It was to become one of the defining images of the recent recrudescence of Belarus’s autocratic crackdown on civil liberties.
“What are you doing?!,” the lady shrieks as riot police in helmets and armour drag an elderly man across the street, his face streaked with fear under a brown beret. “He’s an old man,” she pleads, as he is dragged inside a black police van. “Let him go!”
The unknown man was one of 400 people arrested in Minsk on that grey, wet day in late March. The swift and ruthless crackdown by black-suited riot police was frighteningly effective: Only 700 people took part in the peaceful protest.
Many of those detained were beaten in detention. Some were beaten by truncheons as they lay on the cold pavement, television footage showed. Some never even made it to the protest: More than a hundred people were pre-emptively locked in jail in the days preceding it.
Welcome to Belarus, a country wedged between Russia and the European Union and an autocracy run by one man for the past 23 years, where the KGB operates practically unchanged from its Soviet-era days, and where opposition to the leader’s rule is banned and public assemblies are illegal.
Condoleezza Rice, as Secretary of State in 2005, described the country as “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.” Twelve years on, it is still living up to that moniker.
It takes a lot to get people to protest in Belarus. More than two decades of one-man rule, which swiftly followed almost seventy years of life inside the Soviet Union, means many of its people choose to keep their heads down.
This suits Alexander Lukashenko, its 62-year-old President, who shows no signs of relinquishing his tight grip on power.
But last month’s protests, which took place in cities across the country and followed a number of previous marches, marked a level of public outrage at his rule not seen since 2010.
Then, demonstrations against his fourth consecutive election victory—with 79.65 per cent of the vote—were met with bloody repressions that saw more than 650 people, including opposition candidates, thrown in jail.
Opposition activists say defiance of Lukashenko is rising, and more protests will come. Lukashenko blames the protests on a “fifth column” of foreign spies who should be “picked out like raisins from a bun.” Rapprochement with the West, long considered a foreign policy aim for the EU to draw the country away from Russia’s influence, has been put on indefinite hold. Anger simmers.
The popular discontent with Lukashenko, a tall, broad man with a bushy moustache and a fondness for harvesting vegetables by hand, stems from issues as varied as economic hardship, corruption, and repression of basic rights.
But the spark for the recent spate of protests was a specific law, issued by the President in 2015 but enforced in January, which levies a $250 fine on people who have not worked for six months.
Dubbed “the decree against social parasites” by the administration, its demand for 470,000 people to pay the fee prompted a number of protests across the country in February. Lukashenko, caught off-guard by the spontaneous nature of the demonstrations, announced a climb-down on March 9, suspending the law’s implementation for a year but not quashing it.
The ameliorative move failed to stop the protest movement. Instead, emboldened, the protesters multiplied in numbers and took up a broader demand for the President to step down. In response, police began increasing the number of arrests at each demonstration.
March 25 marked the end of Mr Lukashenko’s patience. He had had enough.
“Protesters were surrounded. Several police trucks were sent in and arrests started. Riot police started to detain literally everyone, even some journalists and old people were detained,” wrote Sergey Kozlovksy, a BBC reporter in Minsk who attended the demonstration. “Those who were trying to resist were beaten.”
A former Communist youth official who served in the Soviet armed forces and rose to become the manager of a state farm, Lukashenko turned to politics during the twilight of the USSR and was elected the first President of the Republic of Belarus in 1994. He has held that office ever since.
Prone to anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks, Lukashenko appears to be grooming his 12-year-old son Nikolai as a potential successor. Kolya, as he is popularly known, has been taken on official visits to meet U.S. President Barack Obama, the Pope, and Chinese President Xi Jinping. He carries a golden pistol, a gift from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The country’s military generals have been ordered to salute the blonde teenager, who in 2012 was introduced by his father to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as “someone to take over the reins of this co-operation” in 20-25 years.
A strong believer in unchallenged state power, Lukashenko was the only member of the Belarus parliament to vote against a December 1991 agreement dissolving the Soviet Union.
He used a September 2015 address to the UN General Assembly to blame international conflicts on “an artificial cult of individual rights and freedoms to the detriment of collective social interest.”
“Under the guise of protection of human rights, [the] overthrow of governments, destruction of states, and wars over resources are being justified,” he said. “I can assure everyone with absolute confidence that anarchy, lawlessness, and violence will never take root on the Belarusian soil.”
This mantra is deployed at every available opportunity. Casting himself as the nation’s “father,” Mr Lukashenko claims to be the only person who can guarantee national stability and security, playing on a deep-seated national fear of war stemming from the country’s bloody history of annexation and invasion through the first-half of the 20th century.
Ukraine’s troubles—the pro-democracy protests in 2014 that preceded government collapse, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the on-going war in the country’s east—is one of his favourite proofs of the necessity of his rule. Accept me or risk bloodshed, goes the pitch.
