As protests mount, Belarusians turn away from the regime
As the contest over presidential elections in Belarus continues, people involved in the state culture and media sectors leave their jobs - and tell their stories.
Over two weeks after a disputed presidential election in Belarus, embattled president Alexander Lukashenko has become more unpopular than ever in his 26-year reign. Mass detentions and police brutality against peaceful protesters opposing official results motivated more Belarusians to take to the streets demanding justice and a new, fair election.
For two weekends in a row, an estimated 200,000 people have flooded central Minsk for a “March of Freedom”. No threats of deploying army or mass dismissals from jobs have appeared to deter the protesters.
Among those who have joined the anti-Lukashenko movement are workers at state factories, journalists at state media, actors and musicians who performed at state-organised events, teachers, and even state officials - the very people the regime relied on.
openDemocracy spoke to five people who used to work in Belarus’ state culture and media sector about why they left their jobs and supported the pro-democracy protests.
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
In the span of one week, Pavel Latushka, a slightly worn grey-haired man, went from being a state official to an opposition figure in the seven-member presidium of the newly-formed Coordination Council - a group for overcoming the political crisis proposed by opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to flee Belarus after the vote.
Latushka insists, however, that they are not an opposition, but a civic platform for open dialogue between president Lukashenko and people demanding a fair re-election and justice for victims of police brutality during protests.
“We are the majority,” he tells openDemocracy. “The majority that wants changes and defends its principles peacefully.”
Latushka, a former member of the government and top diplomat, was until recently head of Belarus’ Janka Kupala National Theater, before being fired after he joined anti-regime protests over a week ago.
“I pushed back, I objected to all of it, and I managed to achieve something in this sphere. Of course, it can always be said that it was not enough, but I tried to show my position this way”
He says his dissatisfaction accrued over many years, and reached a tipping point when he saw the arbitrary detentions by police on the streets and testimonies of detainees about brutal beatings. He could not keep silent anymore, Latushka says.
Nor could he stifle the dissent within his theatre, Latushka says, though the Ministry of Culture ordered him to do so after the cast released a statement calling for an end to the violence against protesters, free detainees and hold a new election.
“They told me: “In case you don’t succeed, call the police,” he recalls. “It contradicts not only moral principles, but common sense. Can you imagine police in the theatre?”
Police eventually blocked access to the Kupala National Theater, “essentially taking it under control for several days” according to Latushka. After Latushka was fired, and actors and theatre employees resigned in solidarity with him, the theatre was closed “for sanitary treatment”.
The thought of it makes him emotional.
“To clean up what? The spirit of freedom?” he asks.
Latushka knows the rules of the game like no one else, having served as Belarus’ minister of culture between 2009-2012. “You know, the cultural and humanitarian sectors are the most vulnerable to pressure,” he says. Asked about compromises he had to make during his term in office, Latushka says he objected to censorship as much as he could and even handed his resignation once, though it was not accepted.
In his words, he opposed censorship in theatre production and the practice of barring actors from state events for their views. He says he fought against a ban on filming a screen adaptation of a short story by Belarusian writer Vasyl Bykov, an outspoken critic of Lukashenko. Later, the film In the Fog, directed by Sergey Loznitsia and co-produced by Belarusfilm, received a critics prize at the Cannes film festival in 2012 and was praised in Belarusian state media.
“I pushed back, I objected to all of it, and I managed to achieve something in this sphere. Of course, it can always be said that it was not enough, but I tried to show my position this way,” he tells openDemocracy.
In the media, Latushka has been called a promoter of Belarusian language and culture, an advocate for the restoration of historic castles, and theatre fan.
He calls the day he was fired from the Kupala National Theater, 17 August, the most heartwarming day of this life. A large crowd of people greeted him as a hero and applauded as he walked out of the building, and actors spoke in his defense.
“I will never forget it,” he says. “The spirit of Kupala theater, the emotional impulse. I can say I am a happy person.”
