Everyone in Belarus wants changes.
Let's make an agreement right away. As there have been no real elections in Belarus since 1996 - it was then that Aliaksandr Lukashenka dispersed the legitimate Supreme Council and appointed an obedient House of Representatives instead - we will use the word “election” in conditional quotation marks from the beginning to the end of the text. There are no elections, there is no parliament (the House of Representatives is actually an office that unanimously approves all the initiatives of Lukashenka, giving them the status of laws), but there are people who tried to participate in this campaign. I also participated.
When asked why this was necessary, since there are no elections in the country, I answer simply. Firstly, street activity after the 2010 repressions actually came to naught. And without mass protests, it is impossible to change power in Belarus, alas. Any negotiations with the authorities are possible only if there is protest pressure. So, you need to go and talk with people. Persuade them not to be afraid. Explain that going to the polling station will not change anything under the conditions of totalitarianism.
Secondly, the election campaign is a legal opportunity to take to the streets with national white-red-white flags. This flag, under which the then-elected President Aliaksandr Lukashenka took the oath in 1994, was unusual and annoying for him. Hardly had a year of his presidency passed, as he changed the state symbols, having returned the red-green flag of the BSSR. For white-red-white flags, police officers have been beating people for many more years. Then they stopped beating for flags - they simply took them away. And here - two months of legal actions with flags. It would be a sin not to use this opportunity.
Thirdly, whenever opposition representatives participated in the parliamentary elections, for some reason, for the time of the campaign, rhetorics changed completely. None of them uttered the words “change of power”, no one said “Lukashenka must leave”, but they talked about the maintenance of the yards.
Fourth, (and this is my personal reason), Novaya Gazeta, in which I have been working for more than 15 years, is banned in Belarus. Charter’97, the most popular independent website in Belarus, for which I write columns, has been blocked in Belarus for two years. But not all Belarusians have mastered VPN, TOR and other things necessary to bypass blocking. And if a journalist is being deprived of readers, why not come to their home?
Now no one can say that independent journalists do not know what the people want. Someone may not know, but I do. Because during the collection of signatures I personally went around more than a thousand apartments. So, for a month I met one and only person who said: “Sorry, but I support the current government.”
This is the real level of support for Lukashenka. Everything else is falsification and propaganda. And the absolute, chemically pure majority wants change.
By the way, my district - Partizanski electoral district #110, in which I have lived all my life - is quite representative. There are houses of the former “fawn cap area” that were built for workers of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus. Party widows and businessmen who bought apartments in these houses now live there. There is a tractor factory with its own village, there are dormitories of the factory of automatic lines, a meat factory, a dairy factory. There is a private sector. There are military houses. There are quarters of modern high-rise buildings, where there are a lot of mortgage young families. There are old “Brezhnev” cooperative houses. This is the only electoral district that completely coincides with the administrative district within its borders. I love this neighbourhood. And, as in the movie “Volga-Volga”, “I know all the shallows” here.
The electoral system of Belarus is majoritarian. We do not have party lists. The country has 110 electoral districts. There are several ways of nominating: party, labor collective and self-nomination. I was self-nominated.
A self-nominee must collect at least 1000 signatures of voters in a certain electoral district in four weeks. The difference with the Russian single-mandate electoral districts is that in Russia for nomination to the State Duma it is necessary to collect signatures of at least three percent of the district residents. In the event that less than 100 thousand voters live in the electoral district - at least 3 thousand. In the Russian single-mandate electoral districts, the average number of voters is 400-500 thousand. That is, you need to collect 12-15 thousand signatures. In Belarus, the number is fixed. And the average number of voters is 60 thousand in the district. Probably, it can be argued that in both Russian and Belarusian conditions it is very difficult to collect signatures.
The main enemy is time. You can walk around the apartments from 6.30 to 9 p.m. At the same time, at 6.30, many have not yet returned from work. And already at 8 p.m. they may not open the door. And the collection of signatures took place in September and early October. This means that the weekends were practically empty: voters left for summer cottages.
During the month allotted for the collection of signatures, I stood in a picket in the daytime, and went to the apartments in the evening.
A man comes to the picket. Signs. Says: “I am the former chairman of the housing construction cooperative. In the evening I will take you to our district, help to collect signatures.” There is no violation in this: the main thing is that one of those who walks around the apartments or stands in the picket has a certificate of a member of the initiative group. So, for several evenings in a row, Aliaksandr accompanied me in his district. It was easy with him - he knew for sure that “we won’t go to this apartment, the lady from the executive committee lives there.” It was in his neighbourhood that we met the only person who supports Lukashenka.
