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Getting creative, getting political in Belarus

Up against severe administrative restrictions, residents of the city of Brest have find creative ways to fight the construction of a new battery plant near their town. RU

Eugenia Andreyuk
25 February 2019

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The view from the Zubik family garden. Author: Eugenia Andreyuk.

Seven years ago, Yulia and Igor Zubik took out a bank loan to build their own home in Khaby, a village outside Brest in western Belarus. By early 2018 they had finished the interior and even bought furniture. But then, just 700 metres from their house, construction began in the “Brest” Free Economic Zone.

The Zubiks discovered that a battery factory was planned at a site right next to their village. Locals began to defend their right to a clean environment – and it has changed their lives.

For over a year now, residents of Brest and its surrounding villages gather each weekend in the city’s central space, Lenin Square, to protest against the construction of the battery plant. In February 2018, they collected over 36,000 signatures on a petition to ban the project and brought legal action against the company, and in December they applied to hold a regional referendum. None of this had any effect: the plant has been built regardless. But the people of Brest are not giving up.

Lost home

“My husband Igor would come here twice a week to build our house and plant this garden. He also built a concrete storm drain with his own hands, to carry off the rainwater,” Yulia Zubik says, showing me her house, garden and the battery plant, clearly visible from her home.

“Over the last year I’ve resigned myself to losing this house,” Yulia continues. “I won’t live here when the plant opens. It will release more than a tonne of toxic lead into the atmosphere every year. The problem with lead is that it’s invisible, you can’t see it, but it’s like living in a powder keg – one day my son will eat an apple contaminated with lead and I don’t want to take that risk.” The Zubiks have two sons, aged 15 and eight.

According to the website of the battery factory, IPower, the plant will produce a full range of maintenance-free lead-acid starter batteries, developed by Exide Technologies, for a wide range of vehicles, and the project for its construction is included in Belarus’ Innovative Development Programme for 2016-2020. The main contractor is Chinese company Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group, and, according to public officials, the project will be innovative and safe for both the environment and human health, as well as providing jobs for 150 locals.

Several villages in the Brest district are within 700-1500 metres of the plant, as well as the well-to-do Brest suburb of Stimovo. The city centre is four kilometres away. Protesters against the plant think that it will permanently affect public health not only in these immediate areas, but the city as a whole, and they don’t believe the official predictions of emissions and other ecological damage.

According to activists’ calculations, roughly 50 tonnes of lead will be smelted daily, producing three tonnes of dangerous waste, for which the company has no technology for disposal and burial. Activists have also discovered that Exide Technologies operations elsewhere have led to serious environmental problems, such as in Vernon, California or Reading, Pennsylvania.

Meetings, complaints and legal actions

The movement to oppose the construction of the plant was started by those living near it. They began collecting signatures in late 2017, and in January 2018 they held their first meeting with the management of the plant and the Free Economic Zone, as well as officials from the village of Telmy-1. The hall where it was held was full, as people from other villages and Brest itself turned up.

Roman Kislyak, a local human rights campaigner and lawyer, joined the movement that day.

“A whole lot of relevant questions came up, but I could see that there weren’t enough professional people,” Kislyak remembers. “I decided to ask a couple of questions and then tell everyone that they had the right to their views and participate in decision making. I also asked IPower’s CEO what he would do if the public began protesting, but his PR person leaned over and said something to him, and he ducked the question and just said that it was all perfectly legal.”

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Roman Kislyak. Author: Eugenia Andreyuk.

The meeting went on for four hours, but public officials and business people failed to convince the locals that the plant was safe. Over the next two months, 36,000 people signed a petition calling for a halt to the project, which was sent to the President Lukashenko and the local authorities. In other words, 10% of Brest’s 350,000-strong population signed the petition. The activists also sent letters and complaints to a range of state institutions.

In late February 2018 the protesters, along with the EkoDom (Eco House) NGO began legal proceedings, calling for a complete halt to IPower operations in the FEZ and a cancellation of the plant’s construction. On 27 March, a Brest district court rejected the request.

“We expected to report on everything that we had discovered, after which the court would find in our favour,” Kislyak recalls. “I wasn’t at the session where the verdict was announced, but when I came to the court house after the hearing I saw the people coming out and the disappointment and amazement on their faces. The decision was a real blow to the campaigners.”

In early December 2018, four activists met with Andrey Kudyk, the Minister for Natural Resources and the Environment. The officials refused to let them set up a video-link and asked them to leave their phones at the door, promising to give them a tape of the meeting afterwards. Later, it turned out that the tape machine’s batteries were flat.

Feeding the pigeons

On Sunday 25 February 2018, activists gathered at Brest’s Lenin Square to hold their first protest against the battery plant.

As blogger Sergey Petrukhin tells me, “Alexander Kabanov, another blogger, said that if the project wasn’t dropped, he would stand on the square with a placard. I said, ‘Then I’m with you.’ We were then pre-emptively arrested on the Friday and held for three days before being given fines [approx. £490]. And that was when people first came out to support us. During our detention we still weren’t sure whether we would have any public support.”

