The fight for freedom in Europe’s last dictatorship
by Maura Lehmann / Zoe Schreiber
FEBRUARY 23, 2021
In light of the mass protests in Belarus, caused by the presidential elections of August 2020 that are widely believed to have been rigged, the country is the European epicentre for violence on human rights. We had the honour to interview Zoe Schreiber, 21, representative of the German Action Group for Belarus (Aktionsbündnis Belarus) and discuss the crimes against human rights that are being committed in what is dubbed ‘the last dictatorship of Europe’.
Who are you and your organisation, and what encouraged you to get involved in human rights activism for Belarus? What are the goals your organisation is fighting for?
My name is Zoe Schreiber, I originally come from Berlin, but I study cultural studies in Frankfurt an der Oder. The topic of human rights has been something I have been involved with for longer than I had originally identified, because I have always had a strong sense for justice. Especially through my studies, I learned how to put my values into words and use my privileges for the benefit of others.
Belarus caught my attention around spring 2020, when I became involved in a universitary initiative to raise awareness about the restrictions on academic freedom in different parts of the world, and the causes behind this. A friend of mine, Johnanna, drew my attention to the case of a student from Minsk who was expelled from her university for demanding online teaching during the pandemic - at the time, Lukashenko denied the existence of the coronavirus, therefore her demands for protective measures were a clear breach of the rules.
What further pushed me into actively fighting for victims of oppression in Belarus were the videos that flooded social media during the elections in August 2020. The videos showed people being dragged into busses headed to prison, for example.
On 12 October, there was a crackdown on student organisations, during which a friend of Johanna’s was arrested. This was the trigger, this is when we decided to take action: overnight, we formed a group on the messaging platform Telegram which still has nearly 300 members to this day. I participated in the first Zoom call that was organised because I wanted to put my privileges to good use and not just in my university organisation - this was three months ago; we have come quite far with the alliance since then.
Regarding our goals, we want to draw attention to the situation in Belarus, especially that of the students. To keep the discussion alive in Germany, we hope to cooperate more with universities and other non-profit organisations in this field to create a broader network of supporters in Belarus. At the moment, there are many small groups like ours but they all act very independently from each other. Our particular alliance consists of just a few people like me, and for us it is at least the second voluntary project, which is why we are putting a focus on educational work for the time being.
When stepping back and looking at the past 30 years, how do you think the historical developments have impacted the current protest context?
If you look at the last 30 years, Lukashenko was in power for 26 of them. So I'll take the liberty of saying that there hasn't been much political change. The achievements from the four years of actual independence between the USSR and Lukashenko have been taken back piece by piece - starting with the flag.
The white-red-white flag was the national flag from 1991 to 1994. As early as 1995, he installed a new flag that looked very similar to the one from Soviet times. He also gradually abrogated the constitution, so he could remove the function of parliament and remain in office himself for so long. In general, Lukashenko symbolised stability for a long time, according to the motto "I'll stay here so that things will continue to go well for you". And objectively speaking, the people were certainly better off than in Soviet times, although I admit that I am not an expert on this period.
Belarus is a middleman for sanctioned goods from the EU to Russia. In return, Russia subsidises oil deliveries. However, this has also put Belarus in a position of great dependence, which has proven its disadvantages time and again. I asked some friends who come from Belarus or have been there. Most of them reported that it is a lot about the norm. There is a social norm, if you conform to it, everything is good. But if you deviate from it, you have problems at work, at university or even on the street, for example via police checks. In addition, there is a strong security apparatus that reports private trips to the university administration and has a long history of eliminating prominent opposition figures.
But it was also due to the events immediately before the election that so many people took to the streets. One was the handling of the pandemic. Because there was no support from the state, a wave of solidarity swept through the country that had never been seen before. Private individuals collected donations to distribute masks and other medical supplies to hospitals. Neighbours went shopping for each other.
In addition, all promising candidates were once again eliminated in the run-up to the election. But this time their wives and campaign leaders kept going and rallied so unbelievably many people behind them. And then came election night and Lukashenko's ego must have been so bruised by the competition that he didn't settle for fake percentages of 56 or 60%. No, it had to be 80.23%. That was the match that lit the fire for many people. And the fact that the protests have lasted so long also has to do with the massive violence. People simply don't want to take it anymore.
