Belarusian Opposition Needs More Pragmatists, Not Dissidents

Last Friday, a regional political activist Siarhiej Kavalenka ended his long hunger strike in prison. Kavalenka is known for his symbolic actions, such as placing the Belarusian historic flag in public places or holding one-man demonstrations in centre of his native Vitsebsk, in the north of Belarus. Although the political nature of his case is difficult to question, more could have been done to prevent his imprisonment. 

A major oppositional newspaper Narodnaya Volya accused Kavalenka's Conservative Christian Party of neglecting  his case. On the other hand, Amnesty International earlier in May declined to call Kavalenka a prisoner of conscience because it doubts the non-violent character of his protest. His case shows that if the opposition leaders cared more about their most valuable asset - regional activists - they could help them avoid some persecution and strengthen their parties.

The Christmas Tree Protest

37-years old Siarhiej is an activist of the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian People's Front. It is known for its adamant opposition to Belarusian regime, as well as defence of Belarusian independence and culture. The leader of the party, Zianon Pazniak is a symbol of National Democratic opposition to both Soviet and Lukashenka's rule. In 1996, he fled abroad under pressure from the regime.

The idealist position of the party attracts the people tired with quarrels of opposition and ongoing russification. Kavalenka lived in humble conditions in northern city of Vitsebsk which has suffered from even stronger suppression of Belarusian culture than many other regions. He worked in the construction industry and then started his own business making renovations on flats.

Kavalenka climbed on a 40-meter high Christmas tree in the middle of the city and installed the historic white-red-white flag there

The story of Kavalenka begins before the most recent presidential elections in 2010.  On Orthodox Christmas day in 2010, he decided to undertake a new, brave protest action. At noon, Kavalenka climbed on a 40-meter high Christmas tree in the middle of the city and installed the historic white-red-white flag there.

That flag flag is a symbol of confrontation between Lukashenka and his opponents. The flag was first used by the Belarusian People's Republic in early 20th century. It became the official Belarusian flag in 1991-95.  In 1995 Lukashenka initiated a questionable referendum, which had replaced it with a modification of Soviet Belarus flag. Since then, white-red-white symbols serve as symbols of the opposition and alternative vision of Belarusian history and culture. Installing historic flags in public places became an important protest activity. 

For his Christmas action Kavalenka was sentenced in May 2010 to three years of restricted freedom – an obligation to stay at home during certain hours, as well as monetary penalties for damage to property and moral damage to the policemen which detained him.  According to the authorities he resisted arrest – however, no one was harmed.

But he continued his struggle and already in March 2011 he marched with flags in hand, boldly pronouncing slogans in the centre of Vitsebsk. A judge put him under a short administrative arrest for these actions. In early December 2011, Kavalenka went to court again for allegedly abusing police officers who oversaw his restricted freedom sentence and installing historic flags on some buildings in Vitsebsk on 25 November. A few days later, he was put into custody for violations of his restricted freedom sentence and began a hunger strike.

The judge then dropped the charges of putting up flags in November, but still punished him for abusing the police

The judge then dropped the charges of putting up flags in November, but still punished him for abusing the police. In late February, after more than two months of hunger strike a new trial found him guilty of violating freedom limitation and sentenced to two years and a month of strict imprisonment.

It Was Possible to Save Him From Prison

Some coordination and legal advice could help Kavalenka to help him avoid prison. He paid seemingly little attention to the possible consequences of his protests. Despite all of the encroachments by the government, Belarus still has a number of legal mechanisms which can be used even in some "political" court proceedings.

In April 2011, Kavalenka was released for a while from administrative arrest after he filed complaints concerning the  legal proceedings. In December, the judge refused to accept video footage presented by police as proof of his guilt. The main legal pretext was related to violations of his restricted freedom sentence.

More legal awareness on his part could help him avoid procedural mistakes – and it would be much more difficult to give him a prison sentence for harmless actions. Meanwhile, now these pretexts resulted in legal ambiguities which made even Amnesty International suspicious about the political nature of the case.

Hide to Survive

Activists facing serious threats should not take additional risks which are unnecessary

His own party could have cared better about such a committed follower and not let him go to jail for no reason and risk his health and life in hunger strikes. Activists facing serious threats should not take additional risks which are unnecessary. Over the past decade, some Young Front activists while threatened with ex-matriculation from university opted for diminishing public activity and completing their studies. The party, for example, could have asked Kavalenka to wait until the end of his freedom limitation term before carrying out further risky actions.

Take another example. In the early 2000s, the youth organisation Kraj reportedly uncovered remnants of disappeared politicians and faced serious retaliation. Its leadership cared about its own people, so it disbanded its structures and brought threatened activists abroad. Not even one single person got a prison term. It