Interview With Belarusian Student Activists Evgeny Mihasyuk and Nikita Krasnokutskij about the Protests against the Government

For every Westerner it is quite easy to express one’s opinion and defend it. We can attend rallies and protests to show our disapproval, distrust or dissatisfaction with the government. This is not the case in some countries. Currently, students in Belarus are active to express their disapproval of their government‘s actions. But the government does not allow these protests. People expressing their opinion are being arrested and persecuted by the Police. After a recent crackdown on dissidents and with major protests planned for March 25th, Vilnius Students for Liberty interviewed student activists Evgeny Mihasyuk and Nikita Krasnokutskij about those protests. Vilnius SFL provided an English translation to Freedom Today Network. The interview has been slightly edited for readability and clarity.

Could you tell us more about how these protests came to be?

Nikita: The situation started because our president is afraid of losing his power and authority. Honestly speaking, he does not care about diplomancy or any foreign relations. The decree regarding “laziness”, which became the basis of all these actions, was signed by our president. He is the owner of 17 different residences (whose price is a half of the country’s public debt). People are protesting in the streets are not only because of this decree: they are addressing low wages, income inequality and they even demand the president’s resignation.

Could you tell us how these protests are developing in your country? What is the government’s reaction ?

Evgeny: In Belarus so called “Not lazy” rules started quite recently, around the 20th of February of 2017. Before this day 470,000 citizens had to pay the so called “lazybone tax” and its sum is approximately 360 Belarusian rubles (180,70 euros). In 2015 this tax was introduced by Aleksander Lukashenko, Belarusian president. Everyone who worked less than 6 months per year had to pay this tax.

A repressed protest was held on March 15th, which gathered around 2500 people. Most of the participants were students. A total amount of 40 protestors have been arrested before and after the event. The trials were held today. These people are on trial because of laws which legislate disobedience to the police and violating the public order. As a result, they can be sentenced to between 13 and 15 days of arrest. Most of these people are the initiators of this protest: an attempt to stop them from pursuing their efforts. It is very upsetting.

Nikita: Protests are being held almost every week in different cities in Belarus. The government did not pay a lot of attention to the first one, but on March 12th they started arresting activists. Approximately 150 were arrested, including journalists, activists and peaceful activists, which were not afraid to express their opinion.

I think that the government is trying to spread fear, so people would stop their efforts. The 40 people who were arrested have been treated horribly, with the government’s approval. They were convicted without looking for explanation what, how and where happened. The internet is full of videos and pictures how not only the laws but also basic human rights are being violated.

How does the society react to these events?

Nikita: Most people are supporting us. Quite a big number of people who attend the protests previously were a part of Aleksander Lukashenko’s electorate. For a long time everyone has been complaining about the regime, because the true nature of the president was noticeable even in 1995. So, everyone is dissatisfied with the regime for quite a while now, but precisely this decree was the reason why a lot of people distanced themselves from the government.

Evgeny: Also, a lot of people are ignoring what is happening right now and they are living in a so called “information vacuum”. Because those who know what is actually happening do not support the system. However, there is a difference between criticizing and actually protesting: only dozens of thousands are prepared to act.

Most of the protestors are students, why is that? What kind of role they are playing?

Nikita: Approximately one third of the attendees are students. However, they are feeling a lot of pressure from their educational institutions: the lectures are being moved to the time, when the actions are planned. They are not letting us out of the university, we are being threatened. Students are the ones who care about the future the most because at the moment they are the least safe part of the society. After you graduate from university it is very hard to find a job, so there is a high probability that you will have to pay this tax. Additionally, even if you find a job immediately, you are not paid well.

One needs to pay attention to the fact that it is very easy to influence students. Not only using this tax but also, as I have mentioned, by causing problems at universities. However, despite this fact, student movements are planning a huge protest action, which will be held on March 25th and the message about is already widely spread. Students are exchanging the information about the upcoming protest all over the country.

However, the government does not like our activism. Thus I and my friend were arrested. They wanted to convict us and expel from the university for missed lectures. Thank God, they only gave us a 50 euros fine. And everything happened only because we were distributing leaflets with the invitation to attend in this event and we handed out ribbons with Belarusian symbols near our university. By doing that we broke the 23rd and 34th articles, which claim that it is forbidden to invite people to events, which are not approved by the government. Which is basically in contradiction to the constitution.

Evgeny: In fact, students are really being pressured by the government. They are distributing forms and telling us to sign that we won’t attend these actions. They are inviting us to talks, in which they are threatening to expel the most active ones from universities. It is a harsh reaction to us expressing our opinion. We plan a huge rally on March 25th, I think that everything depends on this day. Most probably we will be chased by the police, but we do not know what kind of measures they will be taking to punish us. We will need to analyze the surroundings and then we will make a decision on the spot how we are going to act in the nearest future.

What is the point of your action? How is it proceeding?

Nikita: The aim of this action is to show the government that people do not want to suffer and continue living like they do right now. Also, the citizens realized that without a protest they won’t be noticed by the authorities. There were a lot of attempts to communicate peacefully but even then we were unable to do that — they were deliberately disturbing our efforts to do so. So, we are disappointed about any peaceful actions. Our events — usually processions with drums, posters, also we were passing resolutions and letting peaceful people to express their opinion. Our goal is to be seen by as many people as possible, because the biggest part of the media is controlled by the monopolists. They are claiming that everything in our country is perfect, they do not write anything about the protests, if they do — they mention it as it is a harm to society. Independent media is our main sponsor but there is not a lot of them and the government is limiting their ability to express their opinion.

How do you imagine Belarusia’s future? What kind of path will it choose?

Evgeny: I think that now our country has a choice: to seek change on the political, economical and social issues or to choose further stagnation and degradation. These options are not clearly visible because most of us are more comfortable with the second way than a temporary instability of changes (it is like an echo of fear from the 90’s). As I have mentioned before, on March 25th there will be a procession. That day our future will be decided. If there will be silence and nobody will support our protests, that would be unfortunate… However, if we will get out of our comfort zone, we have a possibility to make a brighter future possible.

Nikita: There are two scenarios. The nation will demolish this system and will make Belarus an actually free country, which be ruled by the nation or the system will choke us. It is possible that we will be occupied by Russia because Russia knows our weak spots since we have military training together. Aleksander Lukashenko messed up the relations with Russia himself. And after the last arrests Europe will not agree to support our relations with Russia. In other words, good relations with Russia are not needed for Europe. I believe in the first path. And I will do everything in my power that I would accomplish it.

Translation by Rusana Cholodenko, Vilnius Students for Liberty