On November 20, Anastasia Kryvasheyeva was attending class at Minsk State Linguistic University when she began receiving Telegram messages telling her that the KGB were arresting her friends. Twenty-year-old Kryvasheyeva stared at her phone as it was deluged with messages from friends who had officers from the State Security Committee — abbreviated to KGB in English — banging down their doors.
Panicking, Kryvasheyeva left school, turning off her phone for fear that the GPS might be tracked. Kryvasheyeva knew that if the KGB was looking for student activists, she would likely be on their list.
Kryvasheyeva is one of the many Belarusian students facing the consequences of protests against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime — including police brutality, criminal charges, expulsion from university, and imprisonment. Students made up a significant portion of the hundreds of thousands of Belarusians who protested what many view as a stolen election last August. There are currently 11 students and one professor standing trial in Minsk for “conspiracy, preparation, and organisation of and participation in activities that violate social order” for their participation in the protests. If convicted, they could be imprisoned for up to three years. In addition, Amnesty International reports that 466 students have been detained, and at least 153 arbitrarily expelled from their universities; 42 are suspects in criminal cases, and many have fled the country for fear of arrest.
Alexander Lukashenko has led a brutal regime in Belarus since 1994, having taken over the presidency soon after the country’s independence. Lukashenko, whose 26 years in power have been marked by systematic suppression of civil liberties through arrests, intimidation, and police violence, faced a particular challenge in the 2020 election from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. A human rights activist, she decided to run after the arrest of her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, himself originally a candidate. Official results from the August 9, 2020, election state that Lukashenko won 80% of the vote. Independent polls state otherwise, however, and many in Belarus believed that the election was rigged in Lukashenko’s favor. An Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe investigation in November confirmed the allegations.
After the election, Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee to Lithuania for fear of arrest and imprisonment. Demonstrations erupted across Belarus, particularly in Minsk, the capital, and large metropolitan centres like Gomel. Hundreds of thousands of people participated in the protests, a scale unprecedented since the end of the USSR. Many Belarusians claim to have been motivated by the election — seen as a fraudulent affront to the democratic process and an example of the Lukashenko regime’s despotic actions — but also the violent state response to the initial demonstrations.
“The majority of Belarusians… voted against Lukashenko, and he cannot forgive them for this,” Pavel Latushka, former minister and diplomat under Lukashenko who has since joined the opposition, told the Financial Times. “He decided to punish the whole nation.”
Indeed, Lukashenko’s response to the protests was swift and violent. Amnesty International delegates witnessed “the viciousness of the police response,” which included beating and stun grenades by the police. “One horrifying video shows a police van running over a protester at full speed on a wide road,” says Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s regional director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
According to Belarusian opposition leaders, more than 35,000 people have been detained since August — a sizable number in a country of less than 10 million. Viasna Human Rights Centre, an organisation providing financial and legal assistance to political prisoners and their families in Belarus, estimates that there are currently more than 480 political prisoners. This includes activists and journalists — including the May 23 arrests of journalist Roman Protasevich and student Sofia Sapega after the Belarusian government called in a bomb threat to force their flight from Lithuania to Greece to land in Minsk.
Twenty-year-old Kryvasheyeva was an activist with the Belarusian Student Association (BSA) before the August protests even began. The BSA is a historic student union that dates back to 1991, when Belarus declared independence from the Soviet Union. It has since transformed into a grassroots organization that advocates for student rights.
“Students have been protesting even before the [August] elections,” says Oraz Myradov, 24, the international secretary of the BSA and a recent university graduate.
“Lukashenko’s regime was always trying to control students,” Myradov continues. “Students are very free because they won’t lose their jobs [for protesting] — they can only be expelled.”
That is why, according to Myradov, students made up such an essential segment of the people protesting the election results this fall. Thousands of students across Belarus’s main cities participated in demonstrations every day. The BSA organized a school strike, where students sat together every day in common spaces during the break times at university, holding flags, clapping, and singing. On September 1, students from different universities skipped class to demonstrate in a public street in Minsk. Students had gathered to sign a petition appealing to the education minister when the police came to break up the demonstration.
“There was brutality from our police,” says Kryvasheyeva. “It was very scary to see the police with guns. Some of the students were arrested. Some were beaten.” Kryvasheyeva then describes how students fled the police violence, seeking refuge in the Minsk State Linguistic University building. According to Kryvasheyeva, school administrators attempted to hold the doors and bar the students from entering the university. Eventually, some students were able to hide in the school, although many were beaten and arrested.
But state repression only fomented the protests. A survey conducted by the Centre for East European and International Studies found 20% of respondents reporting that either themselves or friends and family members had suffered violence, while 80% of Belarusians who report that they protested say that they did so in response to the police violence.
Kryvasheyeva speaks of how students began demonstrating every day in response to the brutality. The police began to regularly beat and arrest students at these protests, which led to their continued escalation. Kryvasheyeva was arrested at a youth demonstration on October 17, and spent thirteen days in administrative detention.
On October 27, 2020, President Lukashenko called for Belarusian universities to expel students who had participated in the protests. Students continued to demonstrate anyway.
This continued until November 20, when the KGB began arresting student activists at their homes.
“We didn’t expect that,” says Myradov. “That the KGB would begin arresting us [student activists] as we sat at home.”
