From Belarus to America: a lesson in how an authoritarian responds to those who threaten his power.
Six masked police officers in black uniforms and helmets were filmed beating one unarmed man, who can be heard moaning in pain. A woman runs up, screaming, and the cops turn on her, one of them explicitly threatening her, the other pushing her away. “Don’t touch him, that’s my husband!” she screams, flailing at them with her arms. The officers haul her husband up off the ground, presumably to be detained. It was just another day of violent crackdowns in Belarus, a country that has been ruled since 1994 by Alexander Lukashenko, who is often called Europe’s last dictator.
We don’t know for certain where police took the man, but another video provides some clues.
This video is reportedly of the Oktyabrskaya department of the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs in central Minsk with dozens of arrested people lying face down. 267/https://t.co/FRv1gwe3Gd pic.twitter.com/gkRQgs4aVR
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) August 11, 2020
The women narrating the clip are clearly horrified at what they are seeing through the window. They fear the detained people lying face down in the walled yard of the police precinct will be murdered by police. One of the women wants to go out on the balcony to film, but then both decide it’s unsafe. The scene has a Children of Men vibe — dystopian and horrifyingly banal at the same time. Subsequent videos published on Twitter show protesters gathered outside a detention center in Minsk while chanting encouragement to the detainees who are being beaten inside, and weeping as large police vehicles arrive with yet more detained protesters inside.
Reports of horrific torture in detention have begun to leak out. Here is just one video featuring the sounds of detainees screaming. Here is a video of a woman behind barbed wire, screaming “Don’t! Please stop! I can’t see anything!” A friend of mine who lives in Minsk has likened the situation to a war being waged by the state against its own populace.
An independent Russian journalist, freed with the aid of his diplomats, was able to recount the scenes he saw after being essentially kidnapped by police (as they told him themselves, “You are not detained”), including minors being savagely beaten, people forced to lie face down in pools of blood for hours, police jumping on protesters’ backs until bones are broken, threats of rape, and much more.
Four days into the anti-Lukashenko demonstrations, Belarusian state television broadcast a horrifying video report that shows young protesters at a detention center, obviously beaten and terrified, confirming to an off camera police officer that they will not engage in any more protests.
The mass arrests are part of a violent state crackdown on opposition demonstrators, who poured into the streets on August 9 to protest an election that the president claimed he had “won” with 80% of the vote. Protests have sprung up all over the country, not just in the capital, Minsk. While exact numbers of protesters are hard to come by, official statistics say that at least 6,000 have been detained in just a few days.
While media organizations have been careful to stress that vote rigging has been “alleged” in Belarus, I can state confidently that the election was stolen; the evidence is there for all to see.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the 37 year-old woman who ran against Lukashenko after her husband, a well-known opposition blogger, was jailed in May, has been forced into exile in neighboring Lithuania. Security officials threatened to make orphans of her children, whom she sent abroad before the election; they later arrested her campaign manager, Maria Moroz.
They detained Moroz as a hostage, to be released in exchange for Tikhanovskaya’s departure from Belarus.
Before she was allowed to leave the country, Tikhanovskaya recorded what amounts to a hostage video, in which she reads from a script while sitting in what seems to be the office of a Belarusan Central Elections Commission chairperson. In a personal video, which she recorded shortly after arriving in Lithuania, Tikhanovskaya speaks emotionally; she calls herself a “weak woman” — a chilling reference to Lukashenko having mocked her as a “poor little girl” ahead of the election. “Children,” she said in that video, “are our everything”—a clear indication that she was told her children would not be safe. She added: “God forbid you should ever have to face the choice I had to face.”
Even with her children safely abroad, Tikhanovskaya had every reason to be terrified for them. Her husband, who was originally supposed to run instead of her before Lukashenko had him thrown in jail, remains behind bars, another hostage.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is young, passionate, and charismatic in a way that galvanizes voters. She has a wholesome image — an independent candidate who declared her love for her activist husband, Sergei, after he was locked up, and ran on a platform of freeing political prisoners, weakening ties with Russia, and democratic reforms. Her courage invested her with instant appeal.
