Taking part in anti-government demonstrations has become a kind of habit for many Belarusian students, including myself. On Sept. 1, college and university students all across the country decided to mark the start of fall classes with nationwide protests — organized, as usual, via Telegram chats.
Despite the rainy weather, my classmates and I set out from our university carrying flags and banners to join the march passing through the center of Minsk. What happened next, however, came as quite a shock. What surprised us wasn’t the arrival of the riot police, who quickly surrounded the campus. It was the behavior of the university officials. As we tried to rush back into the university buildings to escape the security forces, our department dean and his colleagues locked the doors to keep us out. They wanted us to be caught. They were trying to have us caught.
We soon managed to push our way back in. Agitated students surrounded the university officials and demanded an explanation. In response, they accused us of “disrupting the learning process” and made it clear that they would not hesitate to invite the riot police inside.
This episode is just one of the many examples of repression that have moved the people of Belarus — the younger generation, in particular — to rebel against Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorship. We want change. We want to feel protected, not exposed to the whims of a suffocating state. We want the freedom to express ourselves, the freedom to have a say in our country’s politics. We want a government that doesn’t hinder its nation’s development by stifling private businesses, a government that respects its citizens, a government that can guarantee that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law.
Lukashenko has long relied on the support of older Belarusians — those who recall the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a period of chaos and crime. “I remember the ’90s,” he told supporters recently. “Back then there were workers with pots and kettles standing in this square and asking for food.”
For many older people, these arguments make a certain degree of sense: Surely, the only alternative to Lukashenko’s rule must be anarchy. You can imagine why many of them must think this revolution we’re going through isn’t worth it.
But how effective are warnings like that against the people who are way too young to have lived through a decade long past? The answer: not at all.
Lukashenko became president in 1994. Most of my contemporaries have never known another leader. That’s far too long.
We all know that it doesn’t have to be this way. We’ve seen other countries such as Estonia and Poland overcome similar problems. Though we all had the same starting point after the fall of the U.S.S.R., some countries have embraced a more democratic system and have seen great economic and political development, while Belarus has been stuck in more or less the same state for more than 20 years.
And despite Lukashenko’s claims that democracy equals chaos, we see no proof of that in other countries. In fact, we see the exact opposite: Our democratic neighbors seem a lot more content and well off than the overwhelming majority of Belarusians and Russians. The old propaganda doesn’t work when there’s no Iron Curtain, and the government’s fearmongering feels deeply insulting. Small wonder that the official youth organizations of the regime have been hemorrhaging members.
These aren’t the only reasons for why our Belarusian youth are more willing to take risks. We have more energy, we’re more brash, and we’re in better physical shape. A demonstration that consists mainly of people aged 17 to 22 is a lot more unpredictable and difficult to deal with.
During our Tuesday protest, we took unconventional routes. When the police expected us to walk the avenue, we squeezed through the back streets; by the time they responded, we’d shifted to the major streets. When they tried to block those, we maneuvered around them before they could adapt. While live updates from the Telegram news channel Nexta helped, most of the time we made decisions on the spot.
But why is any of this important in the first place? Why should the government listen to a bunch of spoiled brats who don’t even remember the hardships of the Soviet era or the ’90s?
Well, because we don’t have to remember them. Because we can’t and won’t live our lives in fear of the past, and we can’t and won’t build our futures based on such fear. Young people can’t embrace a system that is hopelessly dated, one that has time and time again failed to protect us from unlawful arrests and police brutality, and one that is stagnant by design.
We are the future of this country — and that future doesn’t include Alexander Lukashenko.
Alice Sitnikova is a student at Minsk State Linguistic University.