The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Belarus’s Lukashenko cracks down harder, protesters regroup and fight on

Belarusian opposition activist Olga Kovalkova waves flowers during a protest rally in Minsk last month. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

MOSCOW — Belarusian opposition activist Olga Kovalkova wasn't allowed a last look at her city. Security agents took her from her jail cell, told her to cover her face with her hoodie and drove her out of Minsk as a KGB agent held her head down on his lap.

Once outside the capital, when the agent let her lift her head, she started talking. She might not be able to convince the agents they were on the wrong side of history, she thought, but she was determined to try.

Longtime Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, clinging to power after claiming victory in an election last month condemned by Western leaders as fraudulent, is trying to sap the will of protesters by neutralizing opposition figures one by one, jailing or exiling them. The tactic has failed so far; the leaderless protest movement continues to draw energy from independent online media and Telegram channels operating from outside the country.

Lukashenko’s legitimacy is in tatters, disputed by his own population and by Western governments. But he’s proving difficult to budge, bolstered by Russian support and his still-loyal security forces. A stalemate has set in, with each side waiting for the other to stumble.

The European Union’s plan to sanction officials responsible for falsifying the election and cracking down on protests has been stalled by Cyprus for unrelated reasons. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned of sanctions, but vaguely. In any case, analysts question whether targeted sanctions would be enough to deter Lukashenko, given his backing from the Kremlin.

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Kovalkova says her captors did not seem to understand that Belarusians no longer fear Lukashenko.

“I was trying to seed questions in their heads,” she told The Washington Post after the agents expelled her at the Polish border on Sept. 5. “Why are they violating my rights just because I don’t support Lukashenko? My task was to convince them we all have equal rights.

“I wouldn’t call it a dialogue, but I kept on talking.”

Kovalkova, a senior official with opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s campaign, is one of many who have been expelled from the country. Tikhanovskaya, too, has been kicked out; Maria Kolesnikova ripped up her passport at the border to avoid exile and has been charged with undermining national security. Belarusian authorities have portrayed the expulsions as voluntary escapes.

Kovalkova, a member of the opposition’s coordination council, was arrested last month while meeting with fellow council member Sergei Dylevsky. Both were jailed. After 15 days, when Kovalkova was due for release, she says, a KGB official came to her cell and told her she would be expelled from the country or jailed indefinitely.

“I said, ‘I’m not leaving the country. No way.’ And they said, ‘You do not have any choice.’ ”

The opposition remains optimistic it will prevail, heartened by the first massive, sustained and peaceful protests in the history of this country of 9.5 million people. But optimism may not be enough, analysts say.

So far, Lukashenko’s strategy seems to be to hang on at all costs: He dismisses the protesters as “rats” and “wild Nazis” who are part of a foreign plot. On Thursday, he put his army on high alert and accused “crazy politicians” in Poland and Lithuania of fomenting war.

“I am often reproached with, ‘He will not give up power,’ ” he said Sept. 10. “And they are right.”

Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus, says the Belarusian approach is flawed.

“The authorities are hoping that if they round up the key figures who are leading this, then that will somehow decapitate the movement and drain its ability to organize itself and to strategize and so on,” said Gould-Davies, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “But intimidating them or forcing them abroad or arresting them won’t change the fundamentals of the situation, so that tactic is unlikely to work.”

The two agents who drove Kovalkova to the border wore masks. Instead of being afraid of them, she told them they should stop hiding their faces. In a normal country, she said, being a policeman is something to be proud of.

“My message to them was, ‘I don’t want you to be embarrassed to be a representative of law enforcement or the police,’ ” she said. “ ‘What is happening is unacceptable, and it cannot go on. People are afraid of the police.’ ”

In recent protests, women, who are less likely than men to be beaten, have confronted burly special forces officers, shouting, “Show your faces!” and pulling off their balaclavas. Once unmasked, some officers have fled, according to Telegram videos.

The protesters say they’re forcing the secretive Belarusian security police to be accountable for violence and abuses. Belarusian authorities complain their actions have led to threats against officers.

Andrei Parshin, chief of the Interior Ministry’s main security department, said 43 criminal cases have been opened over threats of violence against police officers, the state news agency BelTA reported Wednesday. “We have everything we need to give the most brutal response to those who dare to encroach on a police officer,” he said.

Nina Baginskaya, a 73-year-old pensioner known for her boldness at protests, ripped the mask off a police officer in Minsk on Sept. 12. The officer was quickly identified and named on the Telegram channel Black Book.

“Why did this officer arrest girls so aggressively and even rip their hair out?” Black Book’s moderator asked. The claim of violence by the officer could not be independently verified. Human Rights Watch has documented police violence against protesters.

Gould-Davies said that despite the protesters’ innovative tactics, they have yet to achieve the kinds of large-scale defections in the security forces or divisions within the elite that are needed to topple Lukashenko.

“Neither side is strong enough to defeat the other, nor weak enough to be defeated,” he said.

Lukashenko has ordered police to crack down on the protests, saying people want peace and quiet. In recent weeks, they have done so, arresting hundreds. In all 10,000 “abusive arrests” have been made and 500 people tortured, the U.N. special rapporteur on Belarus, Anaïs Marin, told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday.

But Belarusians have rejected state propaganda in favor of independent information from citizens and anonymous journalists on the front lines of the protests, posted on Telegram channels and online media with millions of followers.

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“The media plays a key role in all these protests and their coordination,” said Daria Minsky, co-founder of the lifestyle magazines and the Village Belarus, now focused on the political crisis. “After the falsified elections, they started to grow really fast because it was the main source of information.” She said authorities had not been able to root out most Telegram journalists.

“It’s completely grass-roots,” she said. “Some have been arrested, but a lot of people scattered in different countries, so it’s impossible to know who they are and where they are.”

Minsky, who is based in Madrid, said her co-founder, Alexander Vasilievich, was arrested in Minsk on Aug. 28. Masked agents burst into the media group’s office on Sept. 7, and staff were evacuated overseas. The sites’ accounts were frozen. Still, they continue to publish.

“It’s like Lukashenko lives in the ’80s in the Soviet Union,” Minsky said, while “society is completely European and progressive, especially the young part of it.”

Lukashenko has made errors. He underestimated Tikhanovskaya as a rival. Then the official election result implausibly said he had won more than 80 percent of the vote. Police brutality and use of torture has infuriated the public.

Lukashenko’s obsequious appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help during a meeting in Sochi this past week won him a $1.5 billion loan but didn’t help his public image at home.

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Belarusian analyst Dmitry Bolkunets said Lukashenko’s legitimacy has expired.

“We are now seeing the sunset of [his] epoch,” he said. “It’s just a question of when he will leave politics.”

Kovalkova said Lukashenko could not just arrest everybody. “If he arrests certain people, others will come and replace them,” she said.

But Gould-Davies warned that Lukashenko could lose patience and crush protests with deadly force.

“The ruthlessness of the regime suggests that unfortunately, that’s something that we cannot rule out,” he said. “And for Lukashenko, there would be no sense of moral restraint whatsoever.”

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