Belarus protesters hope a new chapter is beginning – but how will it end? This is the story so far.
On 9 August, Nadzeya - not her real name - stood outside a polling station in Belarus waiting for the votes to be counted in the country’s election.
Under the law, each polling station is supposed to announce the result of their individual district to voters as soon as votes are counted, and a crowd - by now some 300-strong - had been gathering since the polls closed at 8 pm.
During early voting, election observers had already recorded thousands of violations, and many in the crowd wanted to document the actual results from Nadzeya’s district before they could be sent - and falsified - by the electoral commission.
“We all were able to see that something was happening inside,” she told Dailyrater, “the commission members were arguing between themselves. They were hesitating.”
At around the same time, members in the crowd started getting calls saying that in other districts, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya had triumphed over sitting president and Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Nadzeya’s first feeling, she said, was elation: “We thought it was all over,” she recalled.
Then the authorities showed up.
A ten-strong contingent from the country’s police special forces unit arrived first, with three officers blocking the door as their seven colleagues went inside. 15 minutes later came a group of masked men in plain-clothes and carrying batons.
Two minutes later the officials inside the polling station displayed the results: Lukashenko had one by 63%, while Tsikhanouskaya had won just 16%.
Belarus has been in turmoil since Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for 26 years, declared victory on 9 August. In the weeks since protests have spread across the country and thousands of people have been detained by the authorities.
But despite a wave of demonstrations and strikes - which grew to some 200,000 people in Minsk on two consecutive Sundays - Lukashenko has refused to yield, claiming that protesters are influenced by foreign powers and recently appearing in public armed.
Nadzeya was among the thousands that gathered that night on August 9, marching in the centre of Minsk along with her partner, her brother and her fiance. Police attacked the march at around 1 am, she recalls, at which point all hell broke loose.
Her partner was knocked down by a police officer, beaten with a baton across his legs and then handcuffed and arrested. Another officer swung his baton at her head and only held back after his colleague shouted: “Don’t take baba” (a derogatory term for a woman in Russian).
“They took my partner away. It was the scariest moment in my entire life,” she said.
There were many more scary days to come. Since the protests began hundreds have been detained, in some cases entire families, while opposition figures have been harassed and even been forced to flee the country.
On August 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko’s closest international ally, told Russian television that Moscow was ready to deploy law enforcement on the streets of Belarus to shore up the country’s special forces.
“We have agreed not to use it until the situation starts spinning out of control and extremist elements acting under the cover of political slogans cross certain borders and engage in banditry and start burning cars, houses and banks,” he said.
Europe’s response has been to call for a peaceful transition of power in Belarus, which has been ruled by Lukashenko for 26 years. The EU has backed a council of opposition activists that have negotiated a council to organise new elections.
EU commission president, Ursula Von der Leyen told journalists at a press conference in Brussels that "the people of Belarus want change and they want it now [...]. "They want democracy and new presidential elections."
On 25 August, Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival for the presidency, addressed MEPs via video link from Vilnius, Lithuania, where she is currently in exile.
"Belarus has woken up. We are not the opposition anymore. We are the majority now. The peaceful revolution is taking place," she said.
With Europe backing the protesters on the one side and Russia backing Lukashenko on the other, what Belarus faces now is something of a standoff. Protests are met by violence, which gives way to more protests. The question remains: How will it end?
Although the crisis in Belarus is, at its heart, political there is an economic dimension too. A large portion of the Belarussian economy is state-owned, meaning it is controlled by Lukashenko, and provides the leader with ammunition against the protests.
In the early days of the movement, for example, the protesters were supported by mass strikes in some of Belarussian’s biggest factories, but Lukashenko was able to prevent further strikes by firing strike organisers and threatening others with factory lockouts.
“Consequently, the rallies in the big cities lost some of their vigour,” Rumen Dobrinsky, a senior research associate at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies and country expert for Bulgaria and Belarus, told Dailyrater.
He has also threatened to sack public servants - which in constitute a large number of workers in Belarus - if they join the protests, or even show sympathy for them.
“On balance, probably such oppressive economic levers seem to outweigh the political inspirations of many actual or potential protesters.”
A factor that could tip the balance would be U.S. or European Union sanctions on Belarus. The country was struggling financially even before the elections the country, and needed to borrow as much as $3.3 billion in 2020 alone simply to service its foreign debt.
On financial markets, the Belarussian rouble is in freefall, and there has been a sharp increase in citizens withdrawing their money from banks. If Belarus is also hit with sanctions it may be forced to turn to its neighbour, Russia, for support.
Nadzeya, however, is buoyed by the fact that the regime has already been forced to make concessions as the protests continue.
Her brother and her partner were detained and subsequently sentenced - in a court hearing with no lawyers present, she said - to 15 days in prison on August 12. By August 14, both had been released.
Meanwhile, with some 7,000 people detained, there are few families in Belarus who will not have been directly affected by the police crackdown.
“I believe that organising this terror, the regime has shot itself in the foot. People will not forget the torture and killing of family members, friends or acquaintances,” she said.
And Belarus is not Ukraine, Nadzeya said. The protests are not about East versus West, Europe versus Russia, despite efforts by Lukashenko to present them as such. She believes eventually all of Belarus’ neighbours will see that an end to the regime in Minsk is not just good for Belarussians - but for the wider world.
“I hope that the moment will come soon when all our neighbours feel secure and do not feel a threat from the change of power in Belarus but see benefits in it and stand on the side of people who are fighting against the brutal regime," she said.