On the third day of the war, when hundreds of people in Ukraine had already been killed by the Russian army, many people at a rally in Düsseldorf sank to their knees. In grief. In humility. In pain. The rally had originally been planned by Belarusians in North Rhine-Westphalia as a protest against the dictatorship in their native country, and in response to Aleksandr Lukashenka’s plans to change the Belarusian constitution so that he could no longer be prosecuted for his actions in office: total immunity for a dictator, in other words.
At best, maybe about 50 people might have been expected to turn up for the rally. Just as for all the previous ones. After 18 months of protests, no one was under any illusions anymore. But this time was different. Ukrainians were being killed by Russian missiles launched from Belarusian soil. The Belarusian rally in Düsseldorf turned into a demonstration against the war, in which over 5,000 people took part. The Belarusians spoke publicly of their sense of shame and guilt at not having been able to stop Lukashenko and thereby prevent the war. For if it had not been for Lukashenka and his willingness to let Russia use Belarusian territory as a staging post for its troops, would Putin have gone to war against Ukraine at all?
German civil society and politicians alike spoke of solidarity. The first time I heard that word at the rally, my eyes filled with tears: tears of anger. Quite apart from the fact that solidarity confers no protection from Russian tanks and missiles, as a Belarusian I knew that if all the Ukrainians could hope for was “solidarity”, then it was all over for their country.
I recalled an email someone had sent me back when the images from Belarus could still make headlines in Germany: “I bow before the people of Belarus and their peaceful protest”. At the same time, he cancelled his planned participation in a solidarity rally.
“What can you expect from a repressive dictatorship?”
By then I was already hearing crude allegations from activists in the German peace movement that the Belarusian opposition was being controlled and funded from the West, and that the security forces had just been ensuring law and order in the country. The general public did not get to hear about the various, though isolated, initiatives in Germany in support of the peaceful protests in Belarus, and the media had long since considered the story done and dusted. I consoled myself with the thought that the “What can you expect from a repressive dictatorship?” attitude taken by many Germans stemmed from the misery of powerlessness rather than from boredom or indifference. A UN report had only just confirmed torture and sexual violence in Belarusian prisons – a full 18-plus months after the fraudulent election of 9 August 2020.
It is not the truth that is the first to die in wartime, but people. The truth is now clearly visible in the form of all the sanctions it has suddenly become possible to impose on Belarus as a consequence of the Ukraine war. These starkly reveal just how closely the Belarusian dictatorship remained connected and networked with the West during those 18 months – despite all the West’s declarations of its refusal to recognise Lukashenko as President.
As recently as the end of 2021, even independent Belarusian economists were talking about an “export miracle”. The top five countries for Belarusian exports in January 2022 were Russia, Ukraine, the Netherlands, Poland and the USA. For imports they were Russia, China, Ukraine, Germany and Poland. So for the whole of 2021, Belarusians had just been deluding themselves that the whole world regarded Lukashenko as toxic. How many petitions and letters from Belarusians did it take, just to get Belarus excluded from the Eurovision Song Contest!
Belarus was viewed as a state that had a government but no sovereignty. With this view the West had long since gifted Belarus to Putin and betrayed the Belarusian protesters
Belarus’s own suffering was not enough to make the Council of Europe or the World Cycling Federation break off relations with the country: for that, the suffering of Ukraine was required too. What happened to all the concerns that sanctions would hurt “ordinary Belarusians”?
When Belarusians were striking, protesting, paying with their freedom for every word they expressed in public, and demanding that Lukashenko be isolated and all relations with him broken off, they were fobbed off with concern and solidarity. If the EU had moved swiftly to genuinely isolate Lukashenko at that point, something might still have been achieved. Instead, it took the political line of non-interference, somehow uniting two mutually contradictory ways of looking at the country: on the one hand, “the situation” in Belarus was an internal matter; on the other, Belarus came under Russia’s informal sphere of influence.