That uneasy social contract appeared to have appeased the majority of the population in the years after 2010, and the administration also attempted some small economic and social reforms. Relations with the United States and the European Union slowly warmed up, and the EU rewarded the absence of violence against opposition politicians during his fifth election victory in 2015 with an easing of most of the bloc’s sanctions against the country.
The country of 9.5 million is geopolitically strategic, a status leveraged by Lukashenko. Poland, on the EU’s eastern flank, and the Baltic countries of Lithuania and Latvia bordering it to the north, view Belarus warily in the context of their fears of a potential military threat from Russia.
At the same time, the Kremlin is keen to keep Minsk firmly inside its sphere of influence, seeing it as a valuable bulwark against NATO’s expansion in eastern Europe and a critical piece in its attempts to create a Eurasian Economic Union to rival the liberal, Western EU.
As geopolitical balancing acts go, Lukashenko’s courtship of both Brussels and Moscow has been impressive. Always close enough but not too close to either, Belarus has managed to extract Russian favours, such as the low-cost energy imports keeping the country warm and solvent, and EU gifts, such as aid, development projects, and—in fits and starts—investment in its Soviet-style, statist economy.
“This is clearly not a rosy or perfect picture,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini as the bloc lifted sanctions last year. “But when we see significant, even if limited steps, in what we feel is the right direction, we feel it is right to encourage them.”
But despite the easing of sanctions and attempts to deepen trade ties with Europe, Belarus slumped into recession in 2015 on the back of a drop in oil prices and an economic slowdown in Russia, its biggest trade partner and a destination for many expat Belarusian workers who send cash home to their families.
Belarus’s economy shrank for a second consecutive year in 2016, and average incomes fell by more than 7 percent. That contraction, which has continued into 2017, meant that for many of the country’s poor the tax on unemployment was a cynical slap in the face.
Branding them as “social parasites” for not having a job in an economy dominated by inefficient and badly run state companies was the spark for many to take to the streets.
“For a long time, many reasons for the discontent have accumulated: a drop in the standard of living, lack of work, rising prices, irresponsible (governance) in the regions and Minsk,” said Tatiana Karatkevich, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2015 presidential election. “And the most important one is the lack of prospects. So people are ready for street protest.”
Having urged people to boycott the $250 fine, she has called for public dialogue on economic and social reform to end the current standoff.
“People are discontented at the power that has not changed for 23 years. Both in 2010 and in 2017 protests are alike by their peaceful nature,” she said. “Aggressive reaction of law enforcers creates tension in society and does not allow us to sit down at the negotiating table where we could agree what reforms should be implemented.”
The international response to the latest crackdown has been more reserved than the condemnation directed at the 2010 repression.
A spokesperson for Mogherini said, “The latest developments in Belarus highlight a clear need for a broader democratization process in the country.” Mogherini’s spokesperson also demanded that freedom of association and assembly be ensured, and detained protesters released.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment on whether sanction relief would be affected. Ten days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to end a fight over gas supplies to the country and offered to refinance the country’s debt.
Few observers expect that March 25 will mark the end of the public anger against Lukashenko, or indeed the last of his security service’s moves to smother dissent.
Two days after the protest, with many demonstrators still locked in cells, the President announced a new nationwide surveillance system of video and thermal imaging cameras to monitor public activity.
“The recent events showed that such a system would have come in handy,” Mr Lukashenko said in comments reported by the state-owned news service.
Nikolai Statkevich, another opposition politician and leader of the protest movement, who was detained and held in jail before the March 25 rally to stop him from taking part, has called for fresh protests on May 1.
“May 1 is the day of international solidarity. We hope the whole world will show solidarity with the Belarusians. May 1 is the day of Europe. Belarus is the part of it and we have the right to the same freedoms,” Statkevich told Belsat, an independent television channel.
“We should preserve the freedom site in the centre of the capital. If it is in Minsk, it will be valid in the regions; people will be able to take central squares of cities as well. We will not let the authorities intimidate us,” he added.
But Lukashenko, too, is doubling down. In his annual speech to the country’s national assembly last week he launched into a tirade against EU politicians who he says “pour dirt” on Belarus.
“I want to tell everyone who is sitting here: if anyone makes an attempt at the sovereignty of our country, we will take all the necessary measures,” the President began.
“I want to tell all the European leaders: you really lack something between the legs,” he continued. “You will soon realize your mistakes and will regret having made them.”
“Why are you so stubborn? Where is your democracy and tolerance? You keep pursuing human rights. What do you think about those kids who drown in the Mediterranean Sea? Aren’t you ashamed of blaming Belarus in such a situation? We accepted 160,000 refugees from Ukraine. And you don’t want to accept 5,000?” he said.
“You want to destabilize the situation here? Why do you keep bullying us? The whole European continent is on fire. We can help you. And you shut yourself off from us. What if I would shut down my border to you tomorrow?”