For weeks, Belarus has been gripped by political protests as citizens reject the August 9, 2020, reelection of longtime dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko, which the international community has called a sham. Even though police and security forces have cracked down on protesters with violence and arrests, the people are not leaving the streets.
On August 24, 2020, world leaders, experts, and civil rights activists converged through the Kalinowski Forum at Vilnius University to discuss how to support those fighting for freedom in Belarus. Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), shared remarks virtually from Washington D.C., about this extraordinary pro-democracy movement striving to reshape Belarus’ future.
“We must reaffirm the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and the freedom to be informed. The ongoing information blackouts in Belarus, including the denial of printing services to independent newspapers and the blocking of dozens of websites, must cease without delay. All of this is necessary for the healing of the nation,” said Mr. Gershman, who also urged for the release of dozens of political prisoners, the end to the beating and mistreatment of those in custody, and for culprits to be held accountable.
Among several recommendations for the international community to take action, the conference participants called for new and transparent Presidential and Parliamentary elections in Belarus that uphold democratic standards, and to establish an impartial, international mission to mediate the current political crisis. The need for continued support of nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and others working tirelessly to strengthen civil society was also highlighted. [See the work of NED in Belarus.]
Yet Belarus already is a nation reborn, insisted Mr. Gershman. “Lukashenko and his cronies simply cannot go back to business as usual after this Belarusian summer of solidarity. They thought that by unleashing terror they would stop the protests, that fear would paralyze the people. But they were mistaken. They must now concede defeat and exit the stage. They must leave. There must be new elections, free and democratic.”
Read the FULL REMARKS OF NED’S PRESIDENT, CARL GERSHMAN, BELOW AND WATCH THE VIDEO OF THE KALINOWSKI FORUM:
Belarus: A Nation Reborn
Remarks by NED President Carl Gershman presented to the Kalinowski Forum in Vilnius, Lithuania on August 24, 2020.
Thank you Zygis and our other Lithuanian friends for organizing this incredibly timely Kalinowski Forum on the struggle for democracy in Belarus.
Since the public launch last June of “A Call to Defend Democracy,” nothing anywhere in the world has done more to reverse the authoritarian upsurge during the global pandemic, which was the entire purpose of the Call, than the extraordinary developments in Belarus. [Read more about “A Call to Defend Democracy,” an open letter signed by over 500 political, civil leaders, Nobel Laureates, and pro-democracy institutions here.]
I am sure that all of us are awestruck at the sheer display of people’s power, of the courage of the Belarusian people to defend their right to freely elect their leaders, no matter how high the cost. The solidarity that poured out in the streets of towns, big and small, all over Belarus, has been a force to be reckoned with. People braved detentions, bullets, stun grenades, severe beatings, and torture in police custody, and continued to come out in the streets, day after day, to peacefully declare that their voice will not be silenced. Not this time. This has been an extraordinary, all-Belarusian, prodemocracy movement.
This historic moment belongs to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Belarusians who became in the wake of a stolen election a united, civically awakened nation. It belongs to the hundreds of women, dressed in white and holding flowers, who formed a human chain in the streets of Minsk, Grodno, Gomel, Lida, and other places to silently protest police brutality. This moment also belongs to the thousands of workers, who have risked their livelihood by walking off their jobs—people from all walks of life and all professions: plant workers, metro employees, teachers, and doctors—they all have made it that much more difficult for Lukashenko to continue clinging to power.
It belongs as well to the state employees, including the state media workers and the law enforcement officers, who resigned from their posts because they couldn’t any longer carry out orders to lie to and stand against their compatriots. It belongs to the soldiers who set down their shields at the demonstration at Independence Square, and to the riot police officer who also dropped his shield and joined the protesters, who in turn then embraced him.
This moment especially belongs to the women of Belarus. In a country, where politics have historically been dominated by men, where women are sometimes dismissively referred to as devushki (girls), the entire nation has become energized by three women. Albeit thrust into politics quite abruptly and perhaps reluctantly, after their husbands or partners were jailed or disqualified from competing in the presidential election, these women took on an authoritarian regime that hadn’t budged for 26 years. Lukashenko has mocked them since they first joined forces under the now-iconic motto, “We love, we can, we shall win!,” referring to them as “those poor girls” and “weak women.” But it was these women who inspired a nation to come together, and who went on to become a symbol of the people’s hope that change is possible.
Events are still unfolding. There are still dozens of political prisoners who must be immediately released. There are cases of torture, beatings, and other mistreatment of people in custody that need to be investigated, and the culprits need to be punished. We must also reject the politically motivated criminal prosecution of pro-democracy activists. Not least, we must reaffirm the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and the freedom to be informed. The ongoing information blackouts in Belarus, including the denial of printing services to independent newspapers and the blocking of dozens of websites, must cease without delay. All of this is necessary for the healing of the nation.
But one thing is for sure, even at this stage—Belarus already is a nation reborn. Lukashenko and his cronies simply cannot go back to business as usual after this Belarusian summer of solidarity. They thought that by unleashing terror they would stop the protests, that fear would paralyze the people. But they were mistaken. They must now concede defeat and exit the stage. They must leave. There must be new elections, free and democratic.
Kalinowski would be proud of the men, women, and youth of this movement. For Belarusians, the January 1863 uprising against Russia that he led is a symbol of their own struggle for national self-consciousness and self-determination. Belarusians have been engaged in this struggle for centuries, and under Lukashenko, they’ve had to fight this battle on two fronts—against Russia’s ubiquitous propaganda and against their own state’s choice to suppress Belarusian language, culture, and history.
It has only been in most recent years that Lukanshenko, pressed by Russia’s increasingly imperialistic ambitions and his own political instinct for survival, allowed a process of soft Belarusianization to gradually unfold. This was to be his bane. Unwittingly, by allowing his people openly to speak their language, to wear their national colors, to commemorate their history, and to study their culture, Lukashenka unintentionally unleashed a process of national awakening that has now led to the rise of a new sovereign nation that has the right to determine its own future independent of geopolitical pressures and imperialistic ambitions.
At the reburial last November in Vilnius of Kalinowski and 18 other rebels from the 1863 uprising, activists chanted the famous slogan “For Our Freedom and Yours, For Our Common Future,” the call to solidarity with neighbors across borders that was first used by Poles in 1831 in support of the Decembrist uprising in Russia. Today the demonstrations in Minsk and other Belarusian cities are linked in solidarity to protests 9,000km away in Khabarovsk and other cities in the Russian far east, where protesters have proclaimed “We have the same ideals.”
These unifying ideals are freedom, democracy, and respect for human dignity and the rule of law. It is not without significance—as we commemorate Black Ribbon Day, the anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and remember the unparalleled slaughter that it unleashed – that Belarus, the heart of the bloodlands during World War II, is today the epicenter of the global struggle for democracy.
May the new birth of freedom in Belarus restore the hope of people everywhere that the struggle for democracy can overcome even the greatest obstacles, and that government of, by, and for the people is not about to perish from this earth.