Interview “Update on the situation in Belarus” from November 20th by A-Radio Berlin
A-Radio: So, once again we are talking with Maria from Minsk in Belarus. We had a talk at the end of August about the uprising in Belarus. So now, first of all thanks for taking the time to talk to us and yeah, we wanted to reach out again to get an update on the current situation in Belarus, so maybe you can start giving us a bit of an overview, what’s the current situation.
Swix: So it’s been, I think, almost three months now since we didn’t talk about it. And I think I will probably just enumerate the most visible developments and the most visible changes in the attitude from both the protestors and the state, the attitude of the state towards it. So, first of all it should be mentioned that the protests are still in, so-to-say, their peaceful manner. So people still adhere to protesting every Sunday, and if, in the first month of protest almost no one has been detained at the protests, later, more and more people started to be detained right after the protest or even during the week for example. So the police changed the tactics and they started to create the atmosphere of fear. So before people were afraid to be detained after the protest, when they were leaving, but it was still fine, because you know what you should expect, right? But then they decided to create the intimidation campaign, and what they started doing is that the identified people, I think they were using a lot of surveillance techniques or video cameras, so they were actually not detaining people at the protest the were recording them videotaping, or using pictures from the news media, and then they were identifying people and coming to get them with three people, three police officers, and that were people in plain clothes, so people were detained right in their workplace, or at the door of the apartment they were living in. So they were trying to create an atmosphere that every person will get detained, now or later, and they will come for everyone. And I think actually it worked, a little bit, because a lot of people started feeling very unsafe, because they were afraid to, especially those who were detained and then arrested, for administrative offences, they were later afraid to leave the house because they were afraid that the cops would come for them, so I think they would probably detain maybe a few hundreds of people like that, and then people would spread the news that it happened to them, so the relatives would start to be afraid, and so on and so on. So I think it worked to some extent, and it prevented some people from joining the protests.
Another tactics was that they started attacking the admins of local chats, so like I said before, in the previous recording, a lot of activity is organised and coordinated on Telegram, and people are organised in chats, and of course there are admins who are, just for, looking what happens in the chat, and sometimes it’s at the same time the active people in the neighbourhood, but sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s just the people who created the chat in the first place and they’re just following the news. But recently there have been a wave of arrests of people who they identify as admins, and again they are creating again the atmosphere of, they know everything, they will come for everyone, and basically what they’re doing is they’re now hijacking local neighbourhood chats, especially before the mass protests, so they try to prevent people from coordinating and agreeing where they will start protesting an where they will gather and so on. In general I would say that many people, from the very beginning, they saw the protests as a form of – when I say protests I mean the mass rallies on Sundays, when they would get hundreds of thousands of people. So many people were seeing it as a way of therapy. So basically you come there, you see that there is a lot of people, you’re happy to be together, you’re happy to show your dissatisfaction, but no more. People were not really going to demand anything, and people were actually avoiding confrontation with the police, so whenever they see the police they would turn instead of trying to provoke the police, or to try to get through the chain of the police. And I think it was so successful because the first protests, the first protests, the first rallies, were actually not smashed, not dispersed by the police, and this is why many people considered it as a way of collective therapy, and as soon as it became more stressful, rather than happy, for them, a lot of people stopped going, and I think we can see now a decrease in the participation in the rally. Still a lot of people are going but the police tactics are now, it’s to prevent people from gathering in one spot by all means. And I think it’s been two Sundays in a row where people got really demoralised and demotivated, because they couldn’t get together, and there were a lot of people detained, and only last week it was another experiment that they decided to make not a centralised rally but rather tens of decentralised rallies starting from the neighbourhoods. And I think it was a very nice experiment and people liked it, because instead of trying to be and meet together in one spot in the centre of the city, a lot of people would gather in their neighbourhoods and then they would go together in one river, in one flow of people, and just march in their neighbourhood, or march towards the central part of their quarter for example. And it happened in the whole of Minsk, so the cops, yeah, they didn’t know how to react, and it was I think for the first time when people started, they were trying to not run away when they see the cops, and this was actually something that broke the mentality of the cops, because suddenly people stopped running away from them, and people are standing and instead they are defending those who are getting detained. So I think everybody liked last Sunday, and probably this Sunday it’s going to be the same tactics, that people are going to start in their neighbourhoods, and march, trying to disperse the attention of cops and prevent them from being in one spot, very powerful. But I expect that cops are also taking this week to plan accordingly, and most probably they will also try to make some change in their tactics, again to prevent some people from gathering this time in their neighbourhoods. Let’s see what happens.