For breaking away from the government he once was a part of, Latushka has received threats and was summoned by state prosecutors for interrogation, along with another member of the coordination council, Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich. State prosecutors opened a criminal case against the coordination council for “an attempt to seize power”. Two other members were detained on 24 August.
“Everyone is scared. But I am a citizen of my country, and I have the right to express my opinion,” he says.
Pop band Litesound has experienced falling out of grace with the Belarusian government too.
After the band’s leaders, brothers Dmitry and Vladimir Karyakin, criticised mass arrests during 19 June rallies in support of opposition candidates, the band was removed from the line-up at a state-organised music festival.
It did not stop them. Ahead of Belarus’ Independence Day on 3 July, Litesound released a Belarusian version of their 2012 Eurovision song “We are heroes” to remind the public how unity can win.
Back in 2012, at the national selection for the international song contest, Litesound lost to another singer. The contest stirred an outcry about falsified voting results and even forced President Lukashenko to interfere. In the end, Litesound was declared the winner, and represented Belarus at Eurovision.
“At that moment, many Belarusians felt that with the consolidation of people around a single idea, change can happen,” Dmitry tells openDemocracy.
By doing so, the musicians appear to have crossed the line. “When we won, we really annoyed the people involved in the falsification [at the song selection], and they are still trying to get their revenge via various mechanisms,” says Vladimir. “People who work in television tell us that we have been blacklisted.”
Being apolitical was an unspoken prerequisite for a career in Belarusian show business, they say.
“They will never say that you were removed [from a concert] because you are out of favour. They will use cheap excuses such as they cut the program. It happens at the last minute,” Dmitry says, adding that last year, Litesound was similarly removed from the closing ceremony of the European Games in Minsk.
“We can’t entertain people and pretend that everything is fine. We are ready to perform in support of strikes and protests, of course, for free”
Lukashenko’s attitude to the COVID-19 pandemic, which he dismissed as “psychosis”, opened a floodgate of public discontent, the Karyakin brothers said. The president did not impose quarantine measures, advised people to work in fields and drive tractors, and held a 9 May Victory Day parade, despite the increased risk for elderly veterans.
“People began discussing it and realised that there was nobody who supported Lukashenko, that they were the majority. Perhaps, that’s why people raised their heads,” Vladimir says.
This was followed by detentions of two potential opposition candidates which led to the emergence of a united candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and public campaigns against political persecutions.
“We opened our eyes to other evidence of crimes under Lukashenko’s rule, including disappearances of people, murders,” Dmitry says. “These facts started becoming more popular in society because people began to look at where we live and why this is happening.”
The Karyakin brothers said they sacrificed their musical career in Belarus, at least in entertainment, under the incumbent regime, which they say “declared the war on its own people.”
“We can’t entertain people and pretend that everything is fine,” Dmitry says. “We are ready to perform in support of strikes and protests, of course, for free.”
One significant blow to the Lukashenko regime has been the wave of resignations from state media outlets, the backbone of his propaganda. At least 19 journalists and presenters have resigned since the election, and 300 employees of the Belarus television and radio company went on strike.
When morning news presenter Sergey Kozlovich started his shift on Belarus 1 television channel on 10 August, his task was to tell viewers about the “preliminary voting results” of Lukashenko’s victory and overnight protests.
In a video of that news segment, still available online, Kozlovich, stony-faced, reads from a teleprompter about “provocateurs at polling stations”, “aggressive young protesters who attacked the police” and tried to “storm administrative buildings”.
The next day, he handed in his resignation letter.
Kozlovich says he suffered an “emotional strain” on that day and decided to quit, aware that the broadcaster’s policy would not change any time soon.
“I realised that the information provided by the Interior Ministry was one-sided and narrow and did not show the full picture of what was happening on the streets at night,” Kozlovich tells openDemocracy, choosing his words carefully.
Kozlovich did not call this information incorrect, but admitted that the reality on the ground had been different, according to accounts of his friends and acquaintances.
