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Ukrainians who fought in the Maidan uprising have expressed solidarity with protesters in Belarus. The government fell after months of demonstrations in Kyiv. What can Belarusians learn from their cross-border comrades?
Police have brutally suppressed protests in Belarus since Sunday's presidential election confirmed that Alexander Lukashenko would remain in power. Observers see similarities with the Maidan protests in Kyiv, which began in autumn 2013 and by spring 2014 had led to a change of power and politics in Ukraine. People who participated in the Maidan movement also see parallels across the border.
"The events in Belarus, where rubber bullets were fired at people's heads and a prisoner transport van crashed into a crowd, bring back bitter memories," said Oleksandra Matviychuk, a member of the Euromaidan SOS civil society initiative, which helped the victims of police violence during the protests during the protests in Kyiv. "Such use of force is illegal and must immediately be investigated internationally so Belarusian security officials do not go unpunished," she added.
Matviychuk and about 100 other activists marched to the Belarusian Embassy in Kyiv on Monday to support protesters taking to the streets in Belarus. Civil society activists, politicians, Belarusian migrants and volunteers who fought against the separatist movement that took hold in eastern Ukraine after the Maidan revolution showed solidarity with their comrades in Minsk, urging the authorities in across the border to halt the violence against demonstrators.
People who participated in the Maidan movement stress the importance of international alliances and say Belarusian activists should get the Council of Europe to monitor protests and official violence, rather than wait for independent inquiries and investigations in the wake of whatever happens. "During the Maidan, this helped check crass violations," Matviychuk said.
Matviychuk called on Ukrainians to continue showing solidarity with dissidents in Belarus, who had expressed their support during the Maidan protests. Mikhail Zhiznevsky, a journalist and activist for the far-right Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian People's Self-Defence and one of the first people killed by the state security forces in Kyiv, had come to the county as a child from Belarus.
"The nightly video streams from Belarus are deja vu," said Yevgeniya Zakrevska, a lawyer who represents the family members of people who were victims of police violence on the Maidan. The footage reminds her of a night late in November 2013, when security forces on the Maidan quelled protests after the government canceled the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which would have brought the country deeper into the bloc's economic sphere. The protests in Belarus also remind her of a night in 2010 when demonstrators in Minsk were beaten up after a previous election.
It was also a familiar situation for Pavlo Sydorenko, who was injured during the protests in Ukraine. Sydorenko, who heads an initiative for victims of state violence during the Maidan protests, said he supported the demonstrators in Belarus and wished them success, but he believes that they don't stand a chance against the forces they are facing. Because the various opposition factions are not coordinated, he said, Lukashenko would not likely relinquish the presidency.
Sydorenko said activists in Belarus would need a unified approach to loosen Lukashenko's grip after 26 years. "The Maidan was like an anthill, where everyone did their job as best they could," he said. "There was a goal, and there was an absolute conviction that change was necessary. Some stood guard, some acted as doctors, others brought firewood, and yet others defended prisoners in court."
Lukashenko has proposed that the protests against him are being steered from the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and other countries. Sydorenko said that was nonsense. "You can't artificially create a social uprising,” he said. "Either it exists or it doesn't exist."
The Belarusian journalist Yelena Litvinova said that, though the protesters in Ukraine also demonstrated for free elections rather than for a particular person or candidate, just like the people of Belarus are doing now, there are also clear differences between the movements. The protests in Ukraine began in Kyiv and then drew in millions nationwide. The reverse has been true across the border. "The demonstrations began in the regions,” she said, "and the Belarusian authorities had not considered that factor.”
Litvinova said officials had overreached in juicing the officials election result to give Lukashenko's continued reign a sheen of legitimacy. "Eighty percent of the votes for him?” she said. "That is simply too much when you consider how many people are taking to the streets.”
Change will come for Belarus, Litvinova said. The only question is whether it will be the change that the protesters seek — or a further entrenching of powers in Lukashenko's regime. Either the president will acknowledge that the people who voted and are protesting now do not recognize his rule as legitimate and accept that there are views in the country other than his own, she said, or he will tighten the clampdown.