Former policeman Siarhei wrote to me on Facebook that he lives in the Partyzanski district, like many of his friends, and wants to help. Choose, he wrote, one evening, and we will go visit the people I know. We drove. The evening turned out to be extremely productive - with signatures and new acquaintances. Siarhei turned out to be a damn interesting conversationalist and a good person, and in general we became friends. As with Aliaksandr.
In every house, in every lobby something happened that prevented me from falling from fatigue - not to say “I can no longer do this”, but to move on. A stern guy opens the door in one apartment and says: “If you are the opposition, come in, if not, go away.” Roughly, but for sure. In another, opening the door, they say: “Oh, she herself has come! And I was about to go join your picket tomorrow.” In the third, the owner honestly admits: “I am obliged by uniform, we are forbidden to sign. But I’m going to call my wife and mother-in-law - they will definitely sign for you.” The fourth is a children's writer who signs and donates his books, and we hug goodbye, like relatives who were once separated in some Indian movie. Such meetings did not let me fall into despair, although sometimes I wanted to. And the reason for this is the fear in which Belarusians have lived for many years.
The authorities put a television propagandist against me in the district (who would doubt it?). Tengiz Dumbadze was once the head of the Adjarian television, after the revolution in Georgia he fled to Belarus, and all these years he has been telling on television how good it is to live in Belarus and how bad the rest of the world is. Powerful candidates who have already been appointed as deputies, were put forward by labor collectives and Belaya Rus. There is no ruling party in Belarus, but there is the Belaya Rus public association, where everyone who works at state-owned enterprises is driven by order. This membership does not give anything, it only takes away money for contributions and time for participation in various government gatherings. In our case, in the pickets of Belaya Rus in support of state candidates.
They always appeared immediately, as soon as we put up our picket, and stood nearby. Well, let's stand side by side. Women from the state picket were always bored. Nobody came up to them - neither to sign, nor for just talking. And we always had fun. And from time to time, bored ladies came over to chat:
- How long are you going to stand?
- Until it begins to get dark. And you?
- And we were ordered to stand after work two hours every day.
- Why do you agree to this?
- Don’t you understand? This is an order.
- And what if you do not obey?
- How come - not to obey? They will fire me ...
- Well, at least they didn’t introduce a norm for signatures - well, say, 20 signatures a day from each, otherwise they’ll fire you?
- Ah, that ... Yes, we don’t need signatures. We just have to stand.
So they stand. So they go where they are told, without asking why. And for some reason, there are only women in those state pickets and other events of the like. As in the election commissions, true.
Well, no, I saw one man in the district commission. He was to monitor my picket, as it turned out later. And he waited. An old friend came from another district and was very upset that he could not put a signature:
- That is, I drove through the city to sign for you, but I can’t because of my registration?
- It’s impossible, alas. But, sign symbolically. Take a blank sheet, put a signature, and I will save this sheet forever hidden in Beckett's playbook. Will it do?
This small performance, especially with Beckett, was quite suitable for my old director friend. But as soon as he took an empty sheet, a man peacefully walking around the picket suddenly grabbed the phone and began taking pictures of both my friend and the sheet. And then, with the appearance of a winner, he took out an identity card of an election commission member from his pocket and said: “You have committed a violation - a signature on the blank sheet!” My friend demonstrated a passport with a registration in another district - naturally, it did not bring any result. “Tomorrow they will call you and issue a warning!” - he was sincerely happy that he had not wasted the day walking around my stand. He was triumphant. I asked:
- Where do the likes of you come from?
He answered calmly:
- What do you mean? The grannies nominated me.
- What grannies?
- The grannies from our riser blocks of flats! I'm in charge for it..
I used to think that Bulgakov made Svonder up…
Many residents of my district work in the same place, nearby - at factories, shops, kindergartens, clinics. Many are looking for work closer to the place they live. It was they who told incredible stories, being intimidated to death.
At the polling station in Minsk.
In a house in Staletau Street, a nice woman said: “Sorry, I support you. But today, all of us who live in the district were called to the authorities and forced to sign for Dumbadze. And they said that all signatures will be checked. And if it turns out that someone has signed for someone else, they will be fired immediately. ” And in the house on Mendzialeyeu Street, another woman, cautiously looking at the staircase - in case anyone was eavesdropping - whispered: “They told us at work that they would put in jail those who sign for you”. And no quotes from the Electoral Code, no explanations persuaded them. These women were really scared: what if the “Black Maria” arrives at night?
