Asia

The Battle for the Mural — and the Future of Belarus

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As the war continued, Belarusian relocants in Kyiv fled farther west, many of them now forced to run for their lives twice in less than a year. In Warsaw, Diana had been working on a plan to open a house for newly arriving Belarusians — a community where people could get advice on residency, refugee status, health care and schools. The group she was working with, Courtyard Activists Abroad, pivoted to providing supplies for Ukrainian refugees. She attended protests at the Belarusian and Russian Embassies. She grappled with a sense of shame. All along they wondered if they could have done more to stop Lukashenko, to free their own people and by extension to stop this war.

“Our guilt is greater than our attempts at justification, because we didn’t finish what we started — our unfinished revolution,” she told me. “Lukashenko is sitting there and cooperating with Russia. This is our fault. For two years, we tried, but we couldn’t overthrow him. Given we screamed that we are the majority, we should have been able to do it. We could have done it. But to say we could or couldn’t is just a discussion; we didn’t even really try. We could have overturned the buses, even if they had 20 siloviki in them. We had thousands in our marches. But we didn’t try. Instead, we were peaceful. We walked with flowers.”

Sviatlana released video after video supporting Ukraine, and she praised the Belarusian volunteers going to fight alongside Ukrainians. The Cyber-Partisans paralyzed Belarus’s railways to prevent Russian military movements. Three rounds of negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian officials have taken place on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. By the end of March, the Pentagon had counted at least 70 missile launches from Belarusian territory, though no Belarusian troops had been confirmed on the ground in Ukraine. In Minsk, people had begun to fear that they would be forced to fight against their will. If Belarus announced that it was officially at war, men of military age would be barred from leaving the country.

On Feb. 26, the night before the constitutional referendum, the chat members in Minsk decided they would go to the Russian Embassy the next day to protest the war after they went to the polling station to spoil their ballots. There had been no large rallies since the previous winter. It was a huge risk to take to the streets. When they were about to depart for the Russian Embassy, they heard it was surrounded by paddy wagons. Arrests had already been made. The group decided to change course: They would go to the Ukrainian Embassy with flowers instead.

They wandered there alone or in small clusters, taking care to make sure they weren’t being followed. As they approached, they saw that the embassy gates were already covered with yellow and blue flowers. They joined about 50 people who had assembled. Together they chanted “Glory to Ukraine,” “Long live Belarus” and “No war!” A Ukrainian Embassy employee came out of the building and clapped for them. The group clapped back. He walked to the front of the gate and began to sing. Slow and mournful, he intoned Ukraine’s national anthem. They left after half an hour. It was too dangerous to stay longer.

They weren’t the only ones who risked their freedom to take a symbolic stand. Though the regime had spent a year and a half decimating the ranks of the politically active, thousands of Belarusians still took to the streets. Across the country, more than 800 people were arrested. (In Russia, with a population roughly 15 times greater, 2,000 people were arrested that same day.)

Westerners often looked at Belarus as if it were Europe’s own little North Korea. Lukashenko himself mocked reporters who called him “the last dictator of Europe.” People who have not experienced it tend to believe all autocracies are the same, but in reality, regimes and freedoms vary, and repressions exist in shades. For Belarusians, the shift from gray to black, from autocracy to totalitarianism, was calculable in lives.