For the last few years, Sergey Petrukhin has been actively engaged in covering issues in the city, and curates the “People’s Reporter” YouTube channel. In 2018, however, the local authorities began to actively obstruct him after he supported the protest over the battery plant, and in the last year he has paid over €3000 in fines and spent 35 days behind bars for breaking the law on mass assembly. On 27 July 2018 he was also charged with libel and insulting police officers.

“People are really helpful,” says Petrukhin. “When the cops confiscated our computers, people clubbed together to buy us new ones. And the same happened with my phone. I haven’t paid for my internet and mobile network for ages, people club together for me. When I lost my case against an official in March, I had to pay a fine of $600, and inside a day people collected $750 for me – I had enough left over to pay a lawyer.”

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"Feeding the pigeons" on Lenin Square, Brest. Author: Eugenia Andreyuk.

Since the city authorities have banned protest actions, activists have been getting creative and had the idea of feeding pigeons in Lenin Square – no placards, no megaphones. The first “pigeon feeding” session, on 4 March 2018, attracted a small crowd of 70 people. And ever since then people opposed to the battery plant have been coming to the square every Sunday. In the course of 2018, activists made 66 requests to hold rallies and actions, but the authorities only gave permission for one, in April 2018. But over 2,000 people turned up for it.

Ales Ablyak, who also opposes the plant, tells me that his attitude to “pigeon feeding” has changed over time: “At one point I was saying that if you want to do something concrete, then give me a call, but I couldn’t see the point of this weird bird feeding. But then I saw that it was really annoying local officials, and they were telling us, ‘OK, guys, let’s talk about it, just don’t go to the square’, and I realised that we were getting certain benefits from it. So I decided to join in, and now I go there every Sunday when I can.”

On a recent Sunday, 27 January 2019, there were 200 people on the square, despite the frost. Children were feeding the pigeons, but adults were standing in small groups a little way off and chatting. Utility crews were on duty in the square, clearing up New Year decorations.

The backlash

For Ales Ablyak, participating in public events has cost him his job. The chief doctor at the health centre where Ablyak worked started pushing him to give up his protest activities, and he resigned from his post: “I realised that someone with my views couldn’t work in a state institution.”

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Ales Ablyak. Author: Eugenia Andreyuk.

In autumn 2018, police started arresting people involved in protest actions. In September, Yulia Zubik and Tatyana Fesikova were charged for attaching stickers to their coats with slogans opposing the construction of the battery plant while “feeding the pigeons”. Yulia was fined around £49 and a week later her husband was fined £30. In October, dozens of activists were charged with administrative offences.

This led others to join the campaign, as Valery Fominsky remembers. “I joined the protests when they arrested [Tatyana] Fesikova. I live in the centre, and I saw how police cars with their sirens going burst out of a neighbouring yard and went off somewhere. And then I read on the internet that they’d arrested Fesikova.”

In early 2019, the persecution of activists began to verge on the absurd, with what locals call the “Snowman Case”. Yulia Nichiporuk, a mother of two children, was charged with participating in an “unsanctioned mass event” for decorating a snowman, built by her children beside the battery plant, with a leaflet and a sticker. After a trial lasting two hours she was found guilty and sentenced to pay a fine of £9.30.

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Outside the courthouse where Yulia Nichiporuk's case was heard. Author: Eugenia Andreyuk.

Discussing the protest, Valery Fominsky, a Brest native in the fourth generation, talks about how the local middle class is becoming politicised.

“The districts where the plant is being built are home to the middle classes, and this group, which has always been outside of politics, is now becoming more politicised and putting forward political demands thanks to the regime’s idiotic actions. Initially these demands would all end in court, but now people have realised that fines were being given for nothing, that the courts weren’t real but were just a part of the repressive machine, the corrupt apparatus of the state.

“You just need to look at the decisions it takes, such as the corrupt decision to build a battery plant next to a city, so that someone can make money off our health.”

After being arrested and dragged through the courts, many activists say that they are no longer afraid of anything. At the end of December, activists approached the local authorities, requesting a regional referendum on the plant, but the request was turned down on the grounds that it was a project of national importance. Operations at the plant there were due to start in the summer of 2017, but no opening date has yet been made public. In January this year, the regional authorities announced that the administration buildings were supposed to open between 11 and 22 February.

But even if the plant does open, activists are not planning to step back. Some are hoping for a miracle; some are prepared for radical action. They all say that their lives, and for some their values as well, have changed considerably in the last year. “The thing that has struck me most over this year is how people who thought that everything was great in this country have changed their perceptions,” says Ales Ablyakov, drawing conclusions about the year just ended.

“I have become convinced that we need to fight and not be afraid to do what we do. We’re doing the right thing, and I think we’ll win in the end.”

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