On December 7, the Belarusian capital of Minsk erupted in protests, as citizens held unsanctioned demonstrations against “increased integration” with Russia. The previous day, in the Russian resort city of Sochi, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin met to discuss methods of “deepening the ties between their two countries”. Protesters believe that the two men signed a secret agreement on integration at that five-hour meeting, and about 1,000 Belarusians went to the streets in protest. We spoke to some of the protesters to get a clearer picture of the situation.
Why Did People Protest?
The protesters are opposing a proposed expansion of integration between Russia and Belarus. This matter has become one of political necessity for Putin – constitutionally, he cannot run for president of the Russian Federation once more after his term expires, but he can run for president of a newly created “union state” between Russia and Belarus, allowing him to keep his political stature. The December 7 meeting between the Russian and Belarusian rulers was intended to discuss this deeper integration, in advance of the 20th anniversary of the Union State of Russia and Belarus – a mostly ceremonial creation that has had little practical power.
According to Lukashenko, he and Putin had gathered to discuss a friendly agreement between the two countries. Putin hopes that Belarus and Russia will continue to work towards harmonizing their economies.
But the protesters believe that their motives are far more sinister, and that the meeting in Sochi will instead be used to sign a secret agreement. “This country has been beaten and beaten for centuries. It’s bled on crosses. But it lives with us. And you can’t just sell a country like this. You can sign international agreements, you can sign unions, whatever you want, but only with the agreement of the people! The biggest crime – would be to secretly sign some sort of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact,” said one of the protesters.
On Independence Avenue, a few hundred people gathered into a “living chain”. Their message: “We’re too tired to be scared, let them beat us. Let them arrest us. We won’t go peacefully.”
One of the people we spoke to was Sergei Bulba (Chislov), the founder of Belarusian nationalist organization Beliy Legion (“White Legion”). He said that the authorities, including Russian authorities, are aiming for the integration process to proceed peacefully, without disruption – which is why he believes the agreement was signed in secret. “Since the process is slow – the noose is only being tightened by milimeters – there’s no wide-spread awareness in society. Even though Belarusians are against this union. The Belarusian government also doesn’t care for this process, but they’re being pushed by an economy linked to Russia’s, as well as blackmail from the side of the Russian Federation,” he stated.
There have been repeated media reports about Russia’s plans to create a joint national government, a single currency, and a single tax system as a result of the union agreement between the countries.
“Belarusians will consider the creation of national organs as surrender,” noted Bulba.
Law Enforcement Reaction
Law enforcement officers in Minsk had asked the protesters to disperse, pointing out that the demonstration was unsanctioned. Belarus retains many Soviet-era laws, which require explicit government approval for protests and street actions. But protesters stood their ground, saying that they will remain “until darkness” and until the end of the meeting in Sochi.
“This time, the police have responded adequately, it’s obvious that they weren’t given orders to forcibly disperse the protest and arrest people. But we all understand that this can change at any moment, if the orders are given, and the police reaction will be very severe. We’re scared of this, we’re all average people, with jobs and children,” said one of the protesters, Anna Sevyarinets, a teacher of Russian language and literature.
One of the protest leaders, Pavel Severenyets, the co-chair of Belarusian political party “Belarusian Christian Democrats” told us that yesterday, he was taken to a regional office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where he was named responsible for the December 7 protest. He was not charged with a crime, and the police let him go. According to him, this represented a “green light” from the authorities.
“I warned the police that they should be together with the people and defend our independence. For a short time, Lukashenko’s interests and the interests of the Belarusian people have aligned,” he said.
But at some point, skirmishes erupted between the protesters and law enforcement. On October Square, protesters tried to climb the stairs to the Republic Palace, but the police, as well as military dressed in civilian clothes, repelled them.
A number of politicians came out to join the protestors on October Square: co-chair of the Christian Democrats, Pavel Severenyets, the head of the United Citizens party Nikolai Kozlov, as well as the leader of the “For Freedom” movement, Yuri Gubarevich, and others.
Kozlov stated that he supports the termination of the “union state” agreement between Belarus and Russia. According to him, agreements between heads of state should not be conducted “in the dark like thieves.”
The protesters were also joined by the leader of the Freedom Party, Sergei Visotskiy. From the steps of the city council in the city center, he stated that the government had come close to a “red line”: “The fate of the Belarusian people is being decided behind their backs,” according to him.
The protest finished by about 5 p.m. A few provocateurs were detained as a result: they shouted pro-Russian slogans, like “For Russia”, “Come on, Russia,” and “You destroyed Russia.” Protesters themselves detained and handed over the provocateurs to law enforcement on-site. More protests are planned for December 8, the day that the Agreement on a Union State is planned to be signed.
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