Sviatlana Haluza broke down on June 9.
As an employee of Belarus’s state-controlled media outlet SB.by, she’d grown used to rewriting boilerplate propaganda mined from other state-controlled media outlets. But now her boss instructed her to recycle an item about the imprisoned opposition leader Siarhei Tsikhanousky. Haluza had a crisis of conscience. She secretly supported Tsikhanousky’s candidacy for president. “I realized I didn’t believe the stuff I was being told to publish and I didn’t want to say he was a criminal and a villain,” she said. “I cried for twenty minutes.”
Then the 23 year-old rang up her mother and a few of her friends. All gave the same advice: Don’t rewrite the attack at all. Just copy and paste it verbatim from the source material, an item lifted from the Belarusian Telegraphic Agency, and remove your surname from the byline. Haluza took the advice. “I wanted to make myself irrelevant to the propaganda,” she said.
A month after that small act of defiance, countless numbers of Haluza’s compatriots have similarly made themselves irrelevant to the propaganda. Fed up with 26 years of one-man authoritarian rule, as many as 100,000 Belarusians took to the streets of the capital Minsk over the weekend calling for a free and fair election following the decidedly unfree and unfair one held August 9. Alexander Lukashenko, the incumbent president, claimed a landslide victory with 80.23% of the vote, against 9.9% for his main rival Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a schoolteacher who wound up on the ballot after her husband, Tsikhanousky, was disqualified following his controversial arrest in May for what the government alleged was organizing a “grave breach of public order.” (The arrest was captured on video. Amnesty International has labeled Tsikhanousky a “prisoner of conscience.”)
Everyone knew Lukashenko would steal the election; few thought he’d be stupid enough to steal it by that much. Snap plebiscites captured on film after the vote was declared showing overwhelming support for Tsikhanouskaya.
In the days since, protesters and ordinary citizens have been rounded up, tossed into overcrowded cells in a notorious detention on Okrestina Street on the outskirts of Minsk. Some have been stripped naked and beaten or electrocuted, their nocturnal screams recorded from beyond the prison walls and uploaded to the Internet, reinvigorating what had been gradually dwindling rallies.
Europe’s last dictator, the consensus runs, is mounting his last stand for survival. And he’s losing, particularly to a demographic he holds in low regard: women. Along with Tsikhanouskaya, the other two leaders of the opposition are Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, both of whom stood in for men who were forced to flee the country or thrown in prison in advance of the vote. If Lukashenko thought they’d make milquetoast replacements, he was wrong.
Belarusian women have unmistakably formed the vanguard of the civil resistance thus far, turning up all over the country in white dresses and forming “solidarity chains” —human phalanxes—against the helmeted thugs of the OMON riot police. As Belarusian Nobel laureate Sviatlana Alexievich put it, “According to Lukashenko, only those who have served in the military are fit to occupy the presidency. I would like to tell him that we already entered the era of women.”
Linas Linkevičius, the foreign minister of neighboring Lithuania, has taken to referring to Lukashenko as the “former president of Belarus” on Twitter. Even the former president’s traditional base of industrial workers seems to be inching closer to that past-tense appraisal. A national strike has since been declared. On Monday, factory hands brazenly heckled the former president at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, transforming Lukashenko’s comfort zone into a pillory. “Go away!” the workers shouted, as he lamely told them to put away their cell phones. There would be no more elections, he swore, until someone killed him.
It was a Freudian slip that democracy has always been more a performance art than a political reality in a post-Soviet state, which for decades has seemed the land that 1989 forgot. The secret police here is still called the KGB. Seventy percent of the economy is still owned and operated by the central government. And, up until a week ago, the aging mustachioed helmsman still kept the masses fed on a steady diet of socialist realist platitudes.
In March, Lukashenko dismissed the coronavirus pandemic as “frenzy and psychosis,” nothing that a masculine troika of palliatives—vodka, sauna and tractor driving—couldn’t cure. (He later said he contracted the virus but “power[ed] through” it without exhibiting symptoms.) There was no lockdown in Belarus, a country of 9.5 million, of whom about 70,000 have been diagnosed and 613 have died, according to the World Health Organization.
