One year since mass protests saw Alexander Lukashenko launch an unprecedented wave of reprisals against his own people, he was on fighting form at Monday’s so-called ‘big conversation’.
This was a chance for the Belarusian political establishment to pay their respects; the state media to thank Lukashenko for thanking them for championing his cause; the elites in the glittering halls of Minsk‘s Palace of Independence to pay their respects to the man who’s keeping them solvent.
And for the man himself to talk for eight hours and fifteen minutes without heading for a bathroom break.
It was the members of the Western press who were the bogeymen. We were the supposed lackeys of western states’ grand plan to destroy Lukashenko.
The sanctions imposed on the election anniversary by the UK, US and Canada were not, according to Lukashenko, a response to horrific human rights abuses but a sinister plot by the West to uproot and unseat him and to throw Belarus into chaos.
Just as the protests were in the first place, according to the President’s latest review of why so many of his people took to the streets in an election in which he claimed a landslide 80% win.
He may not have heard about the US and Canada adding their own fresh sanctions during his multiple hour talk marathon, but his response to a question about the UK’s sanctions did not beat about the bush.
“You can choke with those sanctions there in the UK,” Lukashenko thundered. “We haven’t had the faintest idea for a millennia about this Great Britain and we don’t want to have one. You are America’s lapdogs!”
So much for his understanding of the spirit of the street last summer.
That momentum is well and truly crushed. No one dared so much as raise the red and white flag in the capital this 9 August.
Many of those who might have done have left the country; those who’ve stayed know to keep a low profile.
“Even though people are scared, it doesn’t mean that they changed their minds and if we had the elections now they would change their votes,” says Olga Kucherenko. “People still have it in their souls.”
Kucherenko is the cousin of Roman Bondarenko, a 31-year-old Belarusian citizen who was so badly beaten by government thugs last November that he fell into a coma and died shortly after in hospital.
Kucherenko did her best to gather all the evidence she could in the immediate aftermath of Bondarenko’s death to hold those responsible accountable. That has got nowhere.
“Recently my aunt Lena (Roman’s mother) saw a drone flying up to her window and filming so yes – we are on the watch all the time.
“You got to bed at night and think ‘Looks like I am still alive, I’m still free. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
I ask her why she doesn’t leave. “I believe that while I’m here I can do something for Roman’s cause and be an example to others that we shouldn’t lose heart,” she says.
The so-called ‘Change Square’ where Bondarenko was beaten still has the strips of red and white ribbon which were tied there last year, when police forced people off the streets and they gathered instead in neighbourhood courtyards. Now it’s just children and parents playing there.
Yulia is a long time resident. “People keep getting detained to this day,” she says. “Security services in civilian clothes check residents’ backpacks randomly inside of our apartment building.
“Men in dark vans patrol day and night and that’s why we are afraid to talk to journalists sometimes because they can take us away.”
We film for a few minutes and sure enough, a black van pulls up. Men peep through curtained windows. The locals warn us to leave.
Moments later plain-clothes types ask us for our documents. This time we have accreditations to be here on Lukashenko’s invitation so they leave us be.
It is remarkable to be able to film relatively freely on the street. No independent Belarusian journalist has been able to do that for months.
There are more than 30 journalists in prison now, outlets like Nexta and Tut.by, have been forced out of the country. Two Belsat journalists were jailed for two years for live-streaming a protest at Change Square.
It is essentially a purge of journalists and civil society. There are 610 political prisoners according to the human rights group Viesna whose top leadership are all currently detained.
But the elites in the hall today lived in a world far removed from those grubby realities. For Lukashenko, tales of political reprisals are fake news.
So are widespread reports of torture from across Belarus’s detention centres. The most notorious of those is Okrestina, in Minsk.
When I asked President Lukashenko why no one had been held accountable for these numerous reports of torture, he replied: “Okrestina is not a health resort. Full stop.”
The audience clapped.
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