Last Friday, as a vigil for detained colleagues in Belarus was ongoing in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, I was reflecting on how hope in my country has unraveled in just 12 months.
One year ago, there was optimism in the air throughout Belarus. Each weekend, throngs of peaceful demonstrators were taking to the streets, carrying white and red flags, telling the world that for them, the 9 August election that had kept Aliaksandr Lukashenka in the presidential palace was a fraud, and demanding justice for those brutally beaten by the regime. It seemed the change they were calling for was just around the corner.
Human rights defenders, like myself, were paying more attention to increased rumblings. Opposition politician Paval Seviarynetsh charged with a crime on 1 September. Politician Volha Kavalkova forcibly deported on 6 September. Opposition leader Maria Kalesnikova kidnapped by State agents on 7 September in an attempt to deport her. Her lawyers, Ilia Saley and Maksim Znak, who were also members of the Coordination Council – a group of opposition politicians, civil society representatives and intellectuals trying to promote dialogue and the peaceful transfer of power - arrested two days later.
One year on, Marfa is still imprisoned, together with six of her colleagues from leading human rights group and OMCT SOS-Torture Network member Viasna: Ales Bialiatsky, Valiancin Stefanovich, Uladz Labkovich, Leanid Sudalenka, Tatsiana Lasitsa and Andrey Chapuk.
Then, in the late evening on 17 September 2020, came what was in retrospect the starting point of the dismantling of civil society: the brutal arrest of human rights defender Marfa Rabkova and her husband, Vadim.
One year on, Marfa is still imprisoned, together with six of her colleagues from leading human rights group and OMCT SOS-Torture Network member Viasna (“Spring”): Ales Bialiatsky, Valiancin Stefanovich, Uladz Labkovich, Leanid Sudalenka, Tatsiana Lasitsa and Andrey Chapuk.
Maria Kalesnikava was recently sentenced to 12 years, and her lawyer Maksim Znak to 10.
Unrelenting waves of repression
Over the past 12 months, repression has come in waves, hitting one civil society group after another. For a Belarusian government obsessed with a supposed “colour revolution” organised from abroad, civil society and human rights defenders have become enemies, to be brought down by all means. Groups like Viasna, who together with others documented over 2.500 cases of torture by law enforcement, had to be silenced.
From September to November 2020, arrests targeted various political leaders and institutions, but also independent trade unions, strike committees, initiatives to support retired workers, and popular bloggers (many bloggers had been arrested even before the 9 August presidential election).
As of mid-November, mass rallies gave way to local demonstrations, which were more difficult for the authorities to target.
The systematic crackdown against civil society started late December 2020 with the arrest of the team at PressClub, an NGO, then of media managers Andrey Aleksandrau and Iryna Zlobina. In January 2021, it was the turn of Viasna human rights defenders Leanid Sudalenka and Tatsiana Lasitsa in Homel. In February, searches and arrests took place at the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 16 February saw over 90 searches of civil society groups and interrogations of staff members.
Andrey, Iryna and Leanid were charged with financing protests because they had helped pay the fines leveraged against peaceful protesters.
The final blow
Between May and August 2021, the remaining Belarusian independent media were shut down: first TUT.by, Belarus’ largest, where 15 employees were arrested, then Nasha Niva in July, with the arrest of the editor in chief and other staff members. Last came the closure of independent information centre BelaPAN in August. Many independent regional media have also been persecuted.
The crisis we have witnessed over the past year has also given birth to a more resilient, more creative civil society that multiplies new, underground initiatives.
The final blow came this summer. In mid-July, over 100 searches took place at NGO offices and the homes of staff members. On 14 July, seven employees of leading human rights group Viasna were detained. Three of them remain behind bars, including the chairman, Ales Bialiatski, and his deputy, Valiancin Stefanovich. Over 200 NGOs were “liquidated” (the term dates back to Stalinist times), putting an end to practically any organised civil society activity in Belarus.
Legislative changes adopted in 2021 outlaw most human rights activities, including web-streaming during demonstrations and criticizing government policies.
A new civil society emerges
However, this is not the end of the story. In Belarus, like in any other country, civil society is not only about organisations. It’s also about people who promote peaceful change, help others in need and repair injustice. The crisis we have witnessed over the past year has also given birth to a more resilient, more creative civil society that multiplies new, underground initiatives.
One example is the revival of the “yard” communities, people who live in the same district and coalesce around common values. The USSR had eliminated them, but they are back in Belarus, initiating brief, localized actions that are harder to detect.
Staff members of “liquidated” NGOs keep working on social issues. With many activists forced into exile, a resilient Belarusian community is building abroad. Human rights work goes on via digital channels, documenting crimes and providing support to victims.
The women and men in prison also show high levels of resilience, despite inhuman detention conditions, daily humiliations and even torture. Some keep refusing offers of release in exchange for public “confessions.” The small acts of solidarity with those detained matter; there is a regular flow of postcards, letters, telegrams, money transfers and parcels to all Belarusian prisons where innocent people are kept.
At the Vilnius vigil, organised to commemorate one year since Marfa Rabkova’s arrest, three cheerful young women were holding a sign that read “Viasna (spring) will come, everything will blossom, breathing will become easier.” Whether in Belarus or from exile, civil society activists keep the hope alive in what is otherwise a very grim environment.
Eugenia Andreyuk is Human Rights Adviser for Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Turkey at the OMCT
Belarus: Release Marfa Rabkova, free all detained Viasna members