And this is not a one-time bullying. This is a system. You can not intimidate a person like that if you do it just once. This should accumulate over the years, this should hollow the crown, like a drop of water in Chinese torture: if you don’t go, you’ll get fired, you won’t sign it, you’ll go to jail, you will express your opinion and we won’t renew the contract. Fear has a cumulative effect, alas. And getting rid of it is much more difficult than picking it up by airborne transmission.
However, the scene in the picket became the most terrible thing for me personally. A man and a girl, beautiful and young, walked by. The girl stopped and began to read the text on the stand. Her companion looked around apprehensively and immediately began to pull her sleeve with the words: “Let's get out of here faster. A CCTV camera is hanging on the house opposite. Do not you understand? This camera captures everyone who stops. There will be problems! ”
And these are not women of pre-retirement age, constrained by the contract system, in which the contract is made only for a year. This is the generation that was born under Lukashenka. Fortunately, among young people, such panic fear is still a rarity, not a norm. Unfortunately, something else has become the norm: indifference and a sense of hopelessness. Similarly, Soviet children who grew up, not knowing the alternatives, deeply despised Soviet power in adulthood, but did not even think about changes. They knew that there would be no change, and they needed to build their lives in the light of this fact. Lukashenka has been in power for 25 years, and a generation that knows neither the election, nor the change of power, nor its normal functioning, has already grown, graduated from universities and suffered.
“Ah, I would sign, of course, but I don't see the point.”
Well, all the same, nothing will change during our lives! - tells me a young man no older than thirty.
“Wait, what does “in our lifetime” mean? You will at least physically outlive Lukashenka!”
- So what, after all, his sons have grown ...
Frankly: I do not know what to answer. I have heard such words more than once. From people of different ages. But they sound especially savage from young people: “nothing will change during our lives”, “sons have grown up” - this sounds such monstrous hopelessness, such disregard for one’s own life, such disbelief in the future, that one wants to get under the covers and never again get out. And when in a safe old house I was met by a woman who didn’t even speak, but hissed - “I wanna leave, go away, forget this heinous country and this life in it, let it go to down a hole” - I also wanted to leave for a moment. Rather, do not even leave, but run away. To flee, anywhere, away from this concentrated hatred and hopelessness. It saved that in the next apartment, where the tractor factory engineer lives, we were greeted with joy, the whole family signed, and said that they were not afraid of anything and were ready to go to any protest rallies.
Of course, I have collected signatures. Of course, they did not register me. I did not expect anything else. Of the one and a half thousand signatures, I submitted one thousand two hundred. The day before, I carefully studied all the sheets. Those in which one could find fault with at least something - a blot, a correction - were not submitted at all. I knew that they would not register me, would not be let me to the stage of agitation, but I was not going to give them trump cards with my own hands. As a result, they did not find fault with signatures. They found fault with the dates. As if the dates in some signature sheets were not put down by the voter or member of the initiative group, but by a certain third party. No wonder. On the same day, as it turned out, even the current “deputies” Hanna Kanapatskaya and Alena Anisim were not registered.
In 2016, Kanapatskaya was nominated from the opposition United Civil Party, Anisim is the Deputy Chair of the Belarusian Language Association. Both were given mandates and for three years waved these mandates before any foreign delegation: look, we have opposition in the parliament! Both Kanapatskaya and Anisim collected signatures easily. Both of them were not registered: next year's presidential election, so let the House of Representatives be completely sterile just in case, they still show it on TV.
There was no such campaign even in Belarus. The speeches of those few independent candidates who were nevertheless registered were not broadcasted. They said that pronouncing on the air the phrase “change of power” is prohibited. They issued warnings “for violation of the rules for holding pickets” even to those who did not hold a single picket, and they were deprived of registration. On the voting day, November 17, observers reporting violations were taken out of the polling station by dozens. More than two hundred. The turnout, according to observers, was 15-20 percent, and this means that the election is invalid. According to the official figures, it was 77 percent. However, we in Belarus are not easily surprised with numbers.
Actually, partly for the sake of numbers, I participated in this campaign. When there are no elections or statistics in a country, the only way to find out what people think, and in what proportion, is to go to their houses and talk. Now I know: if everyone with whom I spoke during the collection of signatures were satisfied with the current situation, then, probably, I would have to seriously think about leaving. But they are not satisfied. And this is not only Minsk - my friends and associates ran in Brest, Babruisk, Maladechna, Vorsha, and Slonim. Everywhere - the same picture: support for the regime at the level of statistical error.
Yes, the situation is very complicated. And the further, the harder. Fighting fear, despair, unbelief is more difficult than simply dictatorship. But everyone wants change. So we still have a chance. Belarus will be free.
Iryna Khalip, Novaya Gazeta