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DEMOCRACY AND FREEDOM TAKE TO THE STREETS DURING THE BELARUSIAN DEN VOLI
March 26th – Minsk
March 26 was Freedom Day (Den Voli) in Belarus, coinciding with the anniversary of independence in 1918. Freedom was lost in 1994 when President Alexander Lukashenko seized power, never to leave it again. It is a symbolic date for the opposition, which for months, with obstinacy and determination, has been taking to the streets and squares not only in the capital Minsk to demand free elections, to say no more to corruption, abuse of power, violence, and systematic violations of human and social rights. Lukashenko, in response, raised the level of threats and in the night between 22 and 23 March, in the city of Hrodna, in the far north-west of the country, placing tanks a few kilometres from both the Polish and Lithuanian borders. Yesterday was a day of very high tension and equally high caution: a few sporadic marches, improvised flash mobs brought to about fifty arrests. ByPol (an investigative group made up of former state officials, security services and border troops who resigned in response to the violent repression against demonstrators and who are collecting evidence of abuses committed by the Belarusian authorities) had raised the alarm a few hours earlier: “The government in Minsk is preparing a terrorist attack in one of the buildings of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in order to put the blame on the demonstrators and thus have the pretext to establish a state of emergency. The action will be carried out by officials of the KGB, the Belarusian secret service’. Nothing has happened yet, but it cannot be ruled out that the leak of information has forced the regime to change (or postpone) its plan. Even Amnesty International had asked the diplomats present in Belarus to “cover” the event, to document what was happening on the Freedom day with photos and videos using their diplomatic immunity, since many Belarusian journalists have ended up in prison.
A Polish journalist, Andrzej Poczobut, has also been imprisoned. Warsaw has demanded his release, accusing Belarus of persecuting the Polish minority and “taking hostages”. And the tension between the two countries is growing. Indeed, during the night of 22-23 March, a column of armoured vehicles entered the Belarusian town of Hrodna/Grodno, which is about 15 kilometres from the Polish border and about 20 kilometres from the Lithuanian border. Lithuania is clearly in the dictator’s sights; being currently home to opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has fled Belarus. The Belarusian government continues to ask for his extradition, but on several occasions Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis responded that his country “has been and will be a brick wall behind which all democratic forces persecuted by regimes will find refuge”.
What is happening in Belarus?
On 9 August last year, Lukashenko claimed victory in the presidential elections with 82% of the vote, a result judged “improbable” by international observers, the result of fraud, which had been widely announced. Since that day, the protest has been unstoppable and impossible to contain, despite the appalling repression carried out by the armed forces and the president’s associates. The Belarusian police regularly use rubber bullets, deafening grenades, irritating chemical substances and water cannons: at least four people have died in the clashes, and countless have been injured. Not a single agent has been charged so far. Since then, the protests have never stopped, defying the police officers and the cold winter weather.
In autumn 2020, the Baltic countries, but especially Lithuania and Latvia, became the first to lead the international response to the post-election crisis in Belarus. They kept the issue on the agenda of major international organisations – including the EU, the Council of Europe – and showed determination by their own example. The Baltic States have jointly blacklisted more than 150 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko and his eldest son. Belarusian people fighting for freedom did not only find support at a political level, but also the Belarusian artistic reality is being supported through the Tallinn’s Telliskivi Loomelinnak, or Creative City, a former farm where artists who fled Belarus found shelter. Although more symbolic than painful, these actions have served both as an instrument of punishment against the Belarusian regime and as a means of pressure towards the international community, keeping the issue visible and alive in European public opinion. It seems that the dilemmas that democratic countries faced in the wake of the popular uprisings during the collapse of the Soviet Union are still ongoing today. The compromises are not only between economic cooperation and moral causes, but also between doing something and doing enough.