‘Something broke inside Belarusians.’ Why an apolitical people rose up
By Anton Troianovski
Denis Dudinsky, the long-haired and mustachioed host of “Good Morning Belarus!,” can still hear the producer’s nervous voice in his ear any time his banter approached something remotely political.
“Denis, careful, careful, let’s not cross the line!”
In his 15 years on television, Dudinsky never did. Then, riding in a taxi in June, he witnessed people lined up outside a store near his parents’ house being beaten and detained. He posted on Instagram that the riot police were “dumb and ridiculous.”
The bosses at state television took him off the air the next day, but Dudinsky insists he has no second thoughts. “When a man is drowning, you don’t think, ‘Hmm, he’s 100 meters away,’” he said. “You take your clothes off and jump.”
Europe’s most authoritarian political system is coming undone at the hands of people like Dudinsky, who long flourished within it. Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s ruler since 1994, is teetering in the face of a broad popular uprising spearheaded by thousands of Belarusians who have stopped compromising and started fighting.
Lukashenko wears the moniker of “Europe’s last dictator,” and he built a system even more stifling of personal freedoms and political opposition than the one in Russia, its neighbor to the east.
But to a large middle class and a worldly elite in the former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people, the system was one they could live with: For those who stayed out of politics, the good roads, clean streets, prim lawns, tax breaks for tech companies and ease of travel to the West could make for a good living by Eastern Europe standards.
It took just months this year for that balance to collapse. Trapped inside their country by the coronavirus pandemic, many Belarusians began to chafe at the inhumanity in Lukashenko’s rule and language that had once been easy to ignore.
Then came the presidential election campaign, which exposed his sense of vulnerability; of Lukashenko’s three main challengers, two were arrested and the third fled the country.
“We wanted there to be some kind of order — a comprehensible, clear, formulated system of living,” said Oksana Koltovich, the owner of two beauty parlors and a bar called the Blue Goat, where she gathers with friends for sips of wine or Calvados. “We did not feel the consequences of the fact that we were always somehow putting up with something.”
More than 100,000 Belarusians rallied against Lukashenko in Minsk on each of the past two Sundays, despite the threat of arrest and police violence, insisting that his landslide reelection on Aug. 9 was falsified.
With more protests planned Sunday, the government has moved to clamp down on news coverage, deporting two Moscow-based journalists for The Associated Press and revoking the credentials of journalists from several organizations, including Reuters and the BBC.
Many of the protesters bearing the white and red national flag that has been adopted by the opposition took little interest in politics until recently. Each of them, it seems, had their own breaking point.
The coronavirus set the stage. Lukashenko refused to institute any lockdown measures and, commenting on one of the country’s first coronavirus-related deaths, he noted that the victim weighed 300 pounds. With the government absent, Belarusians started their own campaigns to raise money for victims’ families and encourage people to work from home.
For Koltovich, the breaking point came in late May when Lukashenko told workers at the Minsk Tractor Factory that a woman could not be president in Belarus because “our Constitution is not for women.”
Koltovich, who is 47, filed a complaint with the election commission over the president’s “discriminatory and blatantly illegal statements” and published it on Facebook.
She shrugged off a letter from the tax inspectors and helped conceive the idea of a protest of Belarusian women wearing white that reinvigorated the opposition movement after the police beat and detained thousands of protesters after the election.
“This is not about economic demands,” said Olga Chekulayeva, 57, a friend of Koltovich’s who joined her in protesting. “This is about a feeling of personal dignity.”
Chekulayeva said that had Lukashenko claimed victory not with 80% of the vote but say a more believable 52%, she and other critics of the president would have said, “OK, we’ll keep at it,” and moved on.
In Eastern Europe, Belarus’ image revolves around tractors and potatoes, and Lukashenko boasts of safeguarding the country’s Soviet legacy as an industrial and agricultural powerhouse. But he also approved tax breaks and loosened visa restrictions to help the country’s technology sector become one of the region’s biggest.
For years, members of Belarus’ well-heeled and well-traveled tech community — which includes the builders of the online game World of Tanks and the women’s health app Flo, as well as 10,000 employees of EPAM, a Pennsylvania-based programming giant — essentially returned the favor to Lukashenko.
The industry accounted for some 7% of gross domestic product, helped create a booming restaurant scene and largely stayed out of politics.
Daria Danilova, 33, the chief executive of a 60-employee startup called RocketData, said she had long accepted the limitations on her freedom as a given — just like the reality that Minsk winters are cold.
“In terms of your life as a normal person, the fact that there is a dictatorship in your country has no effect whatsoever,” she said. “You understand that it’s probably wrong, but there’s absolutely nothing that you can do about it.”
Then two people she respected announced presidential campaigns: Viktor Babariko, a banker, and Valery Tsepkalo, a former adviser to Lukashenko who had helped shape the president’s friendly policy toward tech companies.
Danilova collected signatures to try to get Babariko on the ballot and helped start a volunteer group called Honest People that, she says, has channeled some $150,000 in donations to Belarusians fired for their political views.
In June, Babariko was arrested, shocking people who had expected Lukashenko to allow at least a semblance of a fair election.
The arrests of activists underscored that Lukashenko has honed a security apparatus even more repressive than the one in Russia, taking advantage of Belarus’ small size — it has about the same land area and population as Michigan. In Moscow, opposition groups also face risks, but they have been able to organize to a much greater degree.
This month, Danilova, the startup founder, left her phone at home and moved in with friends, planning to hop in a car and leave the country if her husband were to tell her that the KGB — as the Belarus security service is still known — had come looking for her.
The KGB did not come, and Danilova is back in her office, crowded with beanbag chairs and employee photographs hanging artfully from strings. She said she remained torn between two extreme emotions, like every Belarusian she knows.
“It’s either the shame of not doing enough,” she said, “or the fear that you’ve done so much that there will be serious consequences.”