Another problem that shook the society a few weeks ago, I think on the 12th of November. There was an announcement of the death of one protestor, and it happened in a way that recently the authorities started to support the creation of specific groups of people who would, with the assistance of police, come to the neighbourhoods and destroy the protestors’ symbols or intervene with their meetings, and so on. So that’s like, people who reside in Minsk, but are supporters of the regime, and they are supported by the police in doing whatever they want. So, including attacking people physically, attacking their neighbours physically, and that was exactly what happened. So there was something happening in one neighbourhood, and people, they saw a few people, who were destroying something in the yard, and one person, he left the house and he went to see what was happening, and tried to prevent them from doing it, and there was a fight, and during this fight they detained him, and gave this guy to the police, and later this guy died, the next day he died, because he received some injuries that are incompatible with life. And of course all these people were masked, and we don’t know who were the cops who hit him so hard that he couldn’t survive, and basically this guy died just because he went out to see what’s happening in the yard. He died not even from a rubber bullet or from anything, so it was done by people who support the regime. And I think that was a big wave of remorse and anger from the people, and at the same time it was very sad, a lot of people realised that they can be killed even in the yard, and no one’s going to take care of it, no one’s going to be punished. But at the same time this moment was also a moment when people realised that they can’t support the regime anymore, or they cannot participate anymore in what’s happening, even if they worked somewhere. A lot of workers at the moment are organising strikes, and when I say a lot, I don’t mean that they are organising strikes in a collective action. It’s happening more in an individual action, but, every day there is like 3-5 people who are announcing strikes individually, wherever they are working, and they are all demanding Lukahenko to go, for the political prisoners, and to stop the violence in the country, and also to find out those who produced the violence. And I don’t know if it’s really something that is really influencing the state, most probably it’s just an individual action from people who cannot anymore be part of it, but at the same time it’s also nice that people started doing it, instead of just silently being dismissed. First they are announcing these strikes. And on some factories there are quite some people who have announced it. Including the railroad workers, some of the biggest factories as well. Another group that is protesting a lot at the moment are the medical workers. Because they were the first ones that started talking about violence, and who started publishing information about real injuries that people had, and the fact that the cops were threatening them for disclosing this information, or for helping the protestors that were detained. And they were also the ones that disclosed the information about the guy that was killed, the one that I was talking about. So at the moment one doctor is actually detained in the KGB prison, for disclosing medical information that is supposed to be secret. And basically a lot of medical workers, and now also, because they cannot call a strike, they are trying to make some solidarity actions, everyday there is some picture about what’s happening in some hospitals. And also with the new wave of Covid these people are also under attack, because they need to work very long hours, and they started also to question the numbers that the authorities revealed to the public. Because of course like the other time the authorities claimed that it’s under control, and it’s not so crazy as in other countries for example. But they leaked some of the real numbers, and it ended up that the pandemic is here as well. So I think, yeah..
A-Radio: So this is numbers of cases, of Covid cases?
Swix: Yeah, numbers of cases or numbers of deaths. Or like the information about what is happening inside the Covid hospitals, and so on.
A-Radio: Ok. Thanks a lot for this condensed information. Last time at the beginning of the uprising you mentioned the importance of the protest also being spread out and not just being in the Minsk, like it’s been in the years before. How is the situation in like the rural areas now? Did the protests die down there because of the reasons that you mentioned, or is there still some, also protests going on outside of Minsk?
Swix: Unfortunately it’s almost died out, because the repression in the smaller cities is harsher. Probably I talked about it before, that there is not so many people as in Minsk, they are not so much concentrated, and the local cops could easily identify the people who are active. So at the moment, there’s hardly any city that has a Sunday rally, I mean the provincial cities, so basically many people probably even come to Minsk to protest, but there’s always some information about a small solidarity protest happening here and there, or like a picture of people waving a flag or something like this. So people are there, but they are afraid to show their activities openly. And I think, basically it’s a little bit of controversy, that they are hoping that Minsk is going to change the situation and Minsk is always, I mean Minsk residents are always saying that, hey, we need regional areas to take away some of the cops. The cops are now concentrated in Minsk because the regions are not protesting. And basically there is always a call for the regions to also rise up, if they can, but it looks like it’s not really happening. And in general I would say that at the moment the protest is fuelled by the neighbourhood movement, and in the regions the neighbourhood movement is probably not so widespread, it didn’t have enough time to form, properly, and now it’s really easy for the cops to smash it, unlike in Minsk, where they tried to smash the neighbourhoods and they are arresting a lot of musicians who come to support the neighbourhood concerts, or people who provide lectures, like everyone who is to some extent helpful, they got repressed.
A-Radio: You mentioned this change in tactics, with having more decentralised marches. You also mentioned the repression in the digital, organisational, realm with Telegram admins being repressed. Is there any change in this realm too with use of technology now that Telegram admins got detained, do you think there is any change there already that you can see?
