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It was 1991 and the future of Belarus looked complex, but also promising, with some hope and the enthusiasm that change implies, the utopia of knowing that everything was yet to be done, that everything was going to happen. The previous year, while the Soviet Union was still standing, 26 members of the newly formed Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) had entered Parliament. They barely had less than 10% of the seats, while the remaining percentage corresponded to members of the Communist Party. However, for the first time in almost a century, there was a democratic opposition and 1991 would bring independence, the replacement of the red and green flag of the Soviet era in favor of the red and white of the first Republic of Belarus (1918-19) and the expectation that now everything would be different.
It was not. Barely two years later, Aleksandr Lukashenko, the only Member of Parliament to have voted against independence, promoted a motion of no confidence that ended the flimsy government led by Stanislav Shushkevich and in 1994 he took over the new post of President thanks to a simplistic and anti-corruption discourse. Those were the first presidential elections for Belarus and the last democratic ones. Since then, Lukashenko has dominated everything.
Shortly before independence, a 28-year-old philologist named Ales Bialiatski became the director of a museum in Minsk, which also housed the newsroom of the Svoboda (“Freedom”) newspaper. It was not his first political action: since the early 1980s he had participated in various pro-democratic groups that aspired to Belarus's exit from the Soviet Union. But the appearance of Lukashenko marked a turning point for society, especially after two referendums, in 1995 and 1996, which led to centralized power in the figure of the president and established national symbols very similar to those of the Soviet era, including the red and green flag. The new leader thus reinforced the symbolic continuity between the USSR and independent Belarus, a succession between the strong and unquestionable Soviet leadership and his own. In that same 1996, when hopes for change seemed dashed, Bialiatski became secretary of the BNF and founded the Viasna Human Rights Center, one of the first civil organizations that made Lukashenko's political repression visible and assisted its victims.
But also, Viasna questioned the successive fraudulent or unequal elections, particularly since 2010. That year Lukashenko officially won with more than 80% in an election that, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, did not comply with democratic standards. The protests were immediate and massive, and the repression was savage. Even two presidential candidates were attacked by the special forces and one of them was knocked unconscious. After this, Viasna's offices and Bialiatski's house were seized and, the following year, the activist was sentenced to four and a half years in prison and confiscation of assets on charges of tax evasion. Since then, the European Parliament, governments of the European Union and the United States, as well as organizations such as Amnesty International declared that Bialiatski was a political prisoner and called for his release. He just got out of prison in 2014.
Shortly after, the founder of Viasna sent a video to CADAL in the framework of the International Day of Remembrance for Victims of all Totalitarian Regimes. He appeared in front of the camera with the red and white flag of the first Belarus, that Belarus without Lukashenko, and explained his situation: “Lukashenko created an authoritarian system in which there is no separation of powers. We do not have independent courts of justice or an independent Parliament, elections are constantly falsified and protests that take place after the elections are harshly repressed by authoritarian power. The government is in an invisible war against civil society. Hundreds of people have been jailed, myself included, for their opinions, for working in human rights organizations or being part of political parties. The organization I work for, the Viasna center, has been consistently denied registration, which means we are working outside the law. Organizations like ours are criminalized, there is criminal liability for the type of work we do.”
Then came the elections on August 9, 2020, the second turning point, the day that Lukashenko could no longer hide his "invisible war against civil society" because the entire planet saw the most violent face of the regime live and direct. As on previous occasions, the government banned the participation of the main opposition candidates under various excuses, including, once again, tax evasion. Two of them, the former banker Viktar Babaryka and the blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, were arrested and a third, the diplomat and businessman Valery Tsepkalo, fled the country along with his children for fear of being arrested as well.
The wives of Tsikhanouski, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and Tsepkalo, Veronika Tsepkalo, together with Babaryka’s campaign manager, Maria Kalesnikava, then formed a new electoral front. The candidate would be Tsikhanouskaya, a housewife with no political experience whose campaign was based on a simple proposal: she would assume the presidency, release political prisoners, return to the 1994 Constitution, the one prior to the changes imposed by Lukashenko, and call for new elections, this time free and fair. But while the three women led some of the largest social mobilizations in modern Belarusian history, in the end the unshakable leader declared that he had won again. By more than 80%. Again. And, once again, he had to resort to repression to deal with the protests that quickly took the streets of Minsk and many other cities across the country.