And at a time when every other world leader was appearing before the cameras in a mask, Lukashenko was turning up in a sports jersey to slap around a hockey puck at a packed stadium in Minsk. “It’s better to die standing than to live on your knees,” he said then.
“I kneel down in front of you for the first time in my life,” he says now, acknowledging the precariousness of his reign, albeit without actually kneeling.
Like any wobbly strongman, Lukashenko blames a host of invisible and contradictory enemies for his misfortunes. First, there were Russian mercenaries, 33 of whom were captured in Minsk before the election and accused of being sent there by the Belarusian opposition to turn an already stalwart ally of Moscow into a satrapy of it.
Then there were the Poles, the Dutch, and a cabal of captured “Russian revolutionaries,” forced to promise on video that they wouldn’t foment revolutions anymore and who evidently stole across the border with handbooks on firearms and popular Israeli histories of assassinations.
Then there was Alexey Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, who, in spite of legal persecution at home, still has the cunning and wherewithal to whip up political instability next-door. (Navalny was just poisoned with an unknown chemical substance; he is now in intensive care where doctors are “currently engaged in the process of saving his life,” according to the deputy head of the hospital he was admitted to in Omsk.)
Finally, of course, there was NATO, which Lukashenko said was mobilizing at the Belarusian border ready to deploy its “black, yellow-mouthed, and blonde” soldiers to destroy the nation.
Perhaps in response to that latter conspiracy theory, Lukashenko has begged for military assistance from the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin has responded with lukewarm vows of support for “collective security,” falling short of a commitment to dispatch Russian troops or irregulars into Belarus in what would amount to a bold replay of Moscow’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. Which doesn’t necessarily amount to a refusal to do just that. Which doesn’t necessarily amount to a refusal to do just that. (Russian personnel, Minsk has confirmed, have been flown into Belarus to keep state media running while native employees are on strike.)
Signs of Lukashenko’s decline and fall were always there, if you knew where to look for them. In some cases, these could be with the very enforcers of the ancien regime.
TIME spoke with three Belarusian women via Zoom this week. All were in Kyiv, Ukraine, having fled their country just before the rigged election.
Katsiaryna Kupryianava, 30, had been collecting signatures for Tsikhanouskaya in the Minsk oblast. Authorities decided to intimidate her by targeting her younger brother, Ilya Bandarenka, 18. He hadn’t been able to sit for his university entrance exam because he was sick with an ordinary fever. Bandarenka had gone to his local hospital and obtained a waiver to have his exam deferred for another day. Belarusian police turned this into a provocation against the state. Bandarenka, they alleged, had counterfeited his sick note, despite the fact that the hospital had vouched for its authenticity.
Kupryianava was then subpoenaed as part of a criminal investigation she said had no substantive basis. “There were no specific charges against me,” she said. “The police had initiated a criminal case against my brother alleging he had provided fake medical documents, even though they weren’t fake, and even though even if they had been this would have had nothing to do with me.” She and Bаndarenkа went to their local police station. One of the officers there admitted they were summoned only because Kupriyanova was collecting signatures for the opposition. It was a hint that the net was closing in on an enemy of the people.
On the eve of a meeting Kupriyanova had organized with Tsikhanouskaya’s proxies, her apartment was raided. She and her brother were home and escorted back to the police station, the rest of their frantic family in tow. They were eventually released. But now they knew what they had to do. Kupriyanova and Bondarenko fled Belarus for Ukraine July 27.
Bazhena Zholudz, 20, had canvassed for the opposition in Rechytsa, an old city in southeast Belarus, which had seen a flurry of leaflets disseminated saying that Lukashenko commanded the support of only 3% of the electorate whereas Tsikhanouskaya had 97%. Zholudz didn’t distribute them, she claims, but the police decided to blame her anyway. On July 16, she received a notice accusing her of defacing public buildings. She was summoned to the police station to be interrogated.
She went ten times over the course of the next few weeks, leading up the election. Often Zholudz wasn’t even asked about any violation of the law but was warned that a much worse fate awaited her if she continued her activism.