One could also consider, but I don't have any evidence for this, that it surely has something to do with the new, young generation that only knows Lukashenko and the bad Soviet times. And/or the influence of the internet, which influences the spread of news. But as I said, these are only assumptions from my part, without evidence. All I know is that through the internet, young people also see and hear independent and international news and not just state radio.
What role do women play in the opposition movement? Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya’s husband for example, has been detained, which is why many say she stepped in. Is this reflected within the movement in general?
Indeed, women play a crucial role in the opposition. Tsikhanouskaya indeed ‘stepped in’ for her husband, and Maria Kolesnikova was Viktor Babariko's campaign manager. The philosopher Olga Shparaga has observed the role of women in the current protest movements, and is publishing a book on this in April.
Women in Belarus were never really seen as political subjects. They had their place in society, but not in politics. When women stood in for their husbands and superiors as leaders of the opposition, Lukashenko did not take them seriously, which was a mistake on his part.
And it was women who demonstrated peacefully on 12 August with white dresses and red flowers. In a way, they stood protectively in front of the men, because if the men had been standing there, the OMON (Belarusian law enforcement force) would have stormed into the masses immediately. But the security forces have always been and continue to be different in their treatment of women than men. Less aggressive, less brutal. They also take them less seriously. Nevertheless, the women took an incredible risk that day. According to Shparaga, they laid the foundation for a peaceful demonstration. You may remember the pictures from the summer of weeping women hugging motionless soldiers.
Women were also perceived as a political subject for the first time. The fact that the opposition leadership was female. And because women demonstrated publicly among themselves.
The entire Belarusian protest movement is about emancipation from a patriarchal state. But for the women it is also about being fully noticed. They are not only part of the demonstrations, they are integrally involved in determining them.
If hundreds of thousands are protesting against Lukashenko and not recognising his election results, why is he still hanging on to power?
Good question ... I can only speculate: He won't step down because he has such a big ego and has been building his own dream castle for 26 years, in which he is the great ruler over a people who are at his feet. And anyone who doesn't kneel is bludgeoned away. Because this has worked so well in the past, I don't think he realises that it's different this time. That it affects almost all layers of society. Moreover, he has built up a huge security apparatus that only serves him. Police officers are taught in their training that they don't serve the people, but the authorities. And in return we now see how the authorities protect violent security officers. I think as long as the security apparatus does not turn against him, he is not worried. Because let's face it, an autocrat doesn't care about his people, only about his power!
The other question I ask myself much more is: why doesn't the world community do anything about it? Why don’t the United States of America intervene, as much as I dislike it as an arrogant world police force? Why doesn't the UN send in blue helmets to protect the Belarusian people? I understand that the EU is holding back so as not to damage the protest movement even more. But even Putin must be starting to regret not kicking Lukashenko out of office himself, because now he has his own Sunday protests in Russia!
The United Nations’ Human Rights council has repeatedly condemned the human rights abuses committed by Lukashenko’s regime, but little to no action has followed the statements. What can our readers do to help the victims of torture and repression in Belarus, if our governments are in a legal stalemate?
The simplest form is to educate oneself on the situation and then pass that knowledge on. The more people know about it, the better pressure can be exerted. Because one of the biggest fears that protesters from Belarus have shown me is that their country and their fate will be forgotten. Talk to your friends and acquaintances. Bring the topic to your student committees and organise information evenings. We are always happy to receive invitations, and are currently working on a programme for this. Share posts on Instagram, put up posters in your windows, get creative!
Petitions are a classic means of activism. Aktionsbündnis Belarus and Libereco e.V., another human rights organisation, published one in early December. Feel free to sign and share it. You can also contact your local MPs to raise the issue in parliament. Write them an email and make them aware of the situation.
If you want to express your solidarity directly to the people in Belarus, you can write letters to prisoners, or donate to them. To hear the solidarity from abroad and from bystanders strengthens the courageous people in their country immensely.