In September, one month after Belarus’s disputed presidential election, the Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich commented:
First they seized our country, and now they are seizing the best of us. But hundreds of others will come and fill the places of those who have been taken from our ranks. It is the whole country which has risen up … Lukashenko has said he won’t speak ‘with the street’ – but the streets are filled with hundreds of thousands of people … It isn’t the street, it is the nation.
Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, first came to power in 1994 in elections that were deemed free and fair. Since 1996, he has effectively ruled by decree, retaining much of the repressive instrumentation established during Belarus’s Soviet past. He is often referred to as Europe’s last dictator. In 2004, he altered the constitution to allow him to run for an indefinite number of terms. The people of Belarus have clearly had enough. In August 2020, Lukashenko was re-elected president in an election that was widely condemned inside the country and abroad as neither free nor fair. In the following months, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in largely peaceful protests to call for new, free and fair elections and an end to political repression.
On 6 November, PEN Belarus called for international support in the midst of a government onslaught against the pro-democracy movement. Writers, artists, performers, musicians and other cultural figures find themselves on the front line for daring to express critical views of Lukashenko and for highlighting the struggle for fundamental rights in Belarus. They have become one of the key forces in the peaceful opposition movement, using art and words as a form of protest and staging performances, concerts and readings in support of protesters.
After calling for fair elections, freedom of expression and an end to violence, many cultural figures have been arrested and beaten, some have lost their jobs and others have been forced to leave the country. Actors and staff at the well-known Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre, which celebrated its centenary this year, were fired after they spoke out against the use of torture by Belarusian police. Members of the Belarusian State Philharmonic were threatened with the termination of their contracts simply because they walked along the streets of Minsk singing in support of protesters. The art historian Nikita Monich was fired from the National Art Museum after he published a poem criticising Lukashenko.
PEN Belarus members have also been targeted. On 9 October, Olga Shparaga, a philosopher, was detained and sentenced to fifteen days of administrative arrest. After her release, she received notice that she was to be detained for a further twelve days, whereupon she decided to leave the country. On 21 October, the poet Dmitry Strotsev disappeared. The following day, he was discovered in Akrestsina detention centre, having been hooded, handcuffed and detained by the State Security Committee (KGB). He was sentenced to thirteen days imprisonment for participating in protests and is now once again free. In Hrodna, the historians Ales Smalianchuk and Ales Krautsevich were detained and fined.
Most cultural institutions in Belarus are under government control, which makes them particularly vulnerable. Professional unions can offer writers and artists little protection in the face of government intimidation, since most are dominated by pro-government representatives and independent unions are illegal.
On 22 October, the European Parliament awarded its annual Sakharov Prize, which honours those who defend human rights, to the democratic opposition movement in Belarus, led by the exiled Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. ‘They have stood and still stay strong in the face of a much stronger adversary. But they have on their side something that brute force can never defeat – and this is the truth,’ the Parliament’s president, David Sassoli, said.
On 9 November, Amnesty International reported the arrest of more than a thousand people in a single day of peaceful protest in Minsk and other Belarusian cities. Amnesty claims that security forces have ‘escalated reprisals against peaceful dissent’ and brought ‘the human rights crisis in Belarus to a new level’. The organisation also reports seeing ‘gruesome footage of riot police beating unarmed demonstrators and officers shoving elderly people into police vans’. On the same day, at least nine journalists were detained, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. The previous week, the authorities began mass criminal proceedings against more than two hundred peaceful protesters, who face up to three years in prison if convicted.
PEN Belarus is calling for new, free elections, urging the Belarusian authorities to stop violence against peaceful protesters and cultural figures who use the arts to express opinions that challenge the official state position, and calling for the release of all those who have been detained for criticising the conduct of the recent presidential election, in accordance with international human rights standards.
Readers might like to send messages of solidarity to PEN Belarus via English PEN (englishpen.org/pen-writes/penwrites-pen-belarus), and follow PEN Belarus on Twitter (@pen_belarus).
Writers and artists are also encouraged to sign PEN America’s open letter to the Belarusian government: pen.org/open-letter-in-solidarity-people-of-belarus.
Update: On 7 November 2020, the prominent Iranian writer, lawyer and human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh (LR, April 2019) was unexpectedly released from prison. She returned home for medical treatment. She may, however, be required to return to prison at any time. PEN continues to call for the charges against her to be dropped and for her release to be made unconditional. Thank you to all readers who sent appeals.