Swix: I’m not sure, I think everybody still sticks to Telegram because it’s combining the reading of news, exchanging information, and chats. So basically if you go to another messenger, you will still need Telegram to see what’s happening, because everybody is exchanging there. So, for the moment it’s only information about how to protect your privacy on Telegram as much as you can. How to protect the admins’ security and safety and so on. There’s been a few new apps that developed that are now being tested. One of them is for monitoring the positions of cops and the positions of crowds on the marches, and basically it works both with the internet, but whenever you don’t have internet they can send you some tokens via sms or via bluetooth, so basically people could download the tokens and see exactly what’s happening. But, from what I heard, it’s a little bit not helpful so much when cops are moving very fast, of course they can not produce so many tokens, so basically it’s only helpful to see, for example, the blockades, or where the crowds are situated, and so on. So people are using some of the tactics but at the moment, it’s basically, people still use the phone connection, because this is not switched off. Because every rally the mobile internet is switched off, but the mobile connection is not. So this is how, probably, there is someone always in the house, using the stable internet, like the landline, and they look at the news, and then they call somebody who is on the march, to inform about what happens.
A-Radio: I see. So since Monday we are in a week of solidarity with anarchists and anti-fascists in Belarus. Can you say anything about this?
Swix: So basically, I think in the last month there have been a big wave of repression against anarchists, and there have been a few groups of people detained. So there were four people who were kind of labelled Belarussian partisans, because they were detained in a forest, and they are now accused of possessing guns and setting fire to some of the police or prosecutor’s office buildings in the regions, and these people are detained, and yeah, it’s been almost a month since they have been in prison, and they are now accused of terrorism. Another person, like a locally popular blogger, he has been detained ten days ago, and today there was an article describing the way he was tortured, because they wanted to get access to his computer. So, basically he is facing another charge of organising mass riots or something like this. And more and more people are getting arrested for shorter time, like administrative offences, and some people are not even getting released, like people spend fifteen days in jail and then they file another report on them claiming that they participated in this or that action. And some people spend about a month or more under arrest. And also because a lot of people are now ill, or sick with Covid, it is also something that prevents people from participating, including anarchists. So I would say that’s it’s becoming, just like for the whole society, for anarchists it’s becoming more and more difficult to stay strong, to stay massive and numerous, and this is why there is a call for the week of solidarity, and people could make some events or protests in support of anarchists and anti-fascists in Belarus, or they could possibly send some money for the ABC. There is also another separate call that I think is going to finish soon, in three days from today. It’s a campaign of crowdfunding for some activist stuff for anarchists in Belarus, to support their participation in the protest, because there’s still a need for safe housing, for some places where people could hide, or that people could skip work or study to be still active in the movement. So it all needs money, and basically people are very welcome to donate.
A-Radio: Ok, thanks. The crowdfunding campaign you just mentioned is at Firefund. We will include all the links to the ABC and to Firefund. Are there other types of solidarity you can think of that you would like to see for example in Germany or the world?
Swix: Well I think in general there is a lot of people who potentially need to stay away from the country for some time or maybe forever, because of the repression, or because they just can’t stay emotionally, or they cannot really survive four months of active protesting, so this is when sometimes people need safe housing, somewhere else in Europe for example. Or they would need maybe some help with getting asylum or something like that, but unfortunately this can not be published, but in general if you have such possibilities or you’re interested in helping, probably it could also be contacted with ABC Belarus, and maybe there is some support that you could provide.
A-Radio: Ok, thanks a lot. Is there any other topic that you would like to touch on that I haven’t asked?
Swix: Well, not really. I would just say that it is changing, the situation is changing every day. Sometimes you feel like you are over, and sometimes you feel like the darkest times are coming. The next day there is a nice thing that someone is doing and people are getting motivated again, and it’s actually not clear what’s going to happen. It could be the same thing as what happened in Egypt or in Venezuela, where the president just doesn’t step out, even with the population not having electricity or basic supplies. And it looks like this situation or this context could be possible for Belarus as well. At the same time, clearly, politically, we can see that they are trying, they are struggling for the attention, for the media image to still kind of fuel their legitimacy. And for the moment they are creating like, basically like a dialogue space inside the country, like the authorities are inviting people to participate in a dialogue, in order to create a kind of collective view on how the country could be working. But of course everybody in their minds are boycotting it, and Lukashenko is now using some of the political prisoners that he released specifically for this campaign. So these people started supporting Lukashenko and pretending that they are democratic figures and that they are involved in dialogue with Lukashenko, and they started talking about the constitutional reform, and also releasing of political prisoners, but that could be a play again, so we never know what’s going to happen. So it looks like, yeah like I said, whenever people stop the attack, or they stop protesting, the regime is going to swallow everything. And I think at the moment, everybody, like both sides understand that it’s either them or the other side, and this is why this conflict is becoming more emotional and actually kind of more personal, because for a lot of cops it’s now becoming more personal. They want Lukashenko to stay in power, because they know that if he goes away that they’re going to be all persecuted. And of course cops then take this very seriously and very personally. So, let’s see what happens, for the moment it’s not over!
A-Radio: It’s a good point you mention how, like the instruments of repression are invested in keeping the regime going. In any case, thanks so much, and yeah, lots of solidarity and energy to all of you and your comrades, and hope we can stay in touch and get new updates, and, thanks.
Swix: Ok, thank you.