"Yesterday, obviously, there was a bit of a bloody war," a security officer in the Belarusian city of Brest said in a leaked phone conversation with another official shortly after the country's disputed 2020 presidential election set off unprecedented mass protests -- and a crackdown whose brutality was equally unprecedented for Belarus, despite decades of harsh rule. "Brest is f***ed…. Five hundred detainees…. They flayed them all there like cats."
For weeks after the August 9 vote, Belarus teetered on the brink of revolution as a mass, national democratic opposition movement that rose up to challenge strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka refused to accept the official result of an election millions believe was stolen.
Based on leaked communications among security and political officials, as well as interviews with former security officers, Lukashenka insiders, opposition activists, and protesters, RFE/RL's Belarus Service has produced Lukashenka's Lackeys, a six-part report on the tumultuous events of the summer of 2020.
In gritty, behind-the-scenes detail, the podcast series shows that although the security forces were initially caught flat-footed and underestimated the nature of the mass opposition, they were ultimately able to cope with the threat -- by bringing brute force to bear against an opponent that lacked the experience and tools to go toe-to-toe against a man who was prepared to hold onto power at any cost.
"We were afraid of blood," said Nobel Literature Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich, who was a member of the opposition Coordinating Council during the uprising. "They were not afraid of blood."
Andrey Astapovich, a former officer with the state Investigative Committee who resigned during the 2020 events, told RFE/RL how he was affected by the photographs he saw from those days.
"I have been an investigator my whole life and I have seen injured people," Astapovich said. "But when I saw these photos, we weren't looking at bruises…. They had been beaten with truncheons to the head. I have experience. I have been to autopsies. I can tell when a person has been beaten by the serious bodily injuries. I know how easy it is to crack open a skull."
'It Seemed Like We'd Already Won'
In the weeks before the vote, it was already evident that this election would be unlike any of the other highly manipulated ballots in Belarus's post-Soviet history. As independent candidates began collecting signatures to qualify for the race, it became clear that a wave of discontent was sweeping the country.
Anatol Kotau, who served as an adviser in Lukashenka's administration at the time, sensed the difference.
"Some people within the system felt that something had gone wrong in the spring," Kotau said. "It all started with COVID. The disease entered every home through the television screens, and Lukashenka was saying it wasn't serious, that it is fake news, and that anyone who dies has only themselves to blame…. COVID was a test the system failed."
WATCH: Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka made disparaging comments about victims of the coronavirus, dismissing his country's caseload as "miniscule" and insisting it is "no catastrophe." Yet throughout April 2020, the number of officially confirmed cases roughly doubled every three days.
The authorities' response was to tighten control of the process. On May 7, prominent blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski announced he would run for president -- and was arrested before the month was out. His campaign was taken over by his wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, then a 34-year-old teacher and interpreter with no political experience who within weeks would become the global face of democracy in Belarus.
"All those hundreds of thousands of eyes that I saw at the rallies -- it was incredible," Tsikhanouskaya recalled by telephone from forced exile in Lithuania. "It was scary. I had never been on a stage before…. It was a kind of euphoria, until August 9…. It seemed to us then that we had already won."
LISTEN: An excerpt from Episode 1 of Lukashenka's Lackeys:
Another leading independent would-be candidate, banker Viktar Babaryka, was arrested on June 19. On July 24, independent would-be candidate Valer Tsapkala, who was regarded as a significant challenger to Lukashenka, fled the country after being tipped off that his arrest was imminent and that the government planned to take his children away from him.
Around this time, Lukashenka's government made the fateful decision to let Tsikhanouskaya's registration as a candidate go through.
Former administration insider Kotau says that choice was made "for laughs."
"Babaryka and Tsapkala were not registered, so they had to find someone to beat to get a very easy win," Kotau said. "Lukashenka believed that it would be an easy victory, a very easy victory."
However, the opposition countered with an unexpected move that proved equally fateful -- all the main opposition campaigns united behind Tsikhanouskaya's bid.
"If not for the unification of the three campaigns, if they hadn't united and eventually become a symbol of protest and a magnet for the protest vote, nothing would have happened," Kotau said. "She had no political experience."
'A High-Level Meeting'
At the same time, Lukashenka shored up his real base of support -- the police and the security apparatus.
