With most of the world focused on the US presidential election and the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the struggle for freedom in Belarus has faded into the background. But the innovative resilience of the country’s opposition movement is not something to be forgotten about.
For the past few months, ever since a rigged presidential election in August, Belarusians have endured harrowing repression in their fight for democratic freedoms. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have nevertheless defied the brutal actions of the country’s security forces to take to the streets of the capital Minsk, where artists and activists have joined forces with factory workers and civil servants to demand a new, free, and fair election.
Yet, as their fight continues, their oppressor is continuing to develop both covert and overt means of repression, with President Alexander Lukashenko showing no signs of backing down.
Belarusians have not given up hope
Just last week, opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, by any objective measure the winner of August’s election, called for a nationwide general strike, after a demand for the president’s resignation fell on deaf ears. Once again, however, the authorities cracked down brutally, forcing many to return to work, and beating or arresting those who didn’t. Restaurants which came out on strike have since been closed down due to “health and safety” regulations. On social media, multiple videos have surfaced of Belarusian security forces storming into apartments in search of protesters, including pensioners and the disabled.
For many on the ground, the immediate cause for optimism that the protests offered back in August have since been replaced by the realisation that bringing about change will be a long haul. Mr Lukashenko himself has promised limited change and reform, although few – unsurprisingly – are taking his word for it.
In what often gets called “Europe’s last dictatorship”, protests have become as routine as their repression, and the country’s security forces aren’t showing any signs of relenting. In this, however, Belarusians are showing extraordinary creativity to ensure the movement does not get suffocated.
Many are using the encrypted messaging app Telegram to keep up the pressure, which has been a driving force of organisation for the opposition. Since the initial protests in August, many groups have localised, into cities, townships, sometimes even apartment blocks.
Through Telegram, anything from the distribution of pamphlets and ideas, to concerts and lectures have been organised, in a desperate bid to keep up momentum, and most of all, hope.
In the northern suburbs of the nation’s capital, a courtyard protest venue has sprung up, chosen for a mural symbolic of the opposition movement. It shows two DJs who, after being hired to perform at a pro-Lukashenko gathering, instead played the 1989 track Peremen (Changes) by Viktor Tsoi, symbol of a resistance against authoritarianism in the region. The square has since been unofficially renamed Changes Square, where musicians give concerts most weekends.
For many, this not only boosts morale, but provides a creative outlet. Similarly, the Belarusian rock band Dai Darogu! (Дай Дарогу!) recently released their seventh studio album, their most political yet, denouncing police brutality and aiming to capture the defiant spirit of protest. The band, which formed in the western city of Brest in 1998, aimed to once again use art as a defiant voice.
Yuri Stylsky, the band’s lead singer, dedicated their album, called Under the Howling of Dogs to “all the honest, courageous, sincere and fiery hearts” across his homeland. The album cover, illustrated by Ania Crook, echoes this sentiment, detailing a crowd of anti-government protesters.
Similar work has popped up all around the country, as artists continue to channel their talents into political resilience. A great example of this is the Belarusian art magazine, Chrysalis, which has developed an online ‘protest art’ exhibition of works from all around the country. The magazine, which virtually showcases work through its website and Instagram account aims to develops Belarus’s creative economy by providing an international platform for arises to express themselves, has given space for visual artists to speak out against repression, since the beginning of the #FreeBelarus movement.
“Contemporary art is completely absent in the concept of development of Belarus, but we believe that a healthy society cannot exist without it. Just like the economy, it cannot be successful without the creative part, while the situation in Belarus is critical and continues to degrade,” write the magazine’s editors. “We see a way to develop an intelligent economy and creative professions in the revival of Belarusian contemporary artists.”
‘Ordinary people commit evil’
These exhibitions have not only included illustrations and paintings but banners, photography, graffiti, and even tattoos, many of which feature the red and white motif of the old Belarusian flag that has become another symbol of the opposition. Many, such as this illustration by Yuliya Arabei emphasise the power of the people within the protest movement. Others aim to shed light on the injustice of police brutality, and the role of the security forces as “puppets” of the regime, such as this work by Katya Klitos.
Chrysalis has also used the movement as a way to highlight the pertinence of older works, such as this 2012 installation by Tima Radha called Stability, which alludes to similar themes of authoritarian state power built on violence and repression.
Young Belarusian artist Andrey Anro has taken a slightly different approach in his contribution to art pieces of the movement. His latest series called Person of the System instead aims to shed light on those contributing to keeping the Lukashenko regime in power.
“As Hannah Arendt wrote, ordinary people commit evil, accepting the order established in society as a norm and conscientiously fulfilling the obligations prescribed by the current law,” says Anro.
For those out on the streets, bringing a rucksack of essential items to every protest in case of arrest, the solidarity provided by Belarusian artists is ensuring that the movement endures.
The creativity of the opposition, whether that be via the use of Telegram to organise localised protests and concerts, or the visual art that speaks a thousands words, is all about sustaining the voice of those asking for freedom.
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