Freedom Day in Belarus

Thirteen years ago when most of the post-socialist counties were undergoing transition my country was on her way back – back to the socialist past, as most Belarusian people at that time were not prepared to see themselves as citizens of an independent country. They had nostalgia for a great Union when there were stably priced goods, guaranteed work and government which decided everything for them. They looked at their neighbouring counties in transition at that time and heard such words as hyperinflation, restitution, and lustration, and were scared of them and scared of the unknown.

This was one of the reasons why in the last free elections – in 1994 – they voted for a person who promised to return everything they which they had during the Soviet Union. Therefore my county buried itself in the politics of stabilisation instead of any normal development and transition.  Former nomenclature stayed to govern us and still remains in its place. Small businesses which try to survive have to pay big taxes to fund the salaries of the police. State ideology is studied in the universities. And yes, we also have the last collective farms in Europe and a statue of Lenin still stands behind the Parliament.

 

March 2006 became the most emotional month I have ever had. Last year it seemed that there were really historic events taking place. But in fact they didn’t change much. People were too frightened, police were still too well paid, and the opposition still had no idea about how to organise people, bring them together and break the situation – We had small and unequal forces. But I remember my feeling when BBC said that about 30 thousand people went out onto the streets… the biggest demonstration in the last 10 years. From that moment I understood that something is changing and that the government can’t stop these changes no matter how hard they try.

Thirteen years ago Lukashenko promised people, frightened by economic hardship to return them to “soviet stability”. But it is obvious that no man can push back history. Time asked for changes but they were not made (or more precisely they were made in the other direction). Nomenclature and the present president have enough resources to keep people silent for the moment. But when I come home I see more and more young people who do not agree. They were bought up in the present system, they haven’t seen life in the Soviet Union at all, but they are really fed up with this government.

The transition of Belarus is an irreversible process, it depends upon how much time will pass before the will is found in people, people who will be able to stand at the beginning of that processes. And it depends upon how many people from the former regime stay on in their positions.

Year after year I was reading on the internet about demonstrations and meetings on the streets of Minsk (mostly on the 25th March – Freedom Day). When I went home I met friends who took part in it. Most of them who went last year spent from 10 to 15 days in prison at Akrestino Street. They are those young people who do not agree. And this year I decided for myself that on 25th March I want to be with them on the streets of Minsk just to see everything with my own eyes.

I knew that this year there would not be mass protests. But my Prague friends still made jokes at my decision (or were they really concerned?): “Hope you will be safe and come back to Prague or we’ll have to send you parcels to jail”. I was just laughing at their concerns – but silently I was reflecting on what I would say at university if I come back in 20 days – not 5.

I came to Minsk few days before the 25th. There I realised that some people whom I know and who took part in protests last year were not going to the meeting this year. Some of them were disappointed with the opposition organisers and saw no sense in taking part in the meeting this time. Others didn’t want to be sent to prison, because as I then realised the Civic Law was changed few months ago and for “taking part in not permitted demonstration” you could fetch not the good old 10 to 15 days, but 25! It wouldn’t be the perfect ending for my trip back home, I thought.

When in Minsk I always stay at Yura’s and Volia’s place. This time was no exception. I like them, their views on the situation and their style of life. They want to live in this county, to realize themselves in it. I have great respect for them.

Friday 23rd, evening. We are sitting on the carpet of their flat and having tea. Our friend Hanna comes in for an hour after her university. She tells us how university administration tried to organise students and so prevent them going on the demonstration on the 25th:    “It was suggested to us that we should go on an excursion to the countryside. See, good alternative”,- she laughs. Other universities put exams or tests on the 25th, despite it being Sunday.

Then she tells us about a “private meeting” she had with the deputy dean of her faculty (she learns German at the Linguistic University): She was so kind with me. Said something like “Ann, we know that you are in some organisation… please be careful on 25th, on that demonstration”. I just said that I don’t know what organisation she means and thanked her for concern.

 

Over the next few days Volia and Yura were scared of police, who could turn up at their flat at anytime. A few weeks ago there were mass arrests of young activists – not just in Minsk – but in other regions too. That is why Volia asks me to call her before coming to their place.

