Over the winter, fewer Belarusians have taken to the streets to demand the ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid cold weather, a brutal government crackdown, and perhaps fatigue.
Opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya lamented in February that the pro-democracy movement had "lost the streets," but vowed to seek a revival come spring -- starting with a nationwide rally on March 25, which coincides with Freedom Day, the anniversary of a short-lived Belarusian republic founded in 1918.
Lukashenka shows no signs of willingness to compromise, however, and his top security officials have vowed to deal harshly with any new large-scale protests.
Belarus has been in turmoil since Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994, claimed a landslide victory and a sixth term in the presidential election that millions of Belarusians believe was fixed. The vote followed large rallies across the country that pointed to strong support for Tsikhanouskaya, and her backers contend that she was the actual winner despite an official tally of 10 percent.
No ballot held under Lukashenka has been deemed free, fair, and democratic by impartial international observers.
Since the election, more than 30,000 people have been arrested, hundreds beaten in detention and during demonstrations, and at least four people have been killed in the government crackdown. Allegations of torture abound. Lukashenka and his inner circle have been put under sanctions by the West, which also refused to recognize him as the legitimate leader of Belarus, prompting him to turn to ally Russia even more for support.
On March 18, Tsikhanouskaya, who left for Lithuania under intense pressure from the state after the election, announced an online campaign to demand Lukashenka enter into talks with Belarus's democratic movement. She proposes that the talks be mediated by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"Each of you knows the country is in crisis and it can only be resolved peacefully through internationally mediated talks," Tsikhanouskaya said in a statement.
She said the online vote initiative also had the backing of the Coordination Council, which is tasked with overseeing a hoped-for democratic transition, and By_Pol, which brings together former Belarusian security officers and officials who have switched over to the opposition, as well as other democratic forces.
Tsikhanouskaya said that the more Belarusians vote in the online campaign, "the louder the world will hear our demand to resolve the crisis peacefully without any more victims." She excoriated Lukashenka for "spitting in the face of millions of Belarusians" by refusing to step down after the August 9 election.
As of March 19, some 460,000 people had added their names to support the calls for dialogue on the independent platform Golos, which launched in Belarus last year to monitor the disputed presidential election and is overseeing the online vote.
Tsikhanouskaya's appeal to Belarusians came a day after she spoke at a videoconference hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, urging Washington to step up sanctions by targeting judges, state-owned enterprises, security officers, government-friendly tycoons, and educational and sports officials.
"People are suffering and dying now. Belarusians, more than ever, need your help," she told the hearing on March 17.
Will The Crowds Return?
Lukashenka's opponents could face a hard road ahead.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
The chances of recreating the crowds that swelled to over 100,000 in the early days of the protests after the disputed vote are doubtful, argues Kamil Klysinski, a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based OSW Center for Eastern Studies. "[Belarusian] people are indeed tired, disappointed and first of all intimidated by the huge repression which we observe within recent months," Klysinski said in e-mailed comments.
Belarus is undergoing a "human rights crisis of unprecedented dimension," said a report that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet submitted to the UN Human Rights Council on February 25.
The mass protests were met with "mass arbitrary arrests and detentions" of largely peaceful demonstrators, along with "hundreds of allegations of torture and ill-treatment," Bachelet said in comments that day to a Geneva forum, adding that "not one of the hundreds of complaints for acts of torture and ill-treatment" had been investigated.
In a posthumous ruling issued the same day, a court in Belarus found Henadz Shutau, who was killed by security forces in August 2020, guilty of disobeying police orders.
Human Rights Watch on February 17 said that law enforcement the day before had conducted nationwide raids targeting human rights defenders and activists, searching their homes and offices and detaining at least 40 people.
More than 400 people have been convicted "in connection with participation in illegal mass events and protests that grossly violate public order," the Belarusian Prosecutor-General's Office said on March 17. Prosecutors listed examples of people they had pursued, including a 35-year-old man who had "posted insulting comments against law enforcement on the Odnoklassniki social network." The highest sentence handed out was 10 years.
Last month, 16-year-old Mikita Zalatarou, who suffers from epilepsy, was sentenced to five years in a juvenile prison for participating in what authorities described as "mass riots." The Belarusian human rights monitor Vyasna lists him as a political prisoner.
On March 16, blogger Ihar Losik, who was arrested in June 2020 on charges of preparing public disorder ahead of the August vote, ended a hunger strike and was placed in solitary confinement. Losik, who is a consultant to RFE/RL on new-media technologies, tried to slit his wrists and launched the hunger strike on March 11 when new, unspecified charges were leveled against him.
'Enemies Of The State'
Lukashenka's government has justified its actions by casting protesters as pawns of foreign forces and being bent on causing havoc.
In a meeting with Lukashenka on March 9, Ivan Tertel, the head of the KGB state security agency, spoke of "unprecedented pressure on our state" by foreign actors, without elaborating. Without providing evidence, he claimed his agency had discovered plans to "destabilize the situation" in Belarus on March 25-27.
"Tertel said on state TV...that the KGB 'knows everything' about all preparations for the March 25 demonstrations and their reactions will be accordingly quite hard," Klysinski said.
The commander of Interior Ministry troops, Mikalay Karpyankou, recently described Belarusian protesters as "enemies of our state," before vowing to "deal with them quickly," and harshly as in the past "with pleasure."
Karpyankou is notorious for not only chasing down and beating protesters in Minsk, but has defended the use of firearms against them, and was apparently caught on audio discussing plans to build internment camps for those rounded up in the crackdown.
Karpyankou's comments came as state TV reported that Interior Ministry troops were drilling for possible mass disorder, displaying some of the hardware that could be deployed in such cases.
With Belarusians facing growing repression and protest numbers down, Lukashenka remains defiant.
At a gathering of thousands of loyalists in Minsk in February, Lukashenka slammed the protests against his rule as a foreign-directed "rebellion," and vowed that 2021 "will be decisive."
"No transfer [of power] is possible in Belarus," Lukashenka said on March 2, discussing his talks last month with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. He said that a new constitution would be adopted early in 2022 but suggested that it would not lead to a transition away from his rule and added that a "transfer of power" was not on the agenda when he met with Putin.
'Volcano Of Discontent'
The talks were the first time the two leaders had met in person since September 2020, when Putin extended $1.5 billion in state-backed loans to Lukashenka. The event was preceded by the signing of an agreement on the transshipment of Belarusian fuels (redirected from Lithuania) to Russian ports by the transport ministers of both countries in Moscow on February 19. There were rumors that Putin would extend a further $3 billion to Lukashenka's government during their talks, but those were denied.
Belarus's economy has been hit hard not only by the political turmoil, as businesses, especially the extremely profitable IT business, flee Belarus, but the COVID-19 pandemic, which Lukashenka has been accused of mishandling for his failure to enact any lockdown measures.
Lukashenka has other worries as well. The opposition-linked Telegram channel Nexta aired a documentary on March 8 detailing what it alleged to be his luxurious lifestyle, including 17 palatial residences, a fleet of luxury cars and watches, and a "harem."
Besides the blow to his image as a man of the people, Lukashenka could face a challenge on the political front in his quest to curry favor with the Kremlin, which up till now has stuck with him, rejecting the Tsikhanouskaya-led opposition as Western puppets.
On March 6, the founding congress of the pro-Russian party Soyuz (Union) took place in Minsk. Soyuz casts itself as an opposition faction, favoring tighter Belarusian-Russian integration. Its chairman, Syarhey Lushch, has said the "violent dispersal of the very first protests in Minsk" had left "Lukashenka effectively illegitimate," while calling for Russia to "play a more active role in stabilizing the situation."
In the short term, Lukashenka may be able to deal with a fresh wave of protests, Klysinski said.
"But this doesn't mean that Lukashenka has definitively won," he added. "He is sitting on a 'volcano' of discontent felt by a majority of Belarusians, and he cannot be sure that everything is under full control."