Alyaksandr Azarau is the director of BYPOL, a public organization of former police officers who quit during the protests. He said Lukashenka spent much of the preelection period visiting riot-police units and special-operations forces in places like Brest, Vitsebsk, and Maryina Horka.
"He promised them support, apartments, raises," Azarau said. "They saw him in person, how he acted like a strong leader, which is what such people like."
According to the leaked phone conversations -- thousands of hours of recordings by the Interior Ministry that were hacked and released by the hacking group Cyber-Partisans and have been deemed authentic for RFE/RL by independent experts -- a meeting held shortly before the election untied the hands of the security forces.
"There was a high-level meeting," the deputy head of the Minsk police, Ihar Padvoyski, said during a call with another top security official. "I assume that one of the directives issued will give us confidence in the tactics of action -- so that we won't be physically afraid to work."
'Something Had Begun'
Election day on August 9, 2020, began routinely enough, although there were large crowds -- a sign of intense interest in the vote and its outcome, unusual after years of apathy over tightly controlled ballots whose results were a foregone conclusion. The 50 percent turnout threshold was passed before noon.
"I never saw anything like this," one Minsk voter told RFE/RL at the time. "I hope that people came out like this not only here but across the country. People who never voted before. What was the point of voting before? But now I see there is hope."
But the fraud machine was already grinding away. Uladzislau Batsyan, a cadet who served as a polling-station guard, told RFE/RL he saw officials stuffing ballot boxes at Precinct No. 60.
"I consulted with some guys from my academy, and they said they had also seen such cases," Batsyan recalled. "They also wanted to report them, but they were called in and told it was none of their business."
Military and riot-police vehicles appeared on the streets of Minsk and other cities. Security forces blocked people from reaching the center of the capital. Nonetheless, by evening, hundreds of thousands of people had gathered around polling stations in Minsk demanding that the results be posted.
"Protests began when polling-station results with falsified data began to be posted," said Azarau. "We began calling colleagues in other departments, and they all told me everything was being falsified everywhere. Election commission officials were openly admitting this. No one was counting at all -- they just wrote down the numbers that the head of the commission told them."
At 8 p.m., Central Election Commission chief Lidia Yermoshina declared Lukashenka the provisional winner with 83 percent of the vote -- a result that looked like a big, bald-faced lie to the hundreds of thousands of people who had turned out for Tsikhanouskaya's campaign rallies.
Police immediately began attacking the crowds. Internet and cell-phone connections were cut.
"Military equipment was moving," Alexievich said, recalling observing the events from a high window. "A lot of it…. It wasn't water cannons. It was military equipment, armored personnel carriers with machine guns…. There was the feeling that something had begun."
Police, military personnel, special-forces troops, and prison guards were all mobilized, deploying flash grenades, water cannons, rubber bullets, and more. Thousands of people were detained, often brutally.
LISTEN: An excerpt from Episode 3 of Lukashenka's Lackeys:
"The guys from the police and the military who were activated behaved very well," Lukashenka said the next day. "Real patriots."
That morning, the Central Election Commission announced the complete preliminary election results: 80.23 percent for Lukashenka and just under 10 percent for Tsikhanouskaya.
Tsikhanouskaya, however, declared herself the winner and called on the government to ensure "the peaceful transfer of power."
'We Couldn't Help Everyone'
Lukashenka kept a low profile for the first few days after the election.
"I think on the first day he didn't feel anything," Kotau said. "When people gathered at the column [on Independence Square in Minsk] on the first day, they were dispersed and there was a sense that everything would proceed as usual. The demonstration was a little bigger than usual, but that didn't matter…. On Monday, everyone will go back to work.
"And they did go back to work," he added. "But after work, they went out to protest again. People were indignant and felt deceived."
A key moment came on August 10, when police shot and killed 34-year-old protester Alyaksandr Taraykouski. Police claimed that he had been killed by an improvised explosive he was carrying as he approached police lines. But video soon appeared on social media showing him being shot by police at close range as he stood with his hands over his head.
WATCH: Graphic footage of the death of Belarusian protester Alyaksandr Taraykouski contradicted claims by officials that he was killed by an improvised explosive device he was trying to throw at riot police. Warning: Disturbing images.