Then Yura explains to me the reason:

“During the last elections we worked in the team of the opposition candidate A.Milinkevich and once he was in our flat. And we were sure that after that visit our flat would be known by “competent organs”. The day before elections we went to spend a night at our friends’ place because at every moment “people in civil” could come and arrest us. The next day in the evening when we came home our neighbours said that some strange people in everyday clothing had been knocking on our door for a long time and then waiting for us to come. We have wonderful neighbours (Yura smiles). The lady from the flat next door came out and began to shout at them: “What the fuck are you doing here? What are you standing here for? Don’t you see that they are not at home?” In other cases they could have opened the door with force.

I love their smiles and that sad irony that you can sometimes hear in their stories. With calm faces and smiles they tell me how they were arrested last year when they went to bring warm clothes to the tent camp, which stood in protest for few days. Then about the court appearance and how they spend those days in jail. You smile with them but at the same time understand that there is nothing funny about it. And they can’t take it any other way than with irony and with those wonderful smiles on their faces. And all because they believe and know that this situation is temporary and nothing can help you better to outlive the bad times than an ironic view of the events which happen in this country.

Evening of 24th. We have not to forget to change the time one hour forward. We hope that police will forget to do that and will be an hour late, so we will be able to gather on October Square, or how it was socially renamed last year K.Kalinousky square (after a leader of Belarusian resistance in 1863).

We got up early in the morning. From the Radio Free Europe pages we realised that police had enclosed October Square. Where are people going to gather? We call our friend Uladz who is already somewhere among the demonstrators. He said that the main group of people along with the organisers had gathered near the circus building (about 500 meters down from October Square). He also said that there are a lot of police all around the city. The city transport wouldn’t stop at the bus stop near the circus building nor the trains in the October Square metro station. We decided to go by taxi, because it would be easer to reach the demonstrators and so we would not be stopped by the police on our way.

Volia prepared to leave and put some things in her bag: “I will take this book “How to work with Flash”- she is drawing flash cartoons for studenty.by) so I have something to read in jail”,- she puts it in her bag. “According the new law it is forbidden to pass any things to a prisoner, even books are not allowed, only the most necessary things: clothes, hygienic things. But you can use everything you have on yourself”, – she smiled.

I want to leave the house as soon as possible. The only thought I have in that moment is that I have to be there and to see everything myself and don’t miss a thing. I want to be with those people who will come onto the streets of Minsk. In few minutes we are in the car. Keep silent. Its a straight road that leads to the main avenue F. Skarynas (which was then was renamed by our President as Independence Avenue). Red traffic light. I’m nervous waiting at the red light. There are a lot of cars in the street, so I’m afraid we will be stuck in a traffic jam. 

 

In a few seconds I can see! Yes, flags, people, a lot of police. On the other side of the street, parallel to the demonstrators I see a detachment of riot police (AMON- in Belarusian). They are all in full dress, even wearing helmets. “ See, the cosmonauts are coming”,- Jura said. I see at the people with flags on the other side and they are… near KGB building! They just don’t let them walk to the square and join the main demonstrators. I feel anger and feebleness. I hate policemen, AMON- all that people in the accoutrement, whom you see everywhere in the streets, hundreds of them, prepared to do everything with you that will be commanded. Why? What have we done to you? It is just a holiday. It is just a day when we celebrate the first time Belarus proclaimed independence in 191). It is our Day of Freedom! But our government doesn’t want us to recognise this day as the historical event which also wasn’t permitted during the times of the Soviet Union.

We are moving down the main avenue. The weather is wonderful, really the first warm days of spring. At least nature is with us today. A Day of Freedom under police escort…

We were not allowed to turn onto the street we wanted to by the traffic police, whose main role I guess, was to not allow any person to get out of their cars and join demonstrates who now, disjoined, had to go in opposite direction. We decided to turn towards the street from the circus and to reach the main demonstrates passing through the park near the Svisloch river. On our way we pass the circus building and see a lot of people with flags, but it is impossible to reach them from that side of the street. As the meeting was officially permitted by city government only near the Academy of Science, the people would go about two metro stations by foot and meet there.

