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Inspiration—and More Barbarism—in Belarus

Inspiration—and More Barbarism—in Belarus

On February 25, Belarus will hold parliamentary elections. Don’t hold your breath for fair, free—or peaceful. Connect dots across the region and you see a bigger, alarming picture.

Jeffrey Gedmin

Belarusian Vitali Alekseenok went abroad to develop his talent. He graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 2016 before moving to Germany for further studies at Weimar’s University of Music. A year ago, he won the prestigious Toscanini Conducting Competition in Parma. By that time, Vitali was already enmeshed in politics. 

After Belarus’ fraudulent election in summer 2020, Vitali traveled home from Germany to join pro-democracy protests in Minsk. Since June 2021, the thirty-three-year-old conductor has served as artistic director of Ukraine’s Kharkiv Music Festival, which organizes concerts in bomb shelters, subways, and hospitals.

There were stunning mass demonstrations across Belarus in August 2020. People of all walks of life participated. Striking was the role musicians played. Vitali Alekseenok led orchestra members in a silent concert on the steps of the Philharmonic in Minsk. “Everyone came without instruments,” he wrote in a 2021 book about the nascent democracy movement; “all of us held placards [of solidarity].” 

Belarusians used the encrypted social media app Telegram to organize anti-regime flash mobs in shopping malls and subways. Pro-democracy Slogans had been banned for years in Belarus but people started assembling to clap their hands. “The sound became an expression of solidarity with the Belarusian opposition,” recounts Vitali.

Alexander Lukashenko answered peaceful protest with terror. Thousands have been arrested—by some estimates thirty-five thousand—with many maltreated and tortured. He’s brazen, Belarus’ dictator.

On May 23, 2021, a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to Minsk after Belarusian authorities notified flight crew that a bomb was on board. After a forced landing, no explosions were found on board, but twenty-six-year-old Belarusian activist and blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were removed from the aircraft, arrested, and sentenced in sham trials to lengthy prison sentences.

By now it’s hard to sell stories about repression in Belarus. It’s dog bites man. But there’s a bigger picture. Authoritarians of different stripes across the former Soviet Union and in parts of what once constituted communist Europe are fighting hard against anything that smacks of Western liberal democracy. Russian President Vladimir Putin leads the pack, of course, but Lukashenko is a serious player. He now holds more than 1,400 political prisoners in appalling conditions. 

I have a sense of some of the circumstances through my association with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik is being held at Penal Colony No. 1 in Navapolatsk in northern Belarus. He’s cut off from communication with the outside world. The last time his family received a letter from him was a year ago. Since March last year, the thirty-one-year-old reporter has spent most of his time in a special punishment cell. Former inmates describe these cells as cold and particularly bleak, with a bench, a table, a wash basin, and a toilet. Benches are made of metal, making it nearly impossible to sit for a very long time because of frigid temperatures. Families of prisoners in Penal Colony No. 1 report outbreaks of smallpox.

Ihar’s RFE/RL colleague Andrey Kuznechyk is held in the same prison. Andrey is forced to work morning to night, six days a week, in bitter winter weather at a sawmill. There’s a colleague in another facility in similarly difficult conditions—in a cold cell, with no hot water, a single toilet in plain view used by other cellmates. Then there is Ihar’s wife Darya, incarcerated in a penal colony in eastern Belarus. Her crime? The thirty-two-year-old mother of a five-year-old child pleaded for her husband’s release in a short video. Husband Ihar is serving a term of fifteen years. 

It’s a page out of Stalin’s book to go after family members. Last week, there was another wave of arrests in Belarus focused on the relatives of political prisoners. And the net keeps widening. Last fall, authorities decreed that Belarusians living abroad will have to return home if they want their passports renewed. For many, this is a choice between arrest or statelessness. “We’re like al-Qaeda in the regime’s eyes,” a young female Belarusian democracy advocate based in Europe tells me.

Vitaly’s silent concert in August 2020 turned to sound. Spontaneously, musicians started to sing a folk song kids grow up with in Belarus, a song called Kupalinka that up until that moment had had nothing to do with the pro-democracy protests. It’s inspiring, the spirit and courage of the Belarusian people.

Today, there’s absolutely no room for music engaged in social critique or dissent. In November, members of the electronic rock Tor Band were sentenced to seven and a half, eight, and nine years, respectively. Courts found Andrei Yaremchyk, Yauhen Burlo, and Dzmitry Halavach guilty of inciting hatred and insulting the president. 

But then Mr. Lukashenko, Belarus’ ruler since 1994, is clear. We’re finished with “imaginary norms like freedom of speech and other freedoms,” he said recently. That’s what we’re up against—and what we in the free West are fighting for.

American Purpose’s Jeffrey Gedmin is former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a member of the RFE/RL board, and a member of the International Broadcast Advisory Board. Views expressed are the author’s alone.

Image: An undated image of journalist Ihar Losik prior to imprisonment. (U.S. Agency for Global Media)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyCultureEastern EuropeRussiaUkrainePolitical Philosophy