Valentinas Klimašauskas: The whole world is observing events in Belarus that are extremely frightening and full of hope at the same time. One of the most discussed issues I have been following so far, at least in my social bubble/networks, is how far this peaceful resistance may go, if it is systematic and organised enough to achieve its political goals. Already more than a month has passed since demonstrations started and there is still a long way to go, however, we may discuss this policy of nonviolent action. Could you comment on the chosen policy of nonviolent action, the reasoning behind, about how it feels to be part of mass demonstrations, how/if its policies changed or evolved during the last days, weeks, months?
Olia Sosnovskaya: It is hard for me to say why this strategy has been chosen, and if there was a clear choice, or rather forced necessity, given the clear inequality of power between the protestors and heavily armed police. As far as I remember, the latest rather violent resistance between the protestors and the police took place in the end of the 90-ies. Since then, the state tightened repressions and the police have always been using violence against protestors, no matter how peaceful they are. Belarus has one of the highest amounts of police per capita in Europe, and the state really effectively executes its monopoly on violence. Normally everyone is aware that if you resist the police, you would face even greater charges and aggression, so peaceful protests have also to some extent been a means of self-protection. This time however, when police started to attack and detain peaceful protestors already at the actions before the elections, people started to fight back and fight off their fellows. It might mean that the new generation who are more brave and decisive because they haven’t experienced police brutality on the demonstrations before, took to the streets. The new stage of the non-violent protests, which continues till now, emerged as a response to the unprecedented and completely disproportional state violence of the first post-election days and nights (thousands people detained, hundred wounded and tortured, several deaths, several people gone missing), during which people attempted to resist the police. These nonviolent actions included not only mass marches and demonstrations, but also strikes, walk outs, protest choirs in public space, mass resignations from state workplaces, graffities, flags, unmasking the cops. I was in Minsk only for a short period, so I can’t really tell how it changed. I think it is a hard question for many of us: what if the peaceful resistance doesn’t work? But people comfort themselves that this is not a sprint, but a marathon. And I am persuaded that all these types of actions should work together: mass marches without strikes are much less effective. Also, through this long process other very important things emerge: people learn to self-organise, community ties and solidarity intensifies. Now, the new big movement, which is less visible than the marches, is self-organising of the neighbourhoods and city districts: people socialise and meet in the yards, make local guerrilla actions, coordinating each other in the local telegram-chats. They establish horizontal decentralized networks and claim the city. “This is our city” – is one of the popular protest slogans.
Continuing the topic about peaceful resistance in the face of state violence, I’d like to talk more about the possibilities of the so called meme wars and the power of satire which is very visible looking at the photos and other types of broadcasting from demonstrations. So the question is – how powerful in this situation is that special strength of being poetic, making up new slogans, looking for new language to fight propaganda, searching for new symbols of protest?
Antonina Stebur: Poetic and ironic language is an important part of the struggle in any protest. This sharp, allegorical language creates a gap between reality. What Viktor Shklovsky called the term “ostranenie” (defamiliarization), that is, to remove a thing or phenomenon from automatic perception, to look at it from a new angle, to experience it again. In his article “Art as Technique” Viktor Shklovsky writes that the poetic language “is specially created for the reception, which is taken out of the state of automatism”. Poetic language makes it possible to redescribe reality. That is why he plays such an important role in any protest. And the Belarusian protest is no exception here. Slogans that have become popular in the Belarusian protest, such as “THE POWER IS MADE OF BLACK RUBBER”, EVERYTHING IS SO BAD THAT EVEN THE INTROVERTS ARE OUT” or “PAST WON’T COME BACK AND NO TEARS WILL HELP” represent a critical tool, a performative act and an attempt to describe the situation in a new language.
People comfort themselves that this is not a sprint, but a marathon. And I am persuaded that all these types of actions should work together: mass marches without strikes are much less effective. Also, through this long process other very important things emerge: people learn to self-organise, community ties and solidarity intensifies.
