For almost three months, thousands of Belarusians from across the social spectrum have joined weekly protests demanding that President
step down after 26 years in power, following an election in August that critics say was neither free nor fair.
The rallies often attract more than 100,000 people, who contend that the victory should have gone to opposition candidate
. They include a disparate assortment of civil servants, manual laborers, tech professionals, students and pensioners.
What unites them is growing anger with a leader who they say governs through fear, cronyism and a ruthless determination to stay in power. They say they are willing to take the risk of standing against Mr. Lukashenko, despite thousands of arrests, reports of torture and acts of retribution over the past few months.
Officials didn’t respond to requests for comment regarding claims that the government mistreats its citizens or takes revenge against those who oppose it.
Yuri Korzun had a job for life at Belaruskali, one of the world’s largest miners of potash fertilizer. He risked it by chaining himself to mining equipment 1,000 feet below ground in a one-man protest against what he said was Mr. Lukashenko’s cavalier response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Lukashenko has largely dismissed the virus, despite contracting it himself. He has suggested vodka and dry saunas as suitable remedies and refused to limit border crossings or introduce social-distancing measures.
Mr. Korzun, however, spent 21 days quarantining at home when he was infected in August. A colleague died after contracting the disease, enraging him further.
“It was incomprehensible to me,” Mr. Korzun said. “I realized that…I must do everything to protest the fact that he was president.”
Mr. Korzun bought the handcuffs he used to attach himself to the mining machinery online. It took law enforcement hours to free him, after which he lost his job and the $1,500 a month that came with it—a sizable sum in a country where average monthly take home pay is $458. He was subsequently sentenced to 30 days in prison for participating in two unauthorized demonstrations.
“I have no regrets,” he said.
Tatyana Martinovich used to work as a criminal investigator with Belarus’s interior ministry. For years she didn’t question Mr. Lukashenko’s rule. But the country’s depleted economy began to weigh on her when she left work to look after one of her two adult children, who suffers from cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. She says it is tough for the family financially. Their joint monthly allowance from the government amounts to around $220.
When she heard that Mr. Lukashenko had claimed victory in the Aug. 9 election with more than 80% of the vote, her anger boiled over, she said.
“It was nonsense,” she said. Since then she has attended almost all the Sunday protests with her disabled son, who is 21 and has gained a new sense of purpose from attending the events, she said.
“He doesn’t want to stay away,” she said. “It’s so important for him to be there. He lives from rally to rally.”
She has begun draping herself in the red-and-white flag of the opposition movement and hopes that things could change if Mr. Lukashenko were removed from power.
“This year, our nation woke up and there was an evolution of our country and of Belarusians in general, in their self-consciousness, judgment and reassessment of values,” Ms. Martinovich said.
As a high-school student, Vladislav Shakhnovich won a prestigious presidential award for his academic achievements. But now he says he can’t stand the sight of the certificate, carefully mounted in a red binder, and is ashamed of Mr. Lukashenko.
Now an English teacher living in the town of Smorgon, around 60 miles northwest of the capital city of Minsk, Mr. Shakhnovich says he was appalled by the way riot police treated protesters.
He blames Mr. Lukashenko for the flood of young people who have left the country in recent years to seek better opportunities, including some of his friends. Government data shows that annual emigration from the nation of 9.5 million more than doubled between 2014 and 2019 to almost 21,000 people from about 9,200.
In recent weeks, security forces have raided the offices of technology companies where staff and executives have supported the demonstrations, sometimes detaining employees. Some companies are now relocating employees to other countries out of fear for their safety.
Mr. Shakhnovich feels strongly about building a new Belarus and says it is his duty to stay and make the case for Mr. Lukashenko to stand down.
“One of the most respected acts a man could undertake is to accept defeat,” he said.
Olympic ski coach Nikolai Kozeko voted for Mr. Lukashenko in all six presidential elections since he first came to power in 1994. But the violence inflicted by riot police on protesters after the August vote disgusted him.
“It was a shock for me,” he said. “The notion that any dissent is generally unacceptable.”
Around 7,000 people were detained immediately after the election, according to information released by the interior ministry. Nearly all were subsequently released.
Human-rights groups have documented more than 500 cases of people being beaten and tortured while detained by security forces.
Political rivals have been jailed and many forced to flee, including Ms. Tikhanovskaya.
Mr. Kozeko, who has coached four Olympics gold medalists, signed a letter along with hundreds of other athletes and coaches demanding the elections be annulled. He was then ordered to repay a presidential grant worth more than $27,000.
“This is an absurd demand. It’s clearly political,” Mr. Kozeko said, complaining that Mr. Lukashenko has changed from the man of three decades ago, who railed against corruption and provided years of stability. “During 35 years of work, I had practically no complaints at all, only awards.”
When firefighter Maksim Stashulionak warned his neighbors that the government was planning to remove the protest flags from their apartments, the authorities retaliated by firing him from his post and giving him three days to vacate the rent-free government apartment he shares with his pregnant wife and child.
The red-and-white banners that have become a symbol of protest were used as the national flag before Belarus was absorbed into the Soviet Union.
Mr. Stashulionak said he sympathizes with the demonstrators and had grown disillusioned with the government.
“I don’t think I’m guilty. I don’t think I broke the law,” he said.
He said his superiors accused him of having disclosed national-security information on an online chat. The Ministry of Emergency Situations, which oversees the fire department, didn’t respond to a request for comment and his dismissal order, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, says he was terminated for committing an unspecified offense that violated his service contract.
Mr. Stashulionak has hired a lawyer to contest his eviction and remains in the apartment pending the outcome of his case. He has held off joining protests in the hope he might get his job back.
contributed to this article.
Write to Ann M. Simmons at [email protected]
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