Undercover with the heroic women fighting to topple Europe’s last dictator
Published by The Mail on Sunday (4th October, 2020)
Dimitri was standing on the street looking up an address on his phone when two men, their faces hidden in black balaclavas as they ran through startled shoppers, slammed him on the ground then dragged him off to a van with darkened windows.
His nose was broken instantly in the melee. But worse was to follow as the 21-year-old student was pushed to the floor of the vehicle, his hands tied with plastic cuffs and brutally beaten for more than two hours as they drove around Minsk.
‘I was in shock – it was a kidnapping,’ he told me as he recovered in hospital from a cerebral haemorrhage sustained during the horrifying attack three weeks ago. ‘My nose, my face, my legs were in such pain. I was screaming – it was really terrifying.’
The thugs were members of the Belarus security services. They accused Dimitri of being an organiser of huge anti-government protests that have broken out after Europe’s last dictator blatantly stole the presidential election in August.
At one point the unit’s commander brandished a baton and threatened to rape him if he did not give up his phone security code. They threw water in his face when he was losing consciousness. They taunted him, saying he was gay and a drug addict.
This young man still suffers headaches and is scared he may have brain damage. ‘These people are not human,’ he said. ‘They tortured me. I’m lucky I can still talk to you. We are seeing fascism in 21st Century Belarus, in the middle of Europe.’
Certainly such state-sponsored savagery is sickening. Dimitri is among thousands of people in this former Soviet republic to have been arbitrarily arrested and beaten over the past eight weeks as Alexander Lukashenko, its ruler for 26 stagnant years, clings to power.
Many have suffered grotesque injuries, physical and mental, while at least three people have been killed amid tear gas and rubber bullets.
Sinister gangs of masked militiamen prowl the streets grabbing suspects, as I saw several times for myself.
So is this the final stand for the autocratic ruler of a country that feels like a strange leftover from the Soviet Union – or could people power really oust this ruthless ruler who crushed his nation’s brief flowering of freedom after the fall of Communism?
‘People have stopped being scared and started to feel free,’ said Sergei Dylevsky, one of the protest leaders, when we spoke after his release from 25 days in prison. ‘This is a people’s revolution, since they have decided to stand up for their rights.’
This burly punk rock fan won fame after starting a strike at his tractor factory in fury at seeing injuries inflicted by Lukashenko’s goons on workers who joined protests. ‘I have a son who is three and I don’t want him to live in fear,’ he told me.
The demonstrations erupted after Lukashenko defied reality to claim he won 80 per cent of the presidential ballot.
Independent observers said Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, his main rival who entered the race after her husband was jailed, won by a hefty margin despite the government saying she picked up fewer than one in ten votes.
As incensed citizens poured on to the streets, security forces responded with extreme violence and torture. ‘This was something new since it was massive and systemic,’ said Valiantsin Stefanovic, vice-chairman of Viasna, a human rights body. ‘It was politically inspired to punish people who participated in anti-government protests.’
I spoke to Valeryja, a young woman left traumatised by her hideous experiences. ‘I had grown up with the belief that the police are saints but I saw them beating people on the street. It changed my view of the world,’ she said.
The 20-year-old was helping casualties when she was carted off to a prison, where she saw naked men on their knees being beaten and floors swimming in blood. She was thrown into a tiny cell with 50 other women.
‘Everyone could not sit down at the same time,’ she said.
Valeryja was held for four days without food. The women suffered regular beatings, with a journalist left so badly injured that she ended up in hospital for three weeks. One cell-mate’s body was lacerated with cuts after being dragged through broken glass.
On the third day, guards started picking out groups for questioning. ‘The first ones said they were taken to another cell, stripped naked in front of four men and then told to either sign their protocols or they would be gang-raped.’
The courageous women refused and were returned to their cell.
Even some members of the security forces were horrified. ‘I am ashamed to wear the shoulder straps of a police officer,’ said Colonel Jury Makhnach, a veteran with 23 years’ service who quit after seeing friends left with ‘bruises from the neck to the lower limbs.’
But this crackdown backfired since such tactics merely fuelled further protests, and on every subsequent weekend substantial numbers of people have marched with impressive determination.
During ten days undercover in the country, I observed five marches. Three times I had to dive into bars or restaurants to avoid the round-ups, once just a few feet in front of the feared militia whom I watched then charge into the next-door pizzeria and throw an unfortunate man on the ground before taking him off.
Yet each march was good-humoured and peaceful as people chanted, clapped, drummed, played music and waved the red and white flag from their nation’s brief times of independence, rather than the official green and red one adopted from Soviet days.
The first protest I watched was for women, many of them strolling along in summer dresses in the sun since they were urged to look ‘shiny’. Cars honked in support as they passed, then 50 bikers drove by waving flags, one stopping to kiss a marcher.