Russia’s interference in Belarusian affairs was thus itself viewed as an internal matter in which it would be inappropriate to interfere. Supporting peaceful protest could have provoked Vladimir Putin and jeopardised peace in Europe. Belarus was viewed as a state that had a government but no sovereignty. With this view the West had long since gifted Belarus to Putin and betrayed the Belarusian protesters and resisters defending their freedom.
So for more than a year and a half now I have been asking myself why Western democracies still regard freedom, human dignity and the rule of law as merely local privileges, while dictators are allowed to operate and thrive globally. If anyone has had the freedom to reshape the world order in recent years, it is the dictators. But not the people who have to live under them.
The walls on the EU’s eastern borders are growing
Ever since a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk, European airspace has been protected from Belarusians: there are no more flights to or from the city. Walls are springing up along the EU’s eastern external borders to keep out the refugees driven there by Lukashenko. If anything is truly borderless in this world, it is not human rights, but the influence of Russian propaganda, the understanding shown towards authoritarian regimes and the inability to distinguish freedom from bondage.
Public discourse in Germany, for example, explicitly emphasises that what is happening in Ukraine is “Putin’s war”, thereby drawing a fine distinction between Putin and Russians as a whole. No such distinction is made between Lukashenko and Belarusians, however, or even if it is, Belarusians’ desire for peace and freedom is met with nothing more than warm words. And this despite the fact that the EU does not regard Lukashenko (unlike Putin) as a legitimate president, and that Chatham House research has repeatedly shown that the majority of Belarusians oppose the war.
There are Belarusian volunteers fighting alongside Ukrainians. Others are documenting and publishing data on Russian military movements in Belarus. Others are bringing rail transport to a standstill. Others are unable to do anything because they are in prison. Others risk their freedom with every comment they post on social media. How many Belarusians are there like this? I don’t know. How could I? Enough? Not enough to stop the war, that’s for sure.
The 1108 political prisoners and more than 40,000 people who have experienced Belarusian prisons from the inside (2021 figures; no later data available) have been left to face the regime alone. And no one here can even begin to imagine what that means.
You just want to pop out to the shops, for instance, but instead suddenly find yourself being interrogated and confessing, under duress, to crimes, extremist crimes, you’ve never committed. Your confession is recorded on film. Some of these confessions are published immediately; others are kept back for future use, just in case.
Or you suddenly notice that the peep-hole in your front door has been covered over with something that looks like chewing-gum, so you can’t see the people entering your neighbour’s flat. Then you know that someone is being thrown to the floor there and beaten up before being arrested. You learn to see through walls.
Or you hear that the prisons have temporarily stopped accepting parcels for prisoners, and you know it’s ominous. No one will ever find out what happens behind those prison bars. This experience of powerlessness will change everything for ever. You can still breathe in. But for more than 18 months now, you have not dared to breathe out.
In Germany it is now known, in theory at least, where Belarus is, geographically speaking. But where is it really, when so many Belarusians are trying to get away from it? In Uzbekistan, replies one of my Belarusian friends. Some Belarusians would say Georgia; many others would speak of Poland or Lithuania. Thousands would have said Ukraine – if you’d asked them before the war. Since 24 February , hundreds, maybe thousands (no one knows the exact number) more Belarusians have fled the country, this time for fear of mobilisation.
Belarus has been exiled, but is has also been put behind walls that have turned it into a giant prison. There is now nowhere in the world where Belarusians can feel safe. For they come from a state that is now Russia’s accomplice. And the world has a short memory. Who is there now who is prepared to share Belarusians’ burden of shame and guilt?
Otherwise there is really nothing new: On day four of the war Lukashenka secured his immunity. Amongst other changes, the country lost its constitutionally enshrined principle of neutrality, and almost a thousand people have been arrested for their anti-war-protests in Belarus. Arrests, threats, house searches and torture are still going on. But who is still looking? And how would that even be possible?