9 August in Minsk through the eyes of a protester
10 August 2020, 19:28 | Mediazona Belarus
On 9 August, protests began across Belarus against the official results of the presidential elections. The Central Election Committee (CEC) had declared Aliaksandr Lukashenka the winner of the election. Law enforcement most brutally dispersed the demonstrators in Minsk, using stun grenades, water cannons and rubber bullets. A protester told Mediazona how the disappearing ink on the ballot paper convinced him to take to the streets.
I had a schoolmate whose father was an ex-convict. He once told me something that I did not understand at all back then, and I never thought about it until this year. It went like this: Imagine that you are walking down one side of the street, and you see law enforcement walking towards you. On the other side of the street, you see the hoodlums from your yard. Which side of the street will make you feel safer? Well, the hoodlums are at least the devil you know; it’s something you can coexist with. And next to law enforcement, you don’t feel safe at all.
Today, I understand what he meant.
Yesterday, I came to the city from my dacha to vote at the polling station with my father. We should have been on the regular list of voters, but for some reason, we found our names in the additional lists, even though this polling station is at our place of registration. Apparently, someone had already voted in our place. You should have seen the face of the woman who took out the lists. With eyes wide open and an expression like ‘something seriously weird is going on’, she gave every appearance that something was wrong.
Well, she brought them out, and we were put on the additional lists. We were given voting forms. Everything was in order with my form, but then I saw my father’s photo (the Golos election monitoring project encouraged votes to take photographs of their ballots – Mediazona), and not only was the second signature1 on the back of his form written weakly in a different pen, but the edges of the signature also started to fade out. That was very weird. It could be a disappearing ink, or maybe an erasable pen – there are things like that. It was like a school prank! And that’s coming from the election commission members: what can they possibly teach the children? I myself have recently graduated as a biology and geography teacher. And now I am supposed to work in a system where fraud is ingrained into the whole hierarchy of power?
I considered it necessary to defend my right to vote, which was actually taken away from me.
Everything the authorities did during this election campaign was no different from what they had done before. I have never gone out to protest before. But the difference is that this election campaign touched upon issues that fall within my purview – it all started, of course, with the coronavirus.
By 8 p.m., I went to the polling station to wait for the fair vote count. There were no more than 40 people there. The first group of the polling commission members ran out of the building and walked away briskly, ignoring our questions. The next group was switching the light on and off. They were afraid to go out.
At approximately 8.30 p.m., a yellow bus labeled “Charter (bus)” drove into the courtyards nearby. People tensed a little. At that moment, two cars successfully left the school grounds. Apparently, they took away those commission members. At about 9 p.m., some of the people moved towards the “Minsk – Hero City” Stele.
At about 9.50 p.m., I was near the stele; there were quite a lot of people. There were people and cars near the “Moscow” cinema, but they were almost not allowed to pass by the traffic police. Police cars and police trucks were driving around on Pobediteley Avenue, while there were two or three civilian vehicles crossing every minute. People were honking their horns, and the song “Peremen”2 was playing everywhere. Some people were chanting something. I moved through the underpass towards the bridge over the Svislach River.
At 10 p.m., there were a lot of people on the streets. They applauded and some were shouting something weird, like, “Go out on the road.” But it was obvious that going out on the road full of police trucks was a bad idea.
We wanted to go to the Sports Palace to check out the situation, but suddenly, people started running at us. A lot of protesters shouted, “OMON, random arrests!” as they fled. We moved to the bridge over the Svislach River. The riot police (OMON) really ran very quickly, and from behind there was another group that walked in a row with shields and beat them with batons. When people moved to the bridge, those riot policemen who had been running stood in the back rows. I think there were around 200 riot policemen. This was at 10.30 p.m.
The first stun grenade went off five minutes before that. I saw smoke coming from the direction of the “Gallery” (Galleria Minsk shopping centre – Mediazona). I walked through there this afternoon and found the shell of a stun grenade.
We crossed to the other side of the Svislach. There were riot police squadrons with their shields up, approaching from the side of the Sports Palace. Thus, the people on the opposite bank of the Svislach were caught between two cordons. On our side, a woman was shouting some interesting slogans like, “For our taxes! Fascists! Slaughterers!”, and stuff like that. People expressed their displeasure as best they could.
We rounded the Svislach along the bank, which we crossed. The street nearby was blocked off, but the protesters expressed solidarity, so the passage along the bank was safe. We passed through the Trinity Suburb and went to the Nyamiha River. There were a lot of people, but they were rather spread out over the area: it was safer near the church. It was at 11.05 p.m. – people began to climb over the road barriers to get out onto the roadway and stand in a firm line near each other. Ambulances and public transport were let past, but civilian vehicles turned around. Shouts of solidarity were heard to the drivers who blocked the road, cutting off the entrance for the police trucks. There were more and more people on the streets.
A man stood in the middle of the road with a white-red-white flag.3 He got up on top of a bus that was blocked by a crowd. I think it was the same person who was later hit by a police truck. The crowd was cheering and applauding when the riot police moved from the Sports Palace to the Nyamiha River, blocking the way to the metro station. They just stood on the road and beat their shields with batons. People clapped in response to that. It was funny to see what our very democratic authorities were doing to preserve themselves, and what ordinary people did.
We moved to another place. From there we could see that the way from the Sports Palace to the bridge was cut off by the riot police as well. There were hardliners standing there. They looked tough – probably skinheads or football fans. Apparently, they were preparing for this. Some of them were wearing motorcycle gloves; it was clear why. They were shouting some interesting phrases like, “Does your mom know you’re walking at night?” and “We’re going to f**k you all up.”
At midnight, the riot police began to beat their shields again, but it didn’t scare the people – on the contrary, they came closer. The more we see it, the less we fear it. At that moment, a stun grenade was tossed. I turned around and all I saw was a pile of smoke. The people who were standing on the bridge retreated towards Kupalawskaya (metro station).
We started to retreat through the courtyards. I saw two armored vehicles painted in military colors. Two elderly women were standing on the sidewalk near them. One of them was crying. I asked her what happened. She told me that she was very worried about us; that we are the best and deserve a better future. I tried to calm her down, but I think I didn’t choose the best words: “Don’t worry, because this won’t help the situation in any way, and any regime is finite.” She cheered up a bit and hugged me. When I hugged her, I noticed this car. There were people in balaclavas and bullet-proof vests. When I entered Minsk through Zhdanovichi, I saw similar cars; there were the same people with machine guns and bullet-proof vests, but without balaclavas. Those, most likely, were some kind of armed special detachments that wouldn’t hesitate to jump out and start shooting at people in case something happened. They were all wearing balaclavas, and it was not possible to identify them in any way. Not far from them, there was another group of people standing. I guess they were plainclothes operatives.
I went home. I’ll go out today too.
1 In Belarus, it is a requirement that the voting forms have two signatures of the precinct election commission members on the opposite side of the voting form.
2 The song “Khochu Peremen!” (“I Want Changes!”) by Viktor Tsoi became a symbol of the protests in Belarus.
3 The white-red-white flag was the national flag of independent Belarus from 1991 to 1995. In 1995, Aliaksandr Lukashenka held a referendum and adopted another flag: a red-green flag that is similar to the flag of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, but without a hammer and sickle.