Throughout his career on television, he played by the book of this workplace.
As a correspondent, Kozlovich says he avoided politics and preferred to cover social issues, the environment and public events. As a news host, he considered himself a loudspeaker for the state position. Even if he disagreed with something, he knew where he worked: at state television that broadcast the party line.
“We did not make up things. We conveyed either opinions of the head of the state, or the information given to us by the official bodies,” he says.
“I did my job dutifully, and when I realised that it went against my conscience I quit. I wasn’t pondering to leave or not to leave for a long time”
The job kept Kozlovich from expressing his views openly. He couldn’t participate in pro-opposition rallies (“I think that consequences would follow. I can’t say repressions but to the point of getting fired”) and exercise his creativity in his personal YouTube channel (“I wanted to show what the television did not, but I was under internal censorship.”)
“I did my job dutifully, and when I realised that it went against my conscience I quit. I wasn’t pondering to leave or not to leave for a long time,” he says.
After resigning from state television, Kozlovich attended two of the largest pro-democracy rallies, on 16 August and 23 August, posting about it on his Instagram. For his YouTube (“Not on telly”), he interviewed elderly Belarusians about their reasons for joining rallies alongside young people, and a former riot police officer about violence against protesters.
Kozlovich, however, insists that he was “not competent” and “not interested” in politics. Indeed, his latest interviews touched upon political issues that could not be ignored, he says, but the scope of his content was not the same as opposition YouTube channels.
Another journalist of Belarus state television, Antonina Stankevich, gave her resignation notice on 13 August. Formally, Stankevich had been on maternity leave for two years but when she saw the police brutality in the aftermath of the elections and absence of coverage on it on the state broadcaster, she decided she did not want to be affiliated with it any longer.
Like Kozlovich, Stankevich was aware of the broadcaster’s editorial policy when she joined it in 2011.
She loved her job, she says. As a correspondent for regional news, Stankevich covered floods, grain harvests, and milk production. She did not deal with politics, or so she thought for some time.
After several years, Stankevich saw that it was impossible to stay away from politics working on Belarus state television. “There is no strict censorship as such, but you understand perfectly what can be said and what may not,” she tells openDemocracy. “If a tractor driver in the field says something wrong, you know viscerally that you will not broadcast it. And you become tired of this.”
In 2016, Stankevich produced a documentary series about Soviet brands, a “nostalgic project” as she calls it. She says she had to remake an episode about guitars because it showed the crumbling building of Belarusian manufacturer of musical instruments (which went out of business after the collapse of the Soviet Union) and a guitar-making factory in Czech Republic, still in operation.
“I was told off for showing how great Czechs were doing in the film, and how it wasn’t so great in Belarus,” she recollects. “I don’t remember how we fixed it. I remember I was really angry and even cried.”
“The wages [on state TV] aren’t supernatural, but they aren’t the lowest in the country. It’s a wage that’s worth holding on to, let’s put it that way”
Having grown weary with the professional predicament, Stankevich began thinking about quitting but had doubts. “The wages [on state TV] aren’t supernatural, but they aren’t the lowest in the country. It’s a wage that’s worth holding on to, let’s put it that way,” she says. “And everyone has their own problems - some have loans, kids, rent. Everyone needs money. That’s not news.”
Eventually, Stankevich was happy to go on maternity leave in 2018 and did not plan to return to state television.
She says she was deeply affected by the images of the “chain of solidarity” - where women dressed in white holding roses on 12 August in Minsk - as well as violence against protesters and journalists, many of whom she knew personally.
“It seemed to me wrong that I was still employed there because I knew that Belarus television would never show what was happening on the streets,” she says.
Stankevich says she was not a heroine when she quit. Unlike many of her colleagues, she has the support of her family and will continue receiving child benefit.
“Look at who left [state media] first. Journalists who covered social issues, healthcare, education, who did stories about people. Because when you love people you can’t accept how they are being mistreated like this.”
Get our weekly email