We are waiting on the red traffic light again. Silence. On the left side of the road the policeman is standing and watching a small group of people in the park, who have white-red-white flags. Suddenly the taxi driver, who was silent most of the time said: “What the hell! The whole army! They are everywhere in the city as if they are preparing for war. To fight with whom? With our own nation?”

We get out from the car on Nemigar street, meet two of our friends who didn’t know what group to join. They were close to the group which we saw on our way from the car near KGB building, but it was impossible to reach them even from the gardens of nearby houses. We get going towards the park to reach the main group of demonstrators. Suddenly we saw a group of AMON guys begin to run and line up in the street. That first group of people turned and went back on the parallel street. They were moving the same way as us, only we were accompanied by AMON.

There was not much time and we went quickly to park to shorten our route and reach the other people. We tried to look as we just went for a walk but sometimes it was difficult to pretend. All the time I wanted to dart off and to run and but every time someone stopped me. And I saw people around me. It seems they where the same as me, trying to pretend they were “just walking” but all going in the same direction. At last we entered the main avenue. We watched the colon of soldiers passing by. Where are they going? To stop demonstrators? Fortunately they went the opposite way from the demonstrators. We were just one metro station far from the main group of people.

People coming out from the underground asked us in which direction the meeting point was. It was an unbelievable feeling, when you see unknown faces walking with you, see their smiles and feel how close are they to you. Just because you are going to the same meeting. Just because those people are celebrating the same holiday as you besides all the detachment of police and soldiers around you. Without any word, just one glance and smile- we are together.

Here at last – we see flags! We need only to cross the road. We reached the colon, met our other friends. We are walking with the main group of people at last. Cars passing by give signals in support. I see ordinary city buses full of police and AMON. And at the same time I walk in the group of happy people. They are making jokes with the traffic police who are trying to stop the cars who give signals in support and at the same moment they are letting them go.

We reached the Academy of Science and on the stairs of the building with huge columns the meeting began. I stood quite close to the “stage” to hear and to see the speakers. Among speakers, apart from the opposition leaders there were also representatives of the European Parliament (from Poland) and the representatives of democratic forces from Russia. The most emotional perhaps was speech given by the daughter of A. Kozlin (one of the opposition candidates in the last election, who was sentenced to 5 years in prison). But I couldn’t see the main opposition leader A. Milinkevich (who was also a candidate in the last elections). And then I realised that he was in the disjoined group which we saw from the taxi. In few minutes he passed near me with his wife, heading towards the “stage”. He was the last one to speak…

The speeches at the meeting are just words or perhaps for me they are just words, because I heard them too many times. But the most important thing was the feeling that unites you with everybody who came here. The meeting was over and we found nothing better to do than to go and drink beer. Later I heard that a small group of young people went to the National Library where at the same time there was a simultaneously organised concert by the state pro-government youth organisation BRSM. When the organisers saw the flags the concert was immediately over. Some people were arrested, but in a few hours they were let off.

 

The behaviour of government is strange. On one hand it tries to find a dialogue with the European Union and on the other hand represses young activists and puts thousands of military on the streets. It obvious that you can’t carry on a dialogue with representatives of the democratic world and at the same time keep the old rules. Or that you can undergo democratic transformation, release political activists from prison and have economic and political support from democracies and yet stay in power which led to international isolation. It seems they are in confusion and don’t know how to behave themselves with those who do not agree, those whose numbers grow and grow. The organisers of the demonstration said in the beginning that it was just a holiday and that they were not going to “fight” with anybody. So it was not clear why so many police were needed on the streets? Why was it needed to disjoin people from the main block and not let them go to the Academy of Science where the meeting was permitted by the city government?

Those people, bureaucrats who are more like ghosts; they sit in their cabinets and just obey the commands from above. All of them who lead thousands of police onto the streets, they feel that something is changing in society and some day it will overthrow and change the old system, and they are afraid of us. In other cases there was no need to have so many police. And no matter what they do, they forget one important thing that it is not just us who are against them – time is against them too… And in spite of everything they did… we still had our holiday.

 

 

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