‘I go on every march I see,’ said Dasha, 23, a part-time modelling instructor. ‘I want freedom in Belarus, I want an honest government and I don’t want to see my friends dying.’
It felt festive. Yet as they passed a shopping centre, ten vans and autozaks – lorries used to transport detainees – pulled up, then security operatives rushed out and trapped protesters. I saw some flee but 430 people were detained that day.
Among them was Angelina Akunevich, 26, whose image became a social media meme after a photographer caught the symbolic contrast between a fashionable woman in sunglasses, dress and mint-green heels with beefy men clad in boiler suits and balaclavas dragging her off. I met the cashier in her flat after her release, where she laughed off the incident.
‘I’m never scared because I never see other women afraid,’ she said. ‘I want my country to be free of violence and reform of the bureaucratic machine in charge.’
This is in many ways a revolt led by brave women against a male despot in his mid-60s desperately clinging to the past, although several key female figures leading the fight for justice have been locked up or forced into exile abroad.
Each protest had its own character. About 100,000 people turned out the following day, with bursts of applause for those going on to balconies to wave red and white flags as the march snaked through the streets.
‘Look at the windows, not the TV set,’ chanted the crowds below.
A man suddenly yelled out a roll-call beside me: ‘Are prostitutes here? Are drug addicts here? Are parasites here?’ And each time the crowd roared back ‘Yes!’ This was their sarcastic response to Lukashenko’s claim that only such types take part in protests.
One elderly woman started weeping as they passed. Another, cheering them on, told me she was a 72-year-old kindergarten teacher who had been gassed in an early demonstration. ‘Look at the youth – they are not the aggressive ones,’ she said.
The unlikely pin-up of the movement is a diminutive great-grandmother called Nina Bahinskaya, who first joined pro-democracy protests in Soviet days. Videos of the 73-year-old activist defying, kicking and ticking off the police have gone viral.
A former geologist, Bahinskaya has been fined so often, the state has halved her state pension to just £60 a month but she remains implacable. ‘We don’t want to be slaves,’ she said. ‘Everyone must be free to express their views and live their lives.’
Although she told me life was ‘calmer’ under the Communists, since they did not abuse power so obviously, she is fighting to overthrow the vestiges of the Soviet era with statues of Lenin in city squares and streets named after Russian figures.
‘What does Lenin have to do with our culture in this country?’ she asked, after showing me the ancient sewing machine in her flat that she uses to churn out flags. ‘The Soviet Union will only end when power here belongs to the people.’
The security forces try different tactics to thwart the protests: stopping people from entering the centre of Minsk, blasting warnings from loudspeakers, blocking streets.
Each march ends with round-ups – there were at least 1,500 arrests at them during my ten days in the country. But still large numbers pour out and not just in Minsk.
Meanwhile, women rip the masks off militiamen so they can be identified and hackers from the country’s thriving IT sector have posted online the personal data of 1,000 officers.
Ten days ago, I watched baton charges and water cannon fired on crowds massing after Lukashenko’s secret inauguration.
It worked as they fled into a shopping mall and surrounding streets but the protesters, many wearing paper crowns to mock their ruler, simply fanned out across the city to block roads into the early hours.
During last Sunday’s march, I came across Ales Michalevic, a dissident who dared stand against Lukashenko in 2010, only to be arrested by KGB agents and tortured.
‘We are sure we are winning,’ he said. ‘Fewer policemen are willing to beat people. I hope there are just months left before he resigns.’
Michalevic told me he had been hoping to see such a popular uprising for a decade. ‘I am happy that we have it now. It is very emotional for me.’
But there are two key questions in this fight to overthrow the former factory-boss-turned-dictator, whose election has not been recognised by Western nations. Last week, Britain and Canada imposed sanctions on the president, his son and six officials.
The first is whether the determination, energy and optimism of these protesters can sustain through the long Belarussian winter, especially as the regime jails and drives into exile more of the leading opposition figures.
The second is whether neighbouring Russia would accept regime change when such displays of people power implicitly challenge Vladimir Putin’s own style of rule.
This is not like Ukraine, where Moscow ripped open divisions using sympathetic citizens in a divided country. But Lukashenko is now reliant on Russian support, although he may be too weak to deliver the closer union that Putin desires.
Even one loyalist I found walking through Minsk with the official flag on his shoulders – a furniture-maker who insisted Lukashenko won the election – was adamant he did not want closer ties with Russia.
Analysts believe Putin does not want another conflict, especially with his economy facing a pandemic-fuelled downturn. Yet one diplomat in Minsk told me ominously that they believed the Russian leader would never tolerate true democracy here.
Whatever happens, every person I spoke within Belarus said their country had already changed for the better. They believe they have already won some kind of victory.
‘No one expected this and it is amazing to see since it shows our society has changed,’ said Stefanovic, the veteran human rights activist.
Then he added those words I kept hearing during ten extraordinary and rather moving days in Belarus: ‘The people have lost their fear.’