"I was struck by two things," Alexievich remembered. "The sincerity of the violence and the way the leaders of the security forces spoke about the murdered Taraykouski. He was walking and looking at them brazenly. And he had to be shot for that, for walking toward 'our guys' and looking them in the eyes, not believing they would shoot."
Former investigator Astapovich recalled that police officers seemed to be enjoying the violence.
"They would watch videos and laugh at who gets hit with the truncheon," he said. "They would make up funny names, like the ‘wailing wall,' a place in the basement where beaten prisoners would wash themselves that was always covered in blood. They wore their berets and walked with their chests puffed out, and so on."
The week after the election was a perilous time for supporters of Lukashenka's government, as the violence continued, and public outrage grew.
"A lot of people thought Lukashenka could not hold on," Astapovich said. "In the organized-crime department, Vyachaslau Orlouski, the propagandist who was calling the protesters ‘rats' who needed to be cornered and exterminated…had already packed his suitcase and was ready to run off to Russia. A lot of people were thinking Lukashenka couldn't hold on and it was time to run. They were sitting on their suitcases. If the protests had lasted a little longer, everything would have been different."
Former police officer Azarau said police were also showing the strain.
"There were not so many of them that it was possible to alternate them and let them rest," he said. "They work until the morning. Then sleep until noon and go back to work after having some lunch.
"It was also mentally exhausting," Azarau added. "They were afraid to walk in public in their uniforms. They would carry their uniforms to work and change there. The people considered them criminals. Their friends and relatives did not want to communicate with them."
Reports began emerging of detainee abuse and torture, particularly at the notorious Akrestsina remand prison in Minsk.
"I want to ask forgiveness from everyone who was there," said one doctor who treated victims from Akrestsina, breaking down in tears. "We couldn't help everyone…. There were bruised and swollen eyes that couldn't even be pried open. There was a man whose vertebra had simply been crushed. There were people with huge bruises on their backs. Abdominal injuries that hid a mess inside."
It remains unclear who ultimately gave the order for the brutal crackdown.
"There are various versions," Azarau said. "Some say [Russian President Vladimir] Putin gave the order to behave like that. It is not clear. I think that Lukashenka realized he had lost the support of the population. Earlier, it was unclear -- maybe 50-50. The older generation -- my own mother -- voted for him. For these elections, we know for sure that [Russian military intelligence] prepared a report that showed only 17 percent support for Lukashenka. So it was necessary to use violence to force the population into a corner, so that even if they don't support him, they will be afraid and not resist.
"Soldiers were given contracts saying they would not be prosecuted for shooting people," he added. "The order to use their weapons was given."
On August 11, Tsikhanouskaya was forced to leave the country.
"The government decided to use the old methods when certain people were expelled from the country and everything quieted down," she said in the recent phone interview. "They didn't understand that this time it was not about one candidate, one leader, but about all Belarusians. My departure didn't change anything: People weren't going out because someone told them to, but because they wanted to."
'They Left…. There Were No Tents'
The most violent phase of the crisis lasted three days. After that, both sides adopted different tactics. On August 12, a couple hundred women appeared in a Minsk market dressed all in white, demanding an accurate count of the votes. People in passing cars honked in support.
Similar demonstrations popped up in other cities. The police stood back.
"Almost at the same time, peaceful protests of women began in various cities," one participant told RFE/RL. "They all came out in white, with placards, with goodness, with peace. The security forces work according to their methodology, and they can react to any force except love. The power of love paralyzes them."
The same day, a few hundred medical workers demonstrated in Minsk, calling for an end to the violence.
"This is not a protest," one doctor said at the time. "It's a demonstration for peace so that doctors can help the wounded."
A march of workers from the Minsk Tractor Factory also proceeded without police intervention.
The authorities, too, changed their tactics after August 12, apparently realizing that the violence was only provoking additional resistance.
"After the 12th, when they stopped beating and crushing everyone, when they stopped using force, they switched to another tactic," said Minsk police Colonel Alyaksandr Sazonau in a conversation with subordinates that was among the leaked Interior Ministry recordings.
On August 16, Lukashenka held a heavily stage-managed pro-government rally on Minsk's Independence Square. Supporters were bused in from around the country, and the president gave a defiant speech.