OS: Humour and satire has always been part of the anti-state resistance in Belarus. Which seems quite natural, if one listens to the President’s statements: they are often absurd. This tendency to some extent also reflects the situation, when direct opposition to power is dangerous, so people try to be inventive in the ways of resistance. At the same time, the current state power itself is very ceremonial and its visual manifestations are omnipresent. So performativity and poetics of the ongoing protests could be indeed seen as an effort to re-signify the space, both physically (with red-white-red flags, for example, which now serve as anti-Lukashenko and not really nationalist ones) and symbolically. It is also very important that this poetics is not only reactive — just reacting to state propaganda — but it goes further, producing its own gestures. This time laughter also seems a regenerative gesture to me. After the despair, horror and mourning of the post-election state violence, people recollect their energy again and manifest: “we are not afraid anymore, we laugh at your face”. This is the liveness which resists violence and repression. Police brutality deprives you of dignity, and I see these poetic resistance tools as a way to restore one’s agency. Apart from using humour, people very often quote pop or punk songs on their posters. For example, “THE POWER IS MADE OF BLACK RUBBER”, which Antonina mentions, is a 2002 song by the Belarusian punk band Contra la Contra. I think this characterises the protest as really popular.
Looking at the demonstrations in Belarus one is forced to think about how creative the Belarusian people are. I’m talking about various posters and memes, satire of official propaganda, how self-organised the crowd is and how variously it demonstrates while escaping various cordons, how it moves in the city, how women changed men and men stayed at home when needed, etc. I’d like to link this creativity of protests with artistic creativity in this question and to ask if artists, artistic institutions are taking any specific roles in the recent events?
Lena Prents: There are many questions in one and many different aspects. Memes, cartoons, banners of the protesters and satire in different forms are characteristic for many contemporary protests against the state power, whether Hong Kong, Minsk, Santiago or Khabarovsk. Artists react quickly with great creativity in resistance, but so do other people. The revolutionary enthusiasm gives wings, you can hardly escape it. The protests began with employees of an institution, a factory or a company stepping outside their door, demanding fair counting of votes and expressing their solidarity with prisoners. Suddenly we experienced many different professional groups who expressed their protests in an unique creative way. Visual artists standing in front of the Palace of Art with photos of the abused people. Musicians singing at the entrance to the Philharmonic Hall. Choirs with flash mobs in shopping malls. Actors with performances in the streets. Workers who shouted during an official meeting with Lukashenka: “Go!”. Doctors who cared for some of the first patients who took to the streets reported war-like injuries, an experience unlike anything they had faced before. A special feature of Belarusian protests is their often quoted “female face”. Women took indeed a specific role in the recent events. How many protests in post-soviet countries can you remember, where only women initiated and participated in demonstrations, where women stood in the front rows? I usually avoid the term pride in my own vocabulary. Now I experienced or observed many actions of the women in Belarus and thought: “I am so proud of you”.
AS: I would divide the answer to this question into two parts. The first part is a discussion of the role of the artist. Indeed, the Belarusian protest is very creative. And it seems that any protest uses artistic techniques for its struggle. We remember the events in Paris in 1968 for their famous slogans and posters. The style of these posters later became the basis for a new trend in design. Either slogans or posters were created anonymously, they were not art in the usual sense of the word. But at the same time they used the artistic language as a technique, they used all the arsenal that the artist usually uses. Anonymity and nationality (popularity or mass character) is an important part of protest creativity. At the same time, I agree with Lena, who says that artists and other cultural workers actively use their professional tools to express their disagreement in public.
The second part of my answer concerns women. Indeed, women have played and continue to play a huge role in the protest movement. It was the women’s chains of solidarity that transformed the protest into a peaceful channel and made it massive. There are not many other protests where women have played such a role as in the Belarusian protest. But it’s also important to note here that the act of women appearing on the streets is not a feminist act. I would really like to see protests like this, but it doesn’t happen. Women taking to the streets do not discuss the gender agenda, do not discuss the law against domestic violence, salaries gap which in some areas reaches 50%. This is also clearly seen in the rhetoric of men who support women’s protests. For them, a woman is the figure of a “Decembrist wife” who stands up for her husband, father, brother, etc. Of course, I would like the protest to become more specific, more demanding in this part.
