“There Comes A Moment When You Understand You Need To Write About What’s Important”

Nune Hakhverdyan

Art critic, journalist

Belarus has been protesting for more than a month, protesting against Alexander Lukashenko, who has been elected as president for 26 years and was running yet again.

The wave of protests does not stop amid the harsh and disproportionate response of the security forces (when thousands of people are beaten, detained, and tortured). The brutality of masked security forces has eased a bit now, but the Belarusians are ready for different scenarios.

Belarusian journalist Darya Amelkovich says that the core of the resistance movement was women’s marches, which allowed Belarusians to overcome fear. “Of course, it is unknown what will happen, of course, it is scary. But it is simply impossible to continue living like this,” she said.

Darya Amelkovich compares the wave of violence, the pressure on the right to free speech and expression with the curve. That curve came to its head on August 9 – 11, then eased (even the Interior Minister apologized for the disproportionate actions), but, according to many Belarusians, it will grow again.

And everyone in Belarus understands that resistance is a long-term job.

In the first days of the movement we saw that there was no internet in Belarus, many platforms were blocked. How important was the role of social networks?

If it weren’t for the internet and social media, nothing would have happened, that’s for sure. There was a wave of discontent in Belarus in 2010 and 2016, but at that time the impact of social networks was not great. And now people were reacting with instant speed, filming what happened and broadcasting it throughout the internet. Telegram channels played a very important role, being the only source of information during the first days of the protests, on August 9 – 12, when the state blocked the Internet.

And these were very important days because people were brought in with severe beatings and humiliation. And in these conditions, the only possibility was Telegram, which can work even in conditions of weak internet. This was the case, for example, with the Nexta channel, which in the early days, was the only information channel with which one could receive information and coordinate one’s actions.

The information about the detainees had to be brought together on one platform, as we knew scant facts about the detainees in this or that place and tried to pass them on to each other quickly.

So without social networks, there would be no revolution. I’m sure of that.

And how did traditional media work all this time, what messages did they convey?

On August 9 – 11, when there was a real fight in the streets, a struggle or a crowded rally, and special forces attacked people, the traditional media was simply silent.

They did not say anything about the present, they do the same now.

No state media outlet reported on the brutal actions and torture of the security forces.

To illustrate the media field in Belarus, I would like to give an example of print newspapers, which in fact are quite a few “independent” ones. The Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper was the first to report on the beatings. The front page of the newspaper featured a photo of a beaten man and a quote from an Interior Ministry statement that no one had actually been beaten.

That issue of the newspaper sold out quickly, but the editorial office could not publish the next two issues, as it suddenly turned out that the printing house in the Press House, where it was located, had broken down.

The independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya could not be published either, as technical problems arose; the editorial office had to publish the newspaper somewhere near Moscow, then ship it and distribute it in Belarus.

Thus, the authorities first tried to control the print media, which have their stable consumption among Belarusians who rarely use the Internet.

But even blocking printing and turning off the internet is ridiculous.

I agree it’s ridiculous. And I do not even consider television. For example, our BT channel has long been synonymous with state propaganda.

There was a moment when several journalists and presenters of that channel tried to go on strike, demanding that the truth be told and that censorship be lifted.

But it all ended with dissidents being fired and replaced by Russian journalists.

Mrs. Simonyan, the head of “Russia Today” was in charge of that process.

Because no one discredits a person better than she does when she speaks in public. For example, this was the result after the interview with Simonyan, when listening to Lukashenko, you realize that he does not know the situation and tries to present his retrospective thoughts as the only right one.

We even joke that there are serious doubts that Lukashenko’s press service actually works intelligently, as it publicizes things that prove Lukashenko’s, to put it mildly, inadequacy.

For example, when we saw him defending his residence with weapons from peaceful demonstrators who came with flowers, toys, and flags, many were puzzled. Especially since he and his son were also in arms and uniform.

That episode started a stream of various memes and comedic comments.

In general, there comes a time when one can only joke about what the leader said. For example, how can you take his comment on Alexei Navalny’s poisoning or wiretapping seriously?

Through humor, the Belarusians overcame their fear. For example, what Lukashenko said was edited with footage from the famous cartoon “The Hedgehog in the Mist,” where Putin was the hedgehog, Lukashenko, the horse.

