‘Something Broke Inside Belarusians.’ Why an Apolitical People Rose Up

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MINSK, Belarus — Denis Dudinsky, the longhaired and mustachioed host of “Good Morning Belarus!,” can still hear the producer’s nervous voice in his ear any time his banter approached something remotely political.

“Denis, careful, careful, let’s not cross the line!”

In his 15 years on television, Mr. Dudinsky never did. Then, riding in a taxi in June, he witnessed people lined up outside a store near his parents’ house being beaten and detained. He posted on Instagram that the riot police were “dumb and ridiculous.”

The bosses at state television took him off the air the next day, but Mr. Dudinsky insists he has no second thoughts. “When a man is drowning, you don’t think, ‘Hmm, he’s 100 meters away,’” he said. “You take your clothes off and jump.”

Europe’s most authoritarian political system is coming undone at the hands of people like Mr. Dudinsky, who long flourished within it. Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the country’s ruler since 1994, is teetering in the face of a broad popular uprising spearheaded by thousands of Belarusians who have stopped compromising and started fighting.

Mr. Lukashenko wears the moniker of “Europe’s last dictator,” and he built a system even more stifling of personal freedoms and political opposition than the one in Russia, its neighbor to the east.

But to a large middle class and a worldly elite in the former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people, the system was one they could live with: For those who stayed out of politics, the good roads, clean streets, prim lawns, tax breaks for tech companies and ease of travel to the West could make for a good living by Eastern Europe standards.

It took just months this year for that balance to collapse. Trapped inside their country by the coronavirus pandemic, many Belarusians began to chafe at the inhumanity in Mr. Lukashenko’s rule and language that had once been easy to ignore.

Then came the presidential election campaign, which exposed his sense of vulnerability; of Mr. Lukashenko’s three main challengers, two were arrested and the third fled the country.

“We wanted there to be some kind of order — a comprehensible, clear, formulated system of living,” said Oksana Koltovich, the owner of two beauty parlors and a bar called the Blue Goat, where she gathers with friends for sips of wine or Calvados. “We did not feel the consequences of the fact that we were always somehow putting up with something.”

More than 100,000 Belarusians rallied against Mr. Lukashenko in Minsk on each of the past two Sundays, despite the threat of arrest and police violence, insisting that his landslide re-election on Aug. 9 was falsified.

With more protests planned Sunday, the government has moved to clamp down on news coverage, deporting two Moscow-based journalists for The Associated Press and revoking the credentials of journalists from several organizations, including Reuters and the BBC.

Many of the protesters bearing the white and red national flag that has been adopted by the opposition took little interest in politics until recently. Each of them, it seems, had their own breaking point.

The coronavirus set the stage. Mr. Lukashenko refused to institute any lockdown measures and, commenting on one of the country’s first coronavirus-related deaths, he noted that the victim weighed 300 pounds. With the government absent, Belarusians started their own campaigns to raise money for victims’ families and encourage people to work from home.

For Ms. Koltovich, the breaking point came in late May when Mr. Lukashenko told workers at the Minsk Tractor Factory that a woman could not be president in Belarus because “our Constitution is not for women.”

Ms. Koltovich, who is 47, filed a complaint with the election commission over the president’s “discriminatory and blatantly illegal statements” and published it on Facebook.

“This is not about economic demands,” said Olga Chekulayeva, 57, a friend of Ms. Koltovich’s who joined her in protesting. “This is about a feeling of personal dignity.”

Ms. Chekulayeva said that had Mr. Lukashenko claimed victory not with 80 percent of the vote but say a more believable 52 percent, she and other critics of the president would have said, “OK, we’ll keep at it,” and moved on.

In Eastern Europe, Belarus’s image revolves around tractors and potatoes, and Mr. Lukashenko boasts of safeguarding the country’s Soviet legacy as an industrial and agricultural powerhouse. But he also approved tax breaks and loosened visa restrictions to help the country’s technology sector become one of the region’s biggest.

