Belarus students are protesting to stop Lukashenko from stealing their futures – as well as the election

The students’ bravery is not necessarily borne out of an understanding of their constitutional rights. This time, the lie of the election result was too big to ignore

Victor Martinovich
Friday 11 September 2020 11:38 BST
Masked men detain student protesters in Belarus

This week, as students around the world arrived at universities ready to continue education that will shape their futures, students in Belarus were taking to the streets to prevent a dictatorship from stealing theirs. 

On a day that should be associated with making new friends and exploring new subjects, young men and women in Minsk were beaten, carried out of their campuses and bundled into police vans by the balaclava-clad goons of President Lukashenko. They represent the latest vanguard in the fourth week of resistance against the stolen election of 9 August.

The students’ bravery and resilience are not necessarily borne out of a deep understanding of their constitutional rights or from thorough study of Foucault or other political philosophers. Much of the stale education system in Belarus, with its enforced loyalty to the state and obsessions with revisionist history, is still a relic of the Soviet era and designed to encourage obedience, not independent thought. They were simply overcome with outrage over the injustice of a leader making a mockery of the political will of the country. This time, the lie was too big to ignore.  

Consider the law student at a state-run university in Belarus (the last private institution, the European Humanities University, was forced into exile in 2004 and is now headquartered in neighbouring Vilnius). The student has just witnessed two presidential candidates imprisoned on trumped-up charges, the rightful winner made to flee the country and anyone who spoke out about it detained and terrorised without access to a lawyer. What use is a law qualification in a lawless state? It has as much correspondence with reality as a degree from Hogwarts.

In the space of a month, Belarus has become unrecognisable. For nearly three decades we have laboured under one of the world’s most totalitarian states with one sham election after the other. Even Russia has a more active oppositional political scene. Nobody expected us to rise up in unison and finally voice our contempt for the regime, let alone attempt a revolution, but the state unwittingly created the perfect conditions for it to flourish.

Despite its clunky and regressive political system, young people in Belarus over the years have been able to carve out creative hubs independent of the state. The country is home to a multibillion-dollar tech sector employing tens of thousands which has helped to produce a plugged-in population. Their skills and networks enabled information about the election, protests and strikes to be rapidly documented and shared to a domestic and international audience. 

But even these successful homegrown companies suffer – their employees have been detained – and some are already shifting operations overseas in the face of ongoing political repression and internet shutdowns. A further blow to an already imperilled economy.

Police and protesters clash after Belarus presidential vote

Lukashenko and his cronies always underestimated students as a potential political force and now it is too late to win them back. Through the state’s brutality, they have made permanent enemies of the country’s young people. It has become a heated generational clash too, videos circulating this week show a professor at Minsk State Linguistics University threatening to call in the riot police on protesting students. Even children are not spared. Schools are currently warning parents who attend protests that their children may be seized under a 2006 law on “dysfunctional families”.  

We are witnessing the last desperate attempts of a discredited regime to regain control but that can only govern by brute force. The UN investigators have received reports of 450 documented cases of torture and ill-treatment of people in custody. Peaceful protesters punished with detention, beatings, rape and torture has left a nation scarred but more energised than ever to rid itself from its oppressor.  

The values of strong institutions and an open society were barely instilled at their schools or universities before, but the state’s violations of basic rights have provided students with an invaluable education and one that may still hasten its downfall.  

Victor Martinovich is an author and lectures at the European Humanities University in Lithuania, a Belarusian university in exile.

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