Kryvasheyva knew that the KGB would look for her at her parents’ apartment, so she hid in her grandmother’s flat at first. After about five minutes, she slipped out and into her parents’ apartment, which was in the same block.
“It was a miracle I wasn’t there because just after I left is when they began searching my grandma’s house,” said Kryvasheyva. The KGB officers questioned her grandmother, telling her that they were looking for Kryvasheyva and had seen her entering the apartment building.
“I called my mother, who said that they had just searched my parents’ home,” she said. “It was humorously dangerous.”
Kryvasheyva stayed hidden in her parents’ apartment for three days. She didn’t turn on the lights for fear that the KGB was still monitoring her. She suspected that the police had an unmarked car parked in her neighborhood, waiting to arrest her. Her grandmother stopped by once a day to discreetly leave food by her door.
The KGB tried to arrest many students in the following days and weeks.
“We were changing places all the time,” says Myradov, “hiding from the security services.”
“Life became very scary in the last six months.” The Belarusian KGB managed to arrest 11 students and one professor. One of those arrested was Anastasia Bulibenka, a nineteen-year-old student at the Belarusian National Technical University in Minsk. According to information that her mother gave to Amnesty International, Bulibenka was expelled from the university in August for participating in demonstrations and had been warned several times by the school administration that she was under observation.
Bulibenka was sleeping at her mother’s apartment when she heard a voice telling her to “get up.” Six KGB officers were standing around her bed, having broken into her apartment. The officers searched her home and then arrested Bulibenka. She has been held in prison since November 12.
Bulibenka is one of the 11 students and one professor currently being tried for “violation of the social order,” a crime which could bring up to three years in prison. The trial began on May 14 in Minsk and is expected to go until the end of June.
Although the press has been excluded from the courtroom, some representatives from human rights groups and legal aid groups have been allowed to attend, allowing some information to reach the outside world.
“It’s just a circus, just a cinema,” says Kryvasheyva. “It’s not a real legal process.” Kryvasheyva and Myradov both told Jacobin that faculty and administrators were made to testify, using identical language to describe how “the protests lowered the image of the university” — an indication that the witnesses were instructed what to say.
Other students on trial include Yana Arabeika, a nineteen-year-old student at the Belarusian State Pedagogical University who was arrested in her dormitory on November 12, and Alana Gebremariam, a 23-year-old activist with the BSA. Also on trial are nineteen-year-old Belarusian State University student Illia Trakhtenberg, 24-year-old Viktoryia Hrankouskaya, 22-year-old Hleb Fitsner, 23-year-old Maryia Kalenik, and professor Volha Filatchankava of the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics.
“The targeting of politically active students and teachers is not a new tactic of the Belarusian authorities or educational establishments,” reports Amnesty International.
“But the scale of harassment, persecution, and violence against them is unprecedented since Belarus’s independence in 1991 — and the same holds true for all who speak out against the government in the context of the presidential election.”
After three days of hiding, Kryvasheyva had had enough. Kryvasheyva decided that she had to leave Belarus like fellow activists. She decided to cross into Ukraine, which, along with Russia, has an open border with Belarus, although she feared that she might be arrested at the border checkpoint.
“I was so tired of being trapped in the apartment,” she said, “that I decided what will be.”
“All I brought was my backpack, my laptop, and my passport,” said Kryvasheyva. But the border search still took three hours. The border officials said that she couldn’t pass because she had an open criminal case against her. Finally, they let her through.
“It was the second miracle,” she said. Kryvasheyva called her mother once she made it past the border check.
“She was so happy that I was in a safe place — even just a neutral point between Belarus and Ukraine,” said Kryvasheyva. “She cried.”
Although the Lukashenko regime has detained and imprisoned at least 466 students since August, according to the BSA, many more have been silenced by being forced into exile, fleeing Belarus since the November 12 arrests. Myradov managed to cross the border into Poland using an existing visa. Other student activists, he says, took buses to the edge of Belarus and walked through the thick forest into Ukraine, avoiding the border checkpoints. A generation of the most vocal activists in Belarus has been suppressed through police brutality, short-term detention, intimidation, and the threat of long-term imprisonment. The story of Roman Protasevitch’s flight rerouting and arrest has made them all the more fearful and afraid to travel, says Kryvasheyva.
“We are scattered across Europe now,” says Myradov. “In Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania. European universities have to revise or freeze their partnerships with Belarusian universities.” He says that Europe must send a consistent message of stopping any kind of relationship with civil society groups who support the Lukashenko administration’s abuses.
“It is crucial to keep Belarusian problems in the public agenda,” says Kryvasheva. “International support for us is incredibly crucial.”
Kryvasheyva and Myradov have no plans to return to Belarus. Both are staying in Poland for the immediate future, where Kryvasheyva has found work as a journalist. Both Myradov and Kryvasheyva are applying to universities in the hope that they can return to their studies.
“Every day, I think about coming home,” says Kryvasheyva. “But I know I can’t just come home.”
Rosa Schwartzburg was a Fulbright Scholar to the Netherlands in 2018 and received her MA from the Central European University in Budapest. She is currently at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
This article was published on Jacobin. Read it here.
Featured image: Students of Minsk State Linguistic University attend a rally in support of their detained fellows in Minsk, Belarus, September 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters