In 2012 the Swedish advertising agency Studio Total flew an airplane over Belarus and parachuted hundreds of teddy bears carrying pro-democratic messages over the country. Alexandr Lukashenka, the president of Belarus, fired or arrested a number of army officials for failing to intercept the plane, and closed all diplomatic ties with Sweden in response to the incident. However, Belarusian mass media denied that the event had even occurred. Some activists in Belarus have protested by placing similar teddy bears outside of government buildings, those getting caught by the KGB ending up in prison.
But what lies beneath the surface of the Swedish teddy bears? Wanting to find out more about Belarus, and especially the situation for the young people living in what many refer to as Europe’s last dictatorship, the student union organized the first ever annual Student’s Activist Responsibility Abroad (SARA) project. Three student union representatives travelled to Belarus in order to find out more about youth activism and the student’s role in the Belarusian society, in a country that appears to us as remarkably secretive. After weeks of preparation, the delegation for project SARA landed in Minsk at 12p.m. on the 16th of April, and we were immediately struck by the lack of English speakers at the airport. It was at this point that truly we felt as if we had breached into Europe’s last hermit kingdom. Luckily our contact person, Julia, a 20 year old politically active Minsk native, was ready as a translator, guide, and fantastic organizer throughout our trip. Julia runs constant danger of being taken by the KGB or getting expelled from her school, and she took a great risk in helping us meet all of these groups.
Julia told us about how oppositional organizations are being oppressed and stigmatized by the state owned media and judicial system. Oppositional organizations are illegal as they are unregistered, and they cannot register because they do not meet the criteria of being pro government. The media, parliament, military, and judicial system are all de-facto controlled by Lukashenka. The state media compares the political opposition and activist groups in Belarus to the protestors in Ukraine, calling both parties terrorists, and Julia says that the terrorists’ image as activists is starting to stick in people’s minds. Yet a lot of people feel disconnected from the state, and so it has become modern to say that politics does not affect your life, as people do not wish to pick a side when one side does not represent their beliefs, and the other one is stigmatized. However, we would soon be shown a perfect example of how political agendas can destroy someone’s personal life.
The next day we went to an art gallery and activist hangout in Minsk where we met the eighteen year old student activist Mikita. He told us about how the KGB and state universities are closely intertwined, and universities “strongly advise” you to join pro-governmental student organizations, and vote in elections. Whenever students express or organize themselves against the government, they face severe issues with their academic and personal life. Mikita had refused his school directives and abstained from voting, he did not join any student organizations, and frequently expressed his views against the government and for reform. Because of this he was sent to the principal’s office where he, in front of a portrait of Lukashenka, was ordered to explain and apologize for his behaviour. In response to this, Mikita played a tape on which he had recorded the constitution of Belarus, which made the principal immediately expel him from the university. Mikita gives the impression of being a cheerful person that smiles a lot, but one can tell that he is in a very bad mental state at the moment. He has continued to be politically active after being expelled, but he fears that he may have serious problems in the future because of it, potentially facing imprisonment. He told us that he is considering fleeing the country, but that he has no one to turn to in another country.
After a few more meetings, we had a roundtable discussion with about twenty different people representing different organizations. One of the people we met there was a leader of one of the activist groups, a very likeable guy named Aliss, who laughed a lot and demonstrated with vivid body language exactly how prison cell toilets function. In a way he represented what Mikita could become in a few years if he were to stay in Belarus. He was twenty four years old, and he too had been expelled from his university because of his political activism, as well as being arrested twice. His first arrest was during the 2011 clapping protests, when hundreds of people gathered at Lenin Square in Minsk, carrying no banners and shouting no messages, but only clapping for the resignation of Lukashenka. After a short while police vans arrived on the square and started violently loading people into the vans and taking them to prison. Since then it is illegal to stay more than five minutes on Lenin Square. The second time he was arrested was when the police forced themselves into his apartment and took him to prison without an explanation or warrant. Just before they broke in he managed to hide his laptop, which he says is extremely fortunate because if they had seen the contents on his laptop, he would have gotten a much more severe sentence. We asked him where he thought Belarus was heading and he said “we are currently in the darkness, but we are seeing different lights. We just have to decide which light to follow”. President Lukashenka is de-facto running the country on a centralized planned economy, and holding on to power through propaganda, police force, corruption, and oppression. Students are severely limited in their ability to express themselves or influence school policy, activists are being harassed by the judicial system, and the majority of people in Belarus are too afraid to speak out against it.
During the three days in Belarus we met with more groups than we can account for in this article, and even though the groups we met did not agree on everything, they all agreed that democracy and freedom is something to strive for, and that people will eventually realize that their society is not democratic. These people have all not only helped us in understanding their situation, but also showing us that although they are constantly risking imprisonment, expulsion, or other personal problems, they can see a dim light on the horizon. We think of the political scientist Andrienka, the human rights lawyer Dmitri, the student networker Sergei, Julia, and many more, and how they are all working day and night to pull their fellow Belarusians out of authoritarian oppression, and seeing and feeling their struggle has been an absolutely incredible and eye-opening experience.