"It was an attempt to organize their own anti-Maidan," said former presidential administration staffer Kotau, referring to the Ukrainian government's efforts to resist the Maidan uprising in 2013-14. "They wanted to show they have their own supporters. They were counting on 100,000 people, but despite their logistical efforts, there were far fewer."
The demonstration lasted an hour.
The same day, however, saw the largest demonstration in Belarusian history, with as many as 200,000 people waving white-red-white flags taking to the streets in Minsk. There were smaller demonstrations in cities around the country.
"The material the Cyber-Partisans have released, the torrent of conversations, shows that [the authorities] decided to let the situation go for a few days or a week, to vent the people's anger," Kotau said. "But the passivity of the security forces meant that a record number of people came out for the first march."
The massive protest passed peacefully, without police intervention.
Former police officer Aleh Alkayeu said the government simply did not have the forces needed to intervene forcibly in such a protest. But that did not mean they were inactive.
"There were many informants in the crowd," Alkayeu said. "They conveyed the mood."
LISTEN: An excerpt from Episode 6 of Lukashenka's Lackeys:
Former Investigative Committee officer Astapovich added that the authorities' change of tactics was partially driven by the exhaustion of the police.
"By [August 12], I noticed that when police ran out of the bus, they immediately put their shields on the ground," he said. "After all, it was their third straight day. They could not physically withstand such workloads for so many days in a row. And, meanwhile, more and more people were coming out."
The only choice, he added, was to "let them go for a walk and the people will get tired by themselves," Astapovich added. "And that is what happened. They left. No one remained. There were no tents."
Meanwhile, police operatives were filming the most active demonstrators and monitoring social media so that protest leaders could be rounded up later.
'Dealing With A Brutal Dictator'
On August 17, Lukashenka helicoptered in to a staged rally in front of workers at the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Factory (MZKT) and defiantly vowed not to hold new elections "until you kill me."
WATCH: A speech by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a tractor plant in Minsk on August 17, 2020, was interrupted several times by workers who chanted, "Lie!" and "Leave!"
But he was jeered and taunted by factory workers who booed him and chanted, "Leave!"
"Those who voted against him knew they were in the majority and that they had acted legally," Kotau said. "But they were deceived, very cruelly deceived. Lukashenka suffered a big blow at MZKT. He had never…encountered an audience that not only did not listen to him but that also shouted him down."
Although workers in Belarusian state television, the government's main propaganda weapon, began to resign, there were no large-scale defections from the security forces during this crucial period.
"For one thing, they didn't see a real leader [in the opposition]," explained former police officer Alkayeu. "Second, everyone was thinking about themselves. They were scared by possible lustration. This is something police talk about a lot. Will I be able to work or not? Was I photographed at some point? Someone new comes to power and an officer might end up without a job. There are a lot of benefits to being a police officer -- apartments, good mortgages, and more. He could lose it all."
In addition, Alkayeu said, police officers are habitually "oriented toward their superiors."
"Over the years, a person gets used to obeying," he said.
Meanwhile, the opposition movement was fully committed to nonviolence, Alexievich said.
"Everyone was in the mood for peace," she told RFE/RL. "No one wanted to ‘seize the telegraphs,' as Lukashenka likes to say about coups. No one was preparing Molotov cocktails…. We were aware that if we came out with a Molotov cocktail, it would have been worse than China at the time of Tiananmen Square. We were dealing with a brutal dictator. No one had any illusions.
"We were all afraid of blood," she added. "They were not afraid of blood. But we were afraid and felt a sense of responsibility. What was necessary was to do what the Ukrainians did during their Maidan. They stayed out for several months. I don't know why we didn't do that."
Astapovich said Belarus's marginal economy also played a role in the collapse of the protest movement.
"For our people, the most important thing to lose is not one's life, but one's job," he said. "There is no reserve. If you lose your job, what will you eat the next month? Everyone understands that…. People save up for three months to buy new boots. I lived that way myself as an investigator."
Two years later, the democratic opposition in Belarus is scattered, imprisoned, or marginalized. And Lukashenka's security forces continue their work, now focusing much of their attention on the so-called railway partisans and others who oppose Russia's invasion of neighboring Ukraine and the complicity of the Belarusian state.
"To this day, they continue to jail people. They sweep the cities every day [and make arrests]," Tsikhanouskaya told Current Time in an interview. "But back then, it seemed like it was all about to come crashing down."