For years, members of Belarus’s well-heeled and well-traveled tech community — which includes the builders of the online game World of Tanks and the women’s health app Flo, as well as 10,000 employees of EPAM, a Pennsylvania-based programming giant — essentially returned the favor to Mr. Lukashenko.

The industry accounted for some 7 percent of gross domestic product, helped create a booming restaurant scene and largely stayed out of politics.

Daria Danilova, 33, the chief executive of a 60-employee start-up called RocketData, said she had long accepted the limitations on her freedom as a given — just like the reality that Minsk winters are cold.

“In terms of your life as a normal person, the fact that there is a dictatorship in your country has no effect whatsoever,” she said. “You understand that it’s probably wrong, but there’s absolutely nothing that you can do about it.”

Then two people she respected announced presidential campaigns: Viktor Babariko, a banker, and Valery Tsepkalo, a former adviser to Mr. Lukashenko who had helped shape the president’s friendly policy toward tech companies.

Ms. Danilova collected signatures to try to get Mr. Babariko on the ballot and helped start a volunteer group called Honest People that, she says, has channeled some $150,000 in donations to Belarusians fired for their political views.

In June, Mr. Babariko was arrested, shocking people who had expected Mr. Lukashenko to allow at least a semblance of a fair election.

Pavel Liber, 36, a senior director at EPAM, said the arrest jolted him out of his assumption that he was part of a minority of Belarusians who did not support Mr. Lukashenko: If the authorities were so afraid of an electoral challenge, he thought, then perhaps they had reason to be.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Liber had spent roughly half his time abroad. With the borders now closed, Mr. Liber said he and many of his peers were paying “far more attention to what is happening in the country.”

Mr. Liber proposed on Facebook that volunteers build an online service where verified voters could upload photographs of their ballots and the numbers of their precincts. If the system collected more votes for a certain candidate at a given polling station than the official results showed, then the station’s tally was most likely falsified.

“I can draw up the UX myself, for old time’s sake,” Mr. Liber wrote, using tech jargon for “user experience.”

Forty volunteers joined the team, and more than 500,000 people sent in pictures of their ballots, using their cellphone numbers to confirm their identity. Mr. Lukashenko claimed he won the Aug. 9 election with 80 percent of the vote; Mr. Liber’s project, Golos, found that the results were most likely falsified at least at one-third of polling stations.

“An industry that received a great deal of investment, and which was granted a lot of preferential treatment, ended up at the tip of the spear of this new revolution,” Mr. Liber said. “When a person has satisfied his basic needs, he starts to care about what kind of country he lives in.”

In response, Lidia Yermoshina, the head of the government’s Central Election Commission, called Golos “harmful and criminal.” Mr. Liber fled to Ukraine. Six low-level members of the team who stayed in Belarus were arrested and have not been heard from since.

The arrests of activists underscored that Mr. Lukashenko has honed a security apparatus even more repressive than the one in Russia, taking advantage of Belarus’s small size — it has about the same land area and population as Michigan. In Moscow, opposition groups also face risks, but they have been able to organize to a much greater degree.

This month, Ms. Danilova, the start-up founder, left her phone at home and moved in with friends, planning to hop in a car and leave the country if her husband were to tell her that the K.G.B. — as the Belarus security service is still known — had come looking for her.

The K.G.B. did not come, and Ms. Danilova is back in her office, crowded with beanbag chairs and employee photographs hanging artfully from strings. She said she remained torn between two extreme emotions, like every Belarusian she knows.

“It’s either the shame of not doing enough,” she said, “or the fear that you’ve done so much that there will be serious consequences.”

Mr. Dudinsky, 46, the recently fired morning-show host, said he and his wife were also stripped of their master-of-ceremonies duties at state-sponsored events after he criticized the police on Instagram. He is a household name in Belarus, but he insists that he will go back on television — along with dozens of his colleagues who have quit or been fired — only if the political system changes.

“It’s no longer realistic to force Belarusians back into the box they existed in for these 26 years,” he said. “Something broke inside Belarusians — a fuse broke.”

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