The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Belarusian-style revolution means cleaning up after protests and stopping for red lights

Two protesters separate recycling items from regular trash generated during a rally in Belarus’s capital, Minsk, on Sept. 13. (Misha Friedman for The Washington Post)

MOSCOW — As the crowd swelled to more than 100,000 in an anti-government protest in Belarus's capital last month, Ekaterina Daneyko noticed the public trash cans were getting full. The weather was warm, and most of her fellow protesters were carrying water bottles they'd eventually want to throw away.

So Daneyko bought large trash bags at the nearest store to help with cleanup. Hours later, she noticed other people loading full bags into their cars to take to a dumpster.

“It turns out there were a lot of people like me doing the same,” said Daneyko, 25.

Demonstrations in Minsk and other cities calling for the ouster of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who claims he won reelection last month despite alleged vote-rigging, are in their seventh week. Lukashenko was sworn in Wednesday in a previously unannounced ceremony.

The rallies represent the greatest challenge yet to his 26-year grip on power, but rather than cause damage, as many other revolutions have done, Belarus’s has been uniquely considerate.

As Lukashenko cracks down harder, protesters regroup and fight on

Streets are pristine even after mass demonstrations. Protesters have been seen taking off their shoes before standing on public benches, not wanting to dirty them. If traffic isn’t blocked off as a crowd of thousands is marching down a road, it will still stop and obey a red light.

But that could be changing. With Lukashenko’s government and the opposition mired in a stalemate, some Belarusians have started to warm to a view expressed in an Atlantic Council commentary last month that “the Belarus revolution may be too velvet to succeed.”

“Someone wrote a good tweet that they saw some protesters walking through the red light, which means we’ll definitely win — that our brains are catching on that sometimes you can walk on a red light,” Daneyko said. “For many people here, crossing on a red light or walking in bike lanes, it’s a big achievement. It’s as if you’ve already broken this system.”

The protests’ polite nature has, however, been an effective defense against Lukashenko’s rhetoric that the people who attend them are “criminals” and “unemployed.” In the demonstrations immediately after the Aug. 9 election, when clashes between police and protesters were at their most violent, images of peaceful crowds being brutally dispersed with stun grenades and rubber bullets galvanized other Belarusians to join the opposition movement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in late August that a reserve law enforcement contingent was standing by to intervene in the protests on behalf of Lukashenko if they got “out of control,” citing looting as an example. That unit was withdrawn last week.

Putin, Lukashenko discuss ‘integration’ as protests in Belarus continue

“My foreign friends call me and ask, ‘How is it that you guys still don’t have any broken store windows in all this time?’ ” Daneyko said.

Early resistance instead took the form of protesters linking arms in long chains to make it harder for authorities to detain them. During some August demonstrations, women carried flowers to hand to riot police. But as security forces have cracked down in recent weeks, tactics have changed.

Women, who are less likely to be beaten than male protesters, are yanking the balaclavas off unidentified officers, causing some to flee. Over the weekend, the opposition news channel Nexta Live on the Telegram messaging app leaked the personal data of 1,000 Belarusian police officers. Nearly 900 protesters were detained in rallies on Saturday and Sunday.

“Of course, it’s difficult when police aggression is directed at us even though we’re trying to do everything within the law,” said 37-year-old protester Marina El Fadel. “But we’re not trying to overcome force with force. The only way we can counter this force is with our politeness.”

El Fadel said she bought coffee and bread for the protesters who were beside her at demonstrations.

Victoria, who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld, out of fear for her family’s safety, said she saw a Facebook request for volunteers to provide rides for protesters being released from a Minsk detention center. When she got there 15 minutes later, she was startled by how many others had shown up.

“One time, I saw a post on Telegram saying we need people to help clean the streets after a protest, and I had nothing to do and have a car, so why not?” she said. “I think people know that anything we do wrong can be used against us. If we started leaving litter, [the government] would say, ‘Look at them, they’re not going to do anything good for this country because they’re not even cleaning up after themselves.’ ”

Hanna Liubakova, a Minsk-based journalist and Atlantic Council fellow, said Lukashenko boasted about the capital’s cleanliness so often over the years that it became a meme — and an ingrained habit that Belarusians might find hard to shake. She recalled that at a rally last year opposing closer integration with Russia, protesters who tore up a photo of Putin collected the shreds later and put them in a trash can.

“People are so self-organized and so disciplined, it feels like an inherent appreciation of order,” Liubakova said. “It’s a good question for me whether it comes from all these years of an authoritarian regime.”

Belarus diary: One protester’s week on the streets in Minsk

Belarus opposition leader arrested after tearing up her passport to avoid expulsion

Analysis: There’s more to Belarus’s ‘Telegram Revolution’ than a cellphone app