If the scenario for the opposition up to 2020 was difficult, from then on it was virtually impossible. Over 30 thousand people were arrested for participating in the demonstrations, at least 7 were assassinated, more than a thousand cases of torture were registered in detention centers and the opposition politicians who were not arrested had to go into exile in neighboring countries, including the candidate Tsikhanouskaya. Everything was so visible and evident that it seemed that this time Lukashenko did not aspire to show himself as a benevolent leader, but simply to impose, to preserve power through fear.
In the days that followed the elections, Ales Bialiatski participated in the protests and joined the Coordinating Council, a body created by the Belarusian opposition with the aim of internationally recognizing Tsikhanouskaya as the legitimate winner and promoting a democratic transition. Taking part were the writer and Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich and the world runner-up athlete Nadzeya Ostapchuk, among other opposition politicians, activists and public figures. Soon the former candidate was forced to leave to Lithuania and the more visible repression began to give way to something less explicit, something more subtle, although not for that reason less obvious: more arrests, more persecutions, more harassment. And a still irremovable president.
Meanwhile, Viasna, together with other non-governmental organizations, founded the International Accountability Platform for Belarus (IAPB) in order to collect, consolidate, verify and preserve evidence of serious human rights violations committed by the authorities of that country. The government responded with raids on Viasna's offices and the homes of its employees, and a criminal case was opened against members of the NGO for "organizing or preparing actions that seriously violate public order or taking an active part in such actions."
Bialiatski was one of the few members of the Coordinating Council who was not immediately arrested or went into exile. Until, almost a year after the elections, the foreseeable arrest occurred. The charge, once again, was for tax evasion. In October 2022, while imprisoned without a sentence, the activist was one of the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with the Russian human rights organization Memorial and the Center for Civil Liberties of Ukraine. In its official statement, the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted that Viasna is "a broad-based human rights organization that documented and protested against the authorities’ use of torture against political prisoners." Also that "despite tremendous personal hardship, Mr Bialiatski has not yielded an inch in his fight for human rights and democracy in Belarus."
The government did not allow Bialitski to send a written acceptance speech from prison, but his wife attended the award ceremony in Oslo and spoke for him: "Not only is Ales in prison but there are also thousands of Belarusians, tens of thousands of repressed, unjustly imprisoned for their civic action and beliefs across the country. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee the country for the mere reason that they wanted to live in a democratic state,” she said.
In March 2023, just three days before Tsikhanouskaya was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in jail on treason and conspiracy charges, Bialitski was finally sentenced aswell: a decade for “smuggling” and “financing collective actions that seriously undermine the public order". Two other Viasna activists were also convicted: Valentin Stefanovitch and Vladimir Labkovitch received nine and seven years in prison, respectively.
International support to him was very important, both from governments and intergovernmental organizations as well as from NGOs, which condemned the persecution committed by Lukashenko’s regime and a trial that was described as a "farce" by Amnesty International and as "unfair" and "arbitrary" by Human Rights Watch.
But Bialitski is not the only one persecuted. According to Viasna data, as of March 2023 there are 1,463 political prisoners in Belarus. As if the USSR had never dissolved. As if 1991 had never happened. As if Lukashenko needed to make it even clearer that he misses that Soviet regime so much that it was not enough for him to vote against independence or reinstate the red and green flag. No, that was not enough. He needed more power, more control.
Shortly after being released from prison in 2014, in the video he sent to CADAL, Bialitski spoke of the constant threats from the Belarusian authorities: "the conditions for those of us who work in the defense of human rights will continue to be complicated," he said at the time. “However, we will continue fighting for democracy and human rights. We feel the international solidarity from democratic countries, from our colleagues and partners around the world. That helps us to continue working hard. We are convinced that finally Belarus will become a true democratic state of Europe, with developed democratic institutions and respect for human rights.”
Bialitski spoke in a soft Belarusian language, but he looked at the camera with determination. Next to him it was the red and white flag that represented those hopes of 1991. And then the nowadays detained Nobel Prize winner concluded: “My friends, thank you very much for your attention. Your fight keeps us active.”