OS: I share Antonina’s concerns about feminist agenda of the women’s protests. The fact that women could be in the front rows and protect men, because the police would not dare to attack women publically (even though they did during the post-election protests, and they do it again now, too) is part of the patriarchal norms, which women tactically used against it. But I would not agree, that there is no feminist agenda on the marches at all: sometimes there is a queer column, LGBTQ flags were present a few times, there were posters condemning patriarchy and violence against women. Right, the gender of the presidential candidates and participation of women in the protests is not feminist per se. But i do think that it is empowering, and it is part of a more complex processes in the society, which build feminist and more inclusive structures, precisely through people’s participation, even though this particpation might not be completely self-aware now.
It’s also important to note here that the act of women appearing on the streets is not a feminist act. I would really like to see protests like this, but it doesn’t happen. Women taking to the streets do not discuss the gender agenda, do not discuss the law against domestic violence, salaries gap which in some areas reaches 50%. This is also clearly seen in the rhetoric of men who support women’s protests.
Speaking about artists and art institutions, I agree with Lena, that now really diverse professional groups unite, join the struggle and show their solidarity, including cultural workers. I would like to add an important and particular issue, that is cultural workers, who are or were members of state institutions (national art museums, theaters, symphonies) and normally were loyal to the state, also joined the protests. If before there was a certain divide between independent and state or official cultural scene, now we – at least in some part – have solidarized. And it was important to support the state employed cultural workers, while they are perhaps in even more dependent positions, being part of the system. I would also say that their voice is thus more visible and dangerous for the state.
LP: Additionally just two short stories on the role of artists and artistic institutions in protests in order to illustrate what OS and AS said above. We experienced once a great singing flash mob in a shopping mall in Minsk. This was this open space in the middle of the building, typical for department stores, where you can look down into the basement from every floor. People stood on different floors and sang the “Mahutny Bozha”, a kind of alternative hymne in Belarus. Down in the basement, two guys conducted. We saw through the glass wall of the elevator which slowly moved from top to the basements full equipmented guys from the special police force. All people present held their breath. Even before the elevator stopped, the conductor packed his stuff and disappeared around the corner. These were definitely not amateurs, but professional musicians Olia was talking about. // The non-state “Ў” gallery of contemporary art in Minsk invited artists and the public to some kind of extended breakfast – people could come, share food, their anxieties and hopes; they used their hands and embroidered various pictures of the protests – until a house search on August 27 took place in the gallery and paralyzed its activities.
While also wishing luck there was some (non)surprising scepticism addressed towards the uprising. For example, Slavoj Žižek’s article in the Independent is titled “Belarus’s problems won’t vanish when Lukashenko goes – victory for democracy also comes at a price” which means that he and others alike are afraid that Belarus will become another “liberal-democratic capitalist” country. This is how Žižek finishes his article: “So let’s wish all the luck to protesters in Belarus: if they win, Covid-19 concerns will return with a vengeance, with all other pressing issues from ecology to new poverty. They will need luck – and courage.” Could you comment on it?
LP: (Left-wing) cultural theorists and practitioners do not like to deal with statistics, they do not like to read uninspiring economic reports. Cultural essays on the social-social situations often refer to Foucault, Deleuze and Latour, but rarely analyze economic reports. Belarus has long since ceased to be a welfare state. In 1999, fixed-term employment contracts were introduced by law. The law defined the minimum (1 year) and maximum (5 years) period of validity of contracts. In practice, many employers have extended contracts with employees for only one year, so that employees have always been afraid of losing their jobs when the fixed-term contract expires. Since 2015 the country has been in recession; in the same year “the law against social parasites” was passed. It required those who worked less than 183 days per year to pay the government $250 in compensation for lost taxes. Free medical care is relative. Older patients are often poorly treated because they would die soon anyway. The coronavirus pandemic, which was officially denied in Belarus, revealed the ailing state of the medical system. Activists gathered donations to buy protective clothing for doctors, volunteers spread in their free time the necessary equipment in clinics. The “Ў” gallery of contemporary art, based in an old factory building, made its rooms available to the volunteers. Here they collected protective clothing, masks, medical tools and drove the necessary things to the hospitals. I am very sorry that I did not take a photo of this hall when the volunteers moved out. It looked like in a war time: the map of Belarus in the middle with marks of what is needed where, labels on walls “masks”, “valves”, “protective clothing” etc. At the beginning of every new school year, parents are asked to pay the money for the renovation of the school – in a country with an educational system free of charge. Also studying at universities is no longer completely free. Several years ago we were kidding about Lukashenka how he manoeuvred between Russia and IMF in order to receive credits from both parties: He privatized some unimportant industry branches that the IMF asked for, received money from them, but kept in state ownership the strategically important companies. Now even they are partly or completely privatized, information about this is hard to get.
