An LGBTQ activist in Belarus on Monday said she remains optimistic that nationwide protests will ultimately oust her country’s authoritarian president.
Vika Biran is originally from Pinsk, a city in southern Belarus that is roughly 180 miles from Minsk, the country’s capital.
Biran, who is a project manager, told the Washington Blade she flew from Berlin to Minsk on Aug 12, three days after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in the country’s presidential election. Biran said she decided to return to Belarus and participate in the anti-government protests after police arrested and beat several of her friends.
“I want to support them and I want to be in this movement as well,” Biran told the Blade.
Biran said she has not been detained, attacked or injured during the protests. Biran told the Blade the worst of the police crackdown against protesters took place before she arrived in Minsk.
“I was really surprised when I was on the main square,” said Biran. “I was sitting in front of soldiers, and their commanders were not informing people that people will be beaten soon … they said just please leave this square clean.”
“That was really surprising,” added Biran. “I was happy and nothing terrible happened to me.”
Belarus is a former Soviet republic that borders Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Lukashenko — described as Europe’s “last dictator” — has been Belarus’ president since 1994. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate who challenged Lukashenko after authorities arrested her husband, fled to Lithuania after the Aug. 9 vote.
Media reports indicate Lukashenko over the weekend spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Associated Press reported upwards of 200,000 people gathered in Minsk’s Independence Square for what has been described as the largest protest in Belarusian history.
Journalists at state media outlets and workers at government-owned factories have also joined strikes against Lukashenko.
“These events that are happening in Belarus are really unique,” Biran told the Blade. “We have never had anything like that happening before.”
Biran added the protests make her hopeful about her country’s future.
“I don’t want Lukashenka to be president anymore,” said Biran. “I have hope because not only cultural workers or people from NGOs are disappointed and want to show their reaction to everything; but … people from factories, teachers, medical workers, all those people who are receiving their money from the (state) budget are also not happy with what is happening in the country.”
Lukashenko’s last name is spelled Lukashenka in Belarusian.
European Union Foreign Affairs Minister Josep Borrell in a statement noted hundreds of thousands of people “took to the streets all across Belarus” on Sunday to protest Lukashenko.
“These peaceful demonstrations had clear demands: The release of all unlawfully detained people, the prosecution of those responsible for police brutality, and holding of new presidential elections,” said Borrell.
“The sheer numbers clearly show that the Belarusian population wants change, and wants it now,” he added. “The EU stands by them.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an Aug. 10 statement described the vote as “not free and fair.” Pompeo also criticized the Belarusian government’s response to protesters.
“We urge the Belarusian government to respect the rights of all Belarusians to participate in peaceful assembly, refrain from use of force, and release those wrongfully detained,” he said. “We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters, as well as the use of internet shutdowns to hinder the ability of the Belarusian people to share information about the election and the demonstrations.”
Biran told the Blade she hopes the international community will continue to apply pressure to Lukashenko and his government.
“We really do need a reaction from different countries and different politicians who are making decisions and who can put economic pressure on this government,” said Biran.