Once a policeman called her and asked if she’d be coming to the station herself or if he had to pick her up at a protest. It was a joke, but also a discrete signal that he wanted her to know his assignment was purely political, not administrative. “I told him I’d come myself,” Zhloudz said. “But when I got to the station he wasn’t there. They told me he’d left.”
Zhloudz returned to her apartment. The officer turned up and said that while he knew she was at the station, he’d been there, registering in his log book that he’d intended to detain her at home. “You understand what’s happening,” he told Zhloudz. “We’re spying on you even when we know you’re complying with the summons.”
What convinced Zholudz to leave the country was her employer’s connivance with the authorities.
She’d worked as a registrar at the Children’s Medical Facility and one day her supervisor received a call instructing her to keep Zholudz in the building to prevent her from attending one of her scheduled interrogations. It was clear now the authorities wanted to snare her on technical grounds, keeping her from complying with the sham investigation.
“I resigned. I told my supervisor, ‘You cannot keep me here against my will,’ I wasn’t going to be arrested for failing to turn up to the police station.”
She went to the station where her interrogator (there was a different one each time) told her that a “provocation” was being prepared against her. She decided to emigrate.
Zholudz and her boyfriend drove from Belarus to the Ukrainian border on August 6, three days before the election. They crossed the border on foot, having been met by a well-connected Ukrainian friend on the other side.
The exodus of Belarusians to Ukraine owes no doubt not just to the country’s proximity but also to common political experience. Six years ago, demonstrations swept Kyiv’s Maidan Square because Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych broke his campaign promise to bring the nation closer to integration with the European Union; and he broke it at the behest and financial encouragement of Moscow. Ukrainians then were arrested and beaten up, too; they were also shot by snipers along the main boulevard in their capital city. While Belarusians may not be as galvanized by geopolitical concerns—their movement is mainly about transparency at home—the repression they’ve faced certainly feels the same. As does the shared sense of democratic solidarity.
In Sviatlana Haluza’s case, Kyiv was also the city where she felt she could slough off her false identity and step into her true one.
Even before she removed her surname from that hatchet job on Siarhei Tsikhanousky, she’d taken to keeping two sets of books. There was her official dayjob at SB.by (the SB stands for Soviet Belarus), which she had only taken owing to a national law which mandates that all recipients of a free university degree compensate the state with a minimum of two years of civil service. Given her degree in journalism from Belarus State University, she wanted to report the news. She wasn’t doing that, but nor could she simply resign before her contract was up without being made to pay a penalty she couldn’t afford.
Then there was Haluza’s side gig as a pseudonymous correspondent for Salidarnast, an opposition website. In her unofficial and plausibly deniable capacity as “Sviatlana Dobrovolskaya” she wrote the opposite of what rewrote for SB.by. There were fact-based stories about medical workers fighting the pandemic Lukashenko minimized; others about volunteers who were saving stray cats and dogs.
Haluza wasn’t alone. Her colleagues at SB.by, she said, also moonlighted for other anti-Lukashenko portals—fellow dissidents in disguise—and were reprimanded, as she was, for liking opposition posts on Facebook.
Haluza’s contract ended July 31. She wasted no time leaving SB.by and also Belarus, fearing that in the wake of the then-upcoming election, Lukashenko would declare martial law and the streets would turn violent, as they indeed did.
She went to Ukraine and worked as an exit poller for the Belarusian diaspora in Kyiv. On August 9, Election Day, Haluza gave a speech at the monument of her fellow countryman and fellow journalist, Pavel Sheremet, who was murdered with a car bomb as he left his apartment while commuting to work at Ukrainska Pravda, an online newspaper.
Sheremet, a Belarusian-born Russian citizen, had once been a political prisoner in Minsk, in 1997, during Lukashenko’s first term in office. Haluza wanted to pay her respects but also honor him in another way, by atoning for her role as a conscripted writer in uniform.
“I apologized to Tsikhanousky at the monument,” she said. “I don’t know if he heard my apology. But I needed to hear it.”
With reporting by Palina Brodik