When there is a serious conversation and the other person says that he has received confidential information, it is difficult to maintain a serious facial expression. Having a partner like Lukashenko, you have to think, is it worth having anything to do with him?

When there was a revolution in Armenia in 2018, international coverage was very important. How satisfied are you with the international media coverage? Are Belarusian journalists in demand as carriers of information?

I think what is happening here is really unprecedented. And the front pages of many reputable international media outlets were about Belarus. The list goes on and on: Le Monde, Spiegel, The New York Times, The Guardian, and many more. The Guardian wrote about the women’s demonstrations, emphasizing the peaceful nature of the marches.

Of course, if it were not for the attention of the international media, our success and hope would have been small. But there is that attention, it’s inspiring.

For example, I left the media where I worked for many years. Though it was a cultural periodical, and one might think that culture is a kind of “safe” thematic island, but actually, there comes a time when you realize you have to write about what’s important.

I have many colleagues who also left the state media for that very reason.

Now there are many suggestions to write about the situation in our country, to comment on what happened. And we, the Belarusian journalists, feel that the flow of information, including ours, depends on us. And it’s a very nice feeling.

Recently, for example, I wrote an article for a Swedish news outlet about how cultural actions are involved in the resistance movement, emphasizing that censorship, violence, and election fraud come from one another.

When a society is much more developed, visionary and analytical than its leader, there is always an explosion. Always. But it is interesting that women are at the forefront of the struggle in Belarus.

It really is. In fact, women were able to stem the tide of violence and the indulgence of the armed forces.

On August 9, when they told people that more than 80 percent of citizens voted for Lukashenko, it was like an explosion. This was an obvious lie, given the ineffective fight against the epidemic (the state did not take any preventive measures and did not provide medical care) and also the previous scandal over water poisoning (there was an emergency in Minsk, but people solved it themselves without state intervention).

And in that situation, 80% of the votes were just a slap in the face to the public, which no one could really stand.

The next three days after August 9 was a turning point that changed everything. The cruelty we witnessed, no one else was ready to forget, but it was also unclear how to fight.

And at that moment women took to the streets in flowers, in white dresses. They started peaceful demonstrations by showing open arms to the armed forces that they were not armed. For days they stood, walked, multiplied, it was a turning point. In general, the march was very creative, even with carnival elements.

The security forces did not touch them, and they were not treated as cruelly as men when apprehended.

The authorities were confused by the persistence of women, it was an unexpected and influential step, which helped to release many detainees, provide information about missing people, and so on.

The first week of the resistance, of course, was historic, as that week ended with a peace march that has been repeated for a month. Women go out on Saturday, and everyone goes out on Sunday.

These are the beautiful and peaceful marches that we are all proud of. This is how we remember and remind people that we will not forget what the authorities did to our friends and relatives.

Can we expect Lukashenko to resort to tough pressure again?

During the first marches, no one was caught at all. During the last march in Minsk, when about 200 thousand people gathered, about 500 were detained.

So, if the first marches were safer, now the situation is different.

People are usually caught not during the march, but on the way to or from the march, when they are in small groups.

The security forces do not dare to “hunt” people from the actual march, they are waiting for the whole to be divided.

It is also interesting that the security forces and open bandits are forced to open their faces by removing their masks.

By the way, the woman who tore off the bandit’s mask has now been charged with assaulting a member of the security forces. She is even being threatened with arrest.

When you close your face, you are hiding your identity. If the policeman is wearing a mask, then he does not want to be held responsible for his actions.

It is natural that the security forces are afraid that they will be persecuted and criticized.

And as we see, the curve of violence is growing again in recent days. Women marchers, students and other peaceful demonstrators have already been detained.

And finally a question about language. To what extent is this wave of protests related to the mother tongue? Keeping in mind Lukashenko’s contempt for Belarusian. 

The issue of language is very complicated, and we are constantly debating when the mother tongue becomes the basic meaning of identity. Or vice versa, language remains a secondary factor.

But in any case, Belarusian is not one of the landmarks from which the resistance movement began, such as in Ukraine, when the transition to Ukrainian language terrified Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, one could choose to take the exams in Russian or Belarusian. At that time, those who wanted it were almost equal, and in recent years, yes, the number of those who choose Russian has increased several times. And that was worrying.

But at the moment it is important for us that people (no matter what language they speak and read) want political change, they want Lukashenko to leave and to have fair elections.

Interview by Nune Hakhverdyan

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