The threats against Tikhanovskaya and her family are not the actions of a confident leader who easily won the majority of the polls. They are the actions of a dictator who feels his throne wobbling underneath him. Although the election was not monitored — already a major red flag — the machinations witnessed by ordinary citizens at the polls were giving the game away, Tikhanovskaya was clearly getting too many votes for comfort. Demands for “all votes to be counted” are no longer relevant at this point; to get to the bottom of what happened, one would need to hold a whole new, transparent election, which is impossible at the moment.
Look at this graph if you want to understand the generational span of Lukashenko’s rule:
The median age of people in Belarus is 40. The median Belarusian spent 65% of their life under Lukashenka. https://t.co/l7aUsplUgQ pic.twitter.com/fuC4aGiMxd
— Gennady Rudkevich (@grudkev) August 11, 2020
Add to that stagnation and growing inequality, as well as a history of repressions and crackdowns. Now add the fear, uncertainty, and crisis that 2020 brought — a spectacle that has included Lukashenko mocking the coronavirus and hosting a parade as infections surged.
Lukashenko’s response to the protests has included not just threats and violent crackdowns; he also cut off the internet in an attempt to stifle dissent. The people, however, appear furious and determined in their defiance. Bypassing restrictions, some have even created a Telegram channel dedicated to unmasking and doxxing Lukashenko’s security services — a situation that could escalate dramatically on top of all of the other escalations.
It is not clear if Lukashenko will be toppled. Certainly, the savagery with which the protesters are being treated shows us that he fears as much. Some regional analysts believe that the regime is nearing collapse, but the question is — at what cost?
Americans should be paying close attention to events in Belarus. Lukashenko’s response to the opposition shows how a cornered rat behaves — with mass arrests, death threats, and attempts to shut down or limit access to the internet. Donald J. Trump is just a wannabe authoritarian, but like Lukashenko he can be dangerous when under duress. We have observed Trump’s increasing petulance — everything from the constant revenge-firings of officials and blasting his own intelligence community on Twitter — and see how it can easily turn into a rage.
We can see how that rage finds an outlet via unidentified paramilitary police grabbing protesters in places like Portland. We can see it in how peaceful protesters were tear-gassed in D.C. for a bizarre photo op. One of the functions of authoritarianism is to bulldoze the safeguards that a democratic system places between the individual and the state — as craven officials continue to help Trump, more and more of the American public is exposed to both his anger and his incompetence.
Americans are lucky to have a system that still provides many protections from Trump’s rage, but that system has its vulnerabilities. With the pandemic out of control in the States, voting by mail has become more important — but our Postal Service is being sabotaged, to name one obvious example. Republicans have been going after the USPS for years, but their efforts now present Trump with a potential opportunity to cast the upcoming presidential election as seriously flawed, especially if it’s a close one. When a crucial part of the societal infrastructure that is propping up our democracy is weakened, we stray further toward unpredictable scenarios.
Keith Kahn-Harris, a London based sociologist and prolific author, explains in an excellent Twitter thread that Western ideological zealots who support foreign dictators and cast them as fighters of Western imperialism (Kahn-Harris he refers to them as “Tankies” — the term originated with British people who supported Soviet tanks rolling across Europe, but has since broadened to include different groups, united by a disdain for the Western countries they call home) have succumbed to delusion by treating Lukashenko’s state propaganda as though it were meant to be believed.
Rather, explains Kahn-Harris, “In dictatorships the absurdity of the lie is precisely the point—it is an expression of dominance.” People who have grown up in authoritarian regimes know that official statements are lies. The trick is to understand the subtext of the lie. People who have grown up in democracies are not equipped with the necessary cynicism to combat a leader who lies axiomatically, which is why the U.S. media has failed to cover the Trump presidency with adequate insight.
There is a very good parallel to be drawn between Trump’s base — as they do everything from cheering on our own examples of horrific police violence to ignoring or dismissing the president’s inaction on the pandemic — and Lukashenko’s Western fanboys as they seek to discredit protesters in Belarus.
Both groups are operating in a state of unreality. As we have seen over the past few months, 2020 has shown all too well, unreality is both seductive and deadly.