AS: To some extent, I agree with Lena’s analysis. Slavoj Žižek really does not have a complete understanding of the economic and political situation in the country, of how the sphere of social protection exists. COVID-19, for example, has shown that the medical infrastructure doesn’t practically work. It was possible to more or less stabilize the situation in the country not because the system worked correctly and well, but through the personal efforts of individual doctors. It was their heroic gesture by professional doctors. My friends and I ironically call Lukashenka’s political regime feudal – capitalist. Lukashenko is a populist, he does not represent the left.
I agree with the points brought by Lena and Antonina. I also share the concerns about neoliberalisation of the country, but channeling the whole uprising to that fear is definitely a colonial view. It exists within the paradigm in which “east” always catches up the “west”.
Protests in Belarus are often compared to the Maidan Revolution in Kyiv. This rhetoric is used by the Belarusian authorities themselves when they say: “Do you want a Ukraine scenario?” It is also used by Western and Russian researchers. But it seems problematic to me to describe the protests of Belarus as a color revolution. Belarusian protest has its own essential features. First of all, we cannot describe it as anti-Russian as well as pro-Western. People do not go out for a specific program, but against the president. As the events of 2020 have shown, he is neither a guarantor of stability nor a guarantor of independence. But of course, we may have different scenarios for the future. There is a danger related to bringing the colonial neoliberal model with the dictates of the market into life. In the same time Aliaxey Talstou and I wrote an article about the utopian horizon of the future in Belarus, where we showed that there is a material basis in order to propose an alternative form of government that is not associated with either the authoritarian Lukashenka regime or the neoliberal agenda.
OS: I agree with the points brought by Lena and Antonina. I also share the concerns about neoliberalisation of the country, but channeling the whole uprising to that fear is definitely a colonial view. It exists within the paradigm in which “east” always catches up the “west”. The groups involved in the struggle are so diverse, it is hardly possible to tell what is their common agenda, apart from one thing: there is no return. I think it is really the time to call it not protests, but uprising. The political figures, like Kolesnikova or Tikhanouskaya, also do not represent all the protestors.
What is more, a position that you refer to is blind to the fact that the current regime exists thanks to Russia’s support, which is not free — the country is being sold. Is it seen as a better alternative? In the end, I refuse to choose between just these two alternatives. One does not need to write an article to say that even after Lukashenko Belarus will face problems – it is obvious. And people in the country are also quite sceptical about the EU’s support: it hasn’t done much for so many years of Lukashenko’s rule, why would it now? It is clear they also profit from the existing state of things. But I also do think that we all need to work hard to vocalize and practice our agenda in any possible ways. This is not so easy, because anyone who is seen as a “leader” by the state is in danger.
At the same time there is also hope coming even from sceptical or disillusioned Westerners that Belarus may actually learn from the mistakes our societies made. For me personally the nonviolent action and grass-root organization of the events is already a sign that there shouldn’t be space for any cynicism but for hope only. In this context I’d only wish that the future Belarus would somehow maintain this grass root activism, collective action as its own way of organising future politics, economy, culture, etc. What would be your wish for the future in this context?
AS: Indeed, the future is very vague. The situation, or better to say, the configuration of, on the one hand, Belarusian government, on the other hand, the protest movement is constantly changing. Therefore, it is so difficult to make predictions and it is so difficult to talk about the future, since the initial data is constantly changing. But what I see now gives hope.
I believe in techno-optimism and that we have a chance to create a more modern, less repressive, more inclusive and fairer governance and economic model.
