The virus exposed the inability of the authorities to act responsively and responsibly and the result was a significant loss of public trust. The state’s response to the pandemic led to greater dissent in society, across more groups, than ever before. As the August presidential election approached, protests began breaking out. They were led by bloggers trying to hold the government accountable and speaking truth to power.
Medical workers, disappointed by the inability of the state to protect and support them, joined demonstrations and spoke openly online for the first time. Some were arrested and lost their jobs. The police broke up the protests and persecuted activists, journalists and bloggers, even those diagnosed with the virus and already in hospitals. The state-controlled courts sentenced them to prison terms. While this process is well-known and oft repeated in Belarus, somehow it felt different this time.
In spring, Belarusians focused on surviving the virus. But as uncertain as post-pandemic life might look, people also increasingly questioned whether they wanted to see the existing state order in their tomorrow. Three decades ago, it took a tragedy like Chernobyl to shock people into perceiving a different future and launching the events that led to a new and independent Belarus.
This August, three months after the May 9 Victory Day parade, soldiers and military vehicles are again on the streets of Minsk. Only this time they are not celebrating the defeat of Nazi fascism but attacking their own citizens – peaceful demonstrators demanding a transparent vote count after another election brazenly stolen by Lukashenka. In the evening, Minsk seems to be in mourning – streets, squares and government buildings covered in black from the endless number of special forces in their dark uniforms and body armor. Instead of offering Victory Day fireworks, the regime used flashbang grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas against unarmed citizens.
The people on the streets are not a crowd being forced to watch a parade. They are the nation defending their rights and choice for a better future. They are a sea of citizens not confined to Minsk’s main square but floating into more than 30 cities around the country. They are part of a new civil society that has risen and ripened during the pandemic.