MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: unrest in Eastern Europe.
MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for 26 years. Critics call him “Europe’s last dictator:” The communist-leaning leader became president in 1994 during the country’s first elections after breaking away from the Soviet Union.
BASHAM: Lukashenko has clung to power ever since. But this year’s elections and resulting protests prove Belarusians want change. WORLD correspondent Jenny Lind Schmitt has our story.
JENNY LIND SCHMITT, CORRESPONDENT: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claims he won the August 8th election with 80 percent of the vote. Electoral observers say the election was rigged.
And millions of Belarusians agree. In the weeks since the vote, they have taken to the streets across the country to protest the result. But now they are also protesting the Gestapo-like methods Lukashenko’s government used to crack down on the protests immediately after the election.
Secret police arrested and imprisoned over seven thousand people, and severely injured many others. Hospital workers treated hundreds of protestors arriving with fractures, head injuries, rubber bullet wounds, and internal injuries. They said it was like being in a war zone.
AUDIO: [Man speaking Belarusian]
Sergey—whose last name is being withheld for his safety—leads worship at an evangelical church in Minsk. He didn’t attend the protests, but was walking home with a friend on August 11th. Soldiers grabbed them and threw them into a bus where they were severely beaten.
SERGEY: Nobody knew where we were. We were treated as if we were sentenced to death. They call it the “swallow position”: you walk facing the ground with your hands behind your back while being beaten by the guards. The guards used batons.
Sergey and other arrested civilians were taken to prison and made to stand spread-eagled in the cold for 22 hours.
SERGEY: Even though everyone in this line at the wall behaved perfectly, for an unknown reason the guards behaved viciously, like they were trying to break us mentally.
Then they were beaten and coerced into signing a “confession.”
SERGEY: While I was trying to sign it, with a side glance I managed to see it was some kind of protocol. It said something like: “For active participation in public events.” There were men who did not want to sign at all until they could read this document. But they all ended up signing it after several minutes of severe beatings with batons.
As prisoners were finally released, stories similar to Sergey’s were repeated over and over. Videos surfaced that corroborated the reports. Belarusians were shocked and angry that Lukashenko’s forces would do this to their own people.
AUDIO: [People marching, shouting “We are power here.”]
That indignation has brought more and more people out into the streets.
The largest demonstrations in Belarusian history took place on August 23rd. Despite the intimidating presence of riot police, protesters have remained peaceful. Last Sunday was Lukashenko’s birthday, and thousands of women came to the presidential palace with “gifts” of pumpkins—a traditional way to turn down a suitor.
Opposition leader Svietlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighboring Lithuania in the days just after the election to escape government threats to her family. But she has maintained calls for free and fair elections and encouraged factory workers who are organizing strikes as protests. Last week, she addressed members of the European Parliament.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Belarus has woken up. We are not the opposition anymore. We are the majority now. The peaceful revolution is taking place.
Opposition leaders say change will require a long, drawn-out effort. Lukashenko won’t leave easily. They are also clear that they don’t want outside intervention. They say that would only play into Lukashenko’s hands. He claims foreigners are behind the protests, and that NATO is massing troops on the border. NATO leaders deny this.
On Friday, the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland, and the European Union issued a joint statement condemning the violence and repression in Belarus and declaring solidarity with the nation’s people. But Lukashenko has an important ally—Russian President Vladimir Putin. He says Moscow is ready to deploy a reserve of law enforcement officers at Lukashenko’s request.
AUDIO: [Horns honking, people shouting in Belarusian, motorcycle sounds]
Over the weekend, Belarusian news channel Belsat reported seeing busses with Russian license plates and Russian flags at Victory Square in Minsk. Authorities deported several foreign journalists covering the protests and revoked the accreditation of several others.
Amid the increasing tension, churches are drawing together. After the initial crackdown, evangelical pastors issued a joint statement condemning violence. They called the nation’s seventy thousand evangelical Christians to daily prayer for a peaceful resolution.
AUDIO: [Man praying in Belarusian]
Pastor Leonid Mikhovich is a leader of the Baptist Union of Belarus.
MIKOVICH: Even two days ago we prayed with other churches, Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Jews. We met in central cathedral in Minsk. I prayed and some other brothers and sisters. It’s maybe first time in our history.
Mikhovich says church unity is one positive thing coming from this time of turmoil. Another is the opportunity churches have to help those injured in the violence.
MIKOVICH: We trust our Lord, and we try to help people in many ways, as we have some resources and opportunities to do it. That’s our mission now.
As far as help from the international Christian community, Mikhovich says the best thing now is to pray for peace in the streets and unity in the churches.
MIKOVICH: We would ask you to pray for peace for our people.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jenny Lind Schmitt.