I recently discussed with my colleague Aliaxey Talstou that the very figure of the president is unethical, because one is the figure of an abuser who has a monopoly on violence. This statement applies not only to Belarus.
I recently discussed with my colleague Aliaxey Talstou that the very figure of the president is unethical, because one is the figure of an abuser who has a monopoly on violence. This statement applies not only to Belarus. We see a gigantic political crisis around the world.
At the same time, we have a material basis in the form of new forms of communication, IT platforms that can change social relations, make them more horizontal and less hierarchical. We see how this works as an example of protests in Belarus, when entire infrastructures appear in a few days. I work in a probono.by contact center. It is a complex IT system that connects victims with the initiatives he or she needs and provides assistance. And the whole organization is built as a grass root activism, collective action.
This system is based not on competition but on cooperation. I like to think that such systems can fit into the political, economic, and social model of the future of Belarus. Although, of course, I understand that alongside opportunities there are a huge number of dangers and threats, for example, sliding into a populist or neoliberal model.
OS: I must say, I don’t really share the techno-optimistic position. Even though telegram-chats are a useful tool of self-organisation and various digital platforms attempt to create independent alternatives to the corrupted state systems, they still don’t resolve the issues of privileges, uneven access to technologies and distribution of the resources. In addition, the IT sector in Belarus has for a long time been apolitical or even loyal to the state – they comfortably co-existed. But I do think that this collective experience we all are living now is transformative, and it is already being incorporated into our collective and individual bodies. Speaking about the future, I would quote a text we prepared with Aleksei Borisonok: “We don’t have any illusions about a bright future, but we demand the utopic, feminist, self-organised, institutional, caring, polyphonic, socialist, decolonial, queer, happy, joyful future”. I wish the mode of cooperation, self-organising and solidarity between different groups, professions, genders and classes would remain, even when we are not facing a state of emergency any more. That it won’t be only horrifying police violence, that makes people politically active and aware. That instead of the falling into nationalistic ideas we would live a decolonialized life. That if we have to elect a president (totally agree with Antonina’s perspective on this figure) we will have a much better choice than banker (of the russian gas company), or populist, or technocrat or dictator.
LP: And just to continue Olias wishes – that Belarus would not be flooded with advice and money from the conservative parties from the West, which would teach us a democracy based on the Western model.
VK: What kind of help would you expect or lack from foreign countries, especially from the cultural field?
OS: I think there are quite many ways to help, and some of them are immediate, while others are more long-term. Now it is important to keep the spread of the information. The bitter truth is that the less spectacular violence is – the less international attention is given. No rubber bullets are being shot, but people, in particular active ones, are still attacked, arrested, threatened. Please, make public statements. If you have a possibility to amplify voices through the media and other channels, invite people from Belarus to share their stories, comments, and visions of the future. In particular those ones who are based there. Many cultural workers need financial support, being left without income and any state support since the start of the pandemic, now they invest most of their energies, like everyone else, into the struggle. Commission texts, art works, DJ-sets. If you can afford that, donate to the funds that support workers on strike and victims of police violence. I would also expect that this support and interest would not vanish with time, when there is no immediate threat anymore. Especially, if the situation won’t change in the near future, the long-term support would be very much necessary.
I also expect from the foreign countries to open the borders and cancel visa regimes. To stop financing Russian, Belarusian and other authoritarian governments. To change their own state systems, so that we all have a better choice than a colonial capitalist one.
The e- conversation took place during September 15 to 21.
Lena Prents is a Belarusian born and Berlin based art historian and curator.
Olia Sosnovskaya is an artist, researcher and organiser, born in Minsk, Belarus. Based in Minsk and Vienna.
Antonina Stebur is a curator and researcher. She graduated from Visual and Cultural Studies at the European Humanities University (Vilnius, Lithuania) and the School of Engaged Arts (CHTO DELAT art group, Saint-Petersburg, Russia). She was the curator of a number of exhibitions in Belarus, Russia, Poland, France and China. Her research and curatorial interests include community, reassessment of everyday practices, feminist criticism, new sensitivity, grassroots initiatives.
Valentinas Klimašauskas is a curator and writer. Together with Joao Laia he cocurates the 14th Baltic Triennial at CAC Vilnius (2021).