1 September 2020
By Dmitry Makarov, joint chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Why Belarus? One of my first experiences of international solidarity was in the framework of a large Russian-Belarusian Youth Group in Moscow that formed in response to the ‘2006 Square Protests’ [Плошчы-2006]. Back then, the arrest of hundreds of protestors within 24 hours, and the 18-month-long prison sentence for Russian youth activist Andrei Kim seemed outrageous. In 2008-2009 there were schools focused on human rights and students’ rights, and for a long time they were considered to be one of the most prominent student rights’ initiatives in the international student rights’ network which we had launched.
The ‘2010 Square Protests’ [Плошча-2010] were unexpected, but quickly transformed into the International Coalition of Solidarity, and the International Monitoring Mission in Minsk, an initiative created by Andrei Yurov which quickly became a forum and key driver behind the struggle for human rights for several dozen young activists in neighbouring countries. It was an exciting experience of how faith in solidarity, in caring, perseverance, and hope can do what the ‘main’ international human rights institutions failed to do.
But by the second half of 2011, there was a feeling of complete powerlessness. When they arrested Ales Bialiatski on 4th August that year, our civic actions suddenly felt useless, felt meaningless. But a year later the International Day of Solidarity with Civic and Human Rights Movement was born as a symbol of both despair and hope. We wanted to show, that despite a decade and a half of authoritarian pressure, civil society of Belarus can still learn a lot. Contrary to media clichés, Belarus isn’t just some caricature of a “Potato Dictatorship”, a medieval backwater, or a gladiatorial arena for Great Empires. Belarus is before anything else, a remarkable and resilient people who, against all odds, maintain hope, honour and inspiration.
We wrote the slogan ‘Solidarity is Stronger than Repression’ then on homemade banners and now it has been adopted by striking workers in the factories, the teachers and doctors who can no longer stand the lies and who value humanist and professional ethics above fear of firings or the riot police. You can say that we always knew this would happen sooner or later, but we didn’t know; we merely hoped and prayed it would.
Belarus today is the hope that people cannot be banned from thinking freely, even where they face the threat of the systematic crushing of dissent. It is a country where people have the hope that change can come peacefully, even if people are pushed into hatred and bitterness by those trying to stop it. It is a country where personal dignity is stronger than personal fear, solidarity is stronger than repression, and the self-organisation of society is stronger than any dictator.
Long live Belarus! Жыве Беларусь!
Translated by Fergus Wright