To follow up on the article “What is Happening in Belarus 101“, I also want to get a sense of how Belarusians living in Minsk and abroad feel about the election in their country. The first interview is with Maksimas Milta. Maksimas is 28 years old and the Head of the Communication and Development Unit at the Belarusian university in Exile, located in Vilnius and is called European Humanities University.
All screenshots are taken from Maksimas Facebook videos, where he documents the events in Minsk
European Humanities University has been in Vilnius since 2005. It has operated as the only private university here in Belarus. Later, it was shut down by President Lukashenko’s personal order. Maksimas and I spoke to via Facebook Messenger app, as he is currently in Minsk. Our call was dropped several times as the Internet connection was lost several times until he switched to a VPN. You’ll see <…> mark in those parts of the interview where we got disconnected.
Maksim, could you describe to me what is currently happening in Belarus?
6700 people were detained according to the official information, but you can never trust official numbers in this country.
Today is day 10 (August 18, 2020) of the peaceful revolt. <…> This is unprecedented in terms of geography, demography, and the scale of the mobilization. <…> During the presidential campaign, there was violence, and peaceful protesters were attacked. What has happened in the course of the last 10 days is completely different than before. This has been a grassroots movement, people are establishing “horizontal ties” despite the absence of the internet. In the first 72 hours since the election, there was no internet connection in the country, not only mobile internet but also no internet via a landline. 6700 people were detained according to the official information, but you can never trust official numbers in this country. Hundreds were injured. Also, there are verified cases of torture and the absence of any kind of humanity the way people were treated upon detention. Later, two deaths are officially approved. 92 people are missing during these ten days. During this time, I have been at the epicenter of these events. Sunday’s freedom rally with 400 000 people joining. Strikes have been unprecedented as well. Yesterday Lukashenko for the first time in his ruling, heard from workers that ‘You Should Go’ – that has never happened before. Lastly, we see that the message has spread across all countries. This is no longer an issue of the upper-middle class here in Minsk. It is an issue that concerns all Belarusians in about 80+ cities, towns, and small communities joining this peaceful revolt. The strikes are being joined by the state TV staff that is typically used as the tool for propaganda.
This is no longer an issue of the upper-middle class here in Minsk. It is an issue that concerns all Belarusians in about 80+ cities, towns, and small communities joining this peaceful revolt. The strikes are being joined by the state TV staff that is typically used as the tool for propaganda.
There are reports that Belarusian state media was largely ignoring the protest happening in there, especially in Minsk, has that changed now or are they still holding the same front?
When we talk about Belarusian state media, basically, we should speak of three major TV companies that are owned by the state. There is Belarusian TV and Radio Company, which is a leading one, then there is BT (Belarusian TV and Radio Company), ONT, and STV. When it comes to the latter two, eventually, they have shown the footage where Lukashenko was greeted by the workers shouting ‘You should go.’ This happened yesterday for the first time. Now, when it comes to the leading company, up until now, they have not shown any footage of riots, of massive protests.
Have you been first-hand involved in the protests taking place?
I have been in all protests for 10 days. I have been in the streets where rubber bullets and tear gases were used, I have experienced those on my own. All ten days in a row, day and night, I have been there. I have been hiding in the yards in the outskirts’ neighborhoods. The protests are not happening only in the city center as it would be in Vilnius Lukiskes square, it is also happening in other areas. Every day people are decentralized. It is all driven on the grassroots level. This is one of the important aspects of what is going on here because I believe there is a wrong assumption that Belarus is now replicating Maidan in Kyiv. Here we do not have: a scenario, there is no leader or stage where psychically everything would be concentrated. On Sunday, when there was a freedom rally with 400 000 people involved, there was no single stage where people could speak loudly so that everyone would hear. So the major communication platform here is Telegram messenger, and there is this channel which a day before the election had about 500 000 subscribers, and by now, it already has 2 100 000 subscribers. This is one of the most important channels for sharing information, encouraging people what to do, and what is the next plan.
This is one of the important aspects of what is going on here because I believe there is a wrong assumption that Belarus is now replicating Maidan in Kyiv.
Can you tell us a little bit more about an organization called OMON? How are they involved in the protests?
I have a lot of footage where you can see how brutally OMON is using their force. I have the footage of night 2 – that was the first time OMON started smashing windows of the cars just passing by and hurting people who are not even involved and cannot protect themselves from violence. I had witnessed with my own eyes that OMON was using ER cars as undercover vehicles and was moving into rallies to get closer to crowds and get the understanding of how dense the group is. OMON is the most brutal force here that has been using bombs, tear gas, rubber bullets, they even used open fire. I ran from OMON several times, both in the city center and outskirts, so nothing good I can tell you about OMON. Also, it is important to notice that OMON is called ‘Internal Troops’ like national guards. <…>
What is the general Belarusian sentiment about Lukashenko asking Vladimir Putin for support?
People who I talk to here are from different backgrounds. For them, it is quite evident that Lukashenko’s rhetoric about Putin’s outreach for military assistance is a stand. Belarusians, in general, are not Russophobes, they are very eager to maintain close contacts with Russia. Russia remains one of the main countries that Belarusians can visit without a visa. Throughout 20 years, many Belarusians developed business ties with Russia, and on top of that, Belarus owes 70% of debt to Russia. It is a widely known fact that all industries and sectors, like banking or energy supply, are enormously dependent on Russia. It does not make any sense that Russia would use its military force to maintain its dominance over Belarus. It is also impossible for the Kremlin to claim Belarusians are Russophobes as they did in Ukraine and justify the takeover of Crimea to protect the rights of Russians. This is not the case for Belarusians.
Belarusians, in general, are not Russophobes, they are very eager to maintain close contacts with Russia.
Do you expect any outcome based on the situation right now? Do you believe that Lukashenko will actually step down, or do you think it will carry on like this for some time?
Every day, protests are growing. They are scaling up in terms of the outreach and involving other social groups in the protests. Belarus, as you know, is one of the leading world’s potash exporters. Yesterday the leading potash company stopped all the production lines in Soligorsk where the potash industry is concentrated – they are entirely on strike. If we count the industries that joined strikes, at least making a political strike would be dozens of cities. I would say, around 30 largest industries. People come to rallies, where there are thousands of people, with their own trash bags, water, food to keep up for all day. After people have witnessed the scale of torture – people are beaten until unconsciousness, lying in their blood – there is no turning point back. There is only one way forward – for Belarus without Lukashenko, and this is just the question of time.
How do you believe people outside of Belarus can support the opposition and protesters there today?
One way is about raising awareness of Belarus as a number one issue. Another thing is that we have an authoritarian regime, and there are many of those in the world, but when we have torture, this is intolerable. Tortures cannot be tolerated. This is the message for ICJ and the UN Human Rights Council. It is time to start prosecution for those responsible for these crimes, beginning with Lukashenko, other ministers in the government, and OMON officers. The second thing is fundraising campaigns to assist injured, those who are suffering, and those on strikes. People are joining the strike, and, unfortunately, there is a very limited room for independent trade unions in this country. People are dismissed from their jobs. There should be a mechanism to provide for those people on strikes, and the fundraising for those people is the smallest thing others can do in the West.
This is the message for ICG and UN Human Rights Council. It is time to start prosecution for those responsible for these crimes, beginning with Lukashenko.
That was Maksim Milta, the Head of the Communication and Development Unit at the Belarusian University in Exile. Thank you very much.