in those few seconds: What had happened? Is this what the bandits look like? Should we help these men? Do we attack the state criminals? What else can we do—run away? And so we ran, slowly to avoid attracting attention, and reluctantly, because we knew that we had done nothing wrong and had no reason to flee. We realized we probably weren’t arrested because there were women in our group.
But that’s the reality in Belarus: You can’t prove anything, and you are guilty before proven innocent. I know of countless cases in which people were arrested off the street, called into court, and accused of aggressive behavior and public drunkenness. On August 10, I struggled with my choice to not to help those people so that I myself could remain free.
We spent the rest of the evening with friends who shared their Internet connection and anti-blocking app with us. We were close to the epicenter of the protests that evening, near the Pushkinskaya subway station. We heard the explosions in nearby shops—flash grenades. We read the news. We read and read until 3:00 in the morning. After 35 hours, I finally had Internet again. I was able to tell my friends around the world that I was still alive and that I hadn’t been arrested.
In the three days between August 9 and August 11, communication in Belarus went back to the way it was circa 2000. We sent text messages and made calls. Text messages often came late; I started writing the time that I had sent the message in the text itself. We memorized numbers, in case our cell phones were taken. Those three days were like taking a time machine back 20 years.
After three agonizing evenings, something finally changed on Wednesday: The protests began in the morning; they had conquered the daylight. Most of the men who had taken part in the demonstrations were already in jail, and so the protests became a matriarchy. Women dressed in white, with flowers in their hands, took to the streets throughout Minsk. Not even the police dared to use violence against women. The peaceful protests became stronger every day.
The last few days in Belarus—every single one of them—have been emotional, full of disbelief, horror, hate, fear, hope, and, ultimately, euphoria. In the first three days after the elections, it felt like we were on the verge of civil war. I woke up feeling a strange mixture of desperation and decisiveness. I asked myself: What will happen tonight? And what can I do? But since the daytime protests have started, the mood has changed: It’s hopeful, optimistic. Strikes have taken place at factories across the country. Now we know that people from every sector of society are on our side. Now the only thing I regret is the time I waste sleeping.
The daytime protests have been a miracle. The people are united in their hope and in their search for freedom. They are peaceful and loving. Strangers greet and hug each other on the street. People have found clear, creative ways of expressing what they believe.
One of our responses to police violence has been art. On a single day, we heard four performances by musicians from across the city. They played outside the concert hall, outside the conservatory, in front of the opera house. They marched, singing, into the center of Minsk. The repertoire ranged from Belarusian folk songs to “Va pensiero,” an unprecedented version of the chorus of Hebrew slaves from Verdi’s “Nabucco,” accented by Belarusian national symbols and the ubiquitous honking.
Most artists here are in favor of the peaceful protests. Even the institutions that can’t support them publicly are staffed by members who express their views loudly and rigorously. Of course, some artists do support the state, but the numbers aren’t high. And the regime-friendly artists are often the ones making the kind of bad pop music that Lukashenko enjoys. They sing pro-regime songs and try to gain popularity. It rarely works, but at least they get support and money from the state.
It’s often the case, too, that artists try to avoid the thrum of politics. I expected that to happen here, but it hasn’t been the case. Artists from all genres have started initiatives, so many that I can hardly believe how creative, diverse, and strong Belarusian art is.
One such project was called the “Symphony of Solidarity,” a collage of musical sound recorded by dozens of musicians and combined with recordings of cars honking, the police in action, the demonstrators sounding their dissent. Visual artists have already organized gallery shows with photographs of the victims of police violence. One exhibition was even shown in front of police headquarters. Other artists have produced video statements on the #KultProtest (“culture protest”).
On August 17, I had the honor of conducting the premiere of a work by the Belarusian composer Olga Podgajskaya in front of the concert hall in Minsk. It was a setting of the poem “On the Shores of Freedom,” by the Belarusian poet Andrei Khadanovitch, written just two days earlier.
In Belarus, the protesters have not initiated violence. They bring water and food for their compatriots. They clean up after their demonstrations. They don’t even jaywalk. It’s possible that the change we are protesting for—a government that is worthy of its people—won’t come immediately. But it won’t take long, either. Until then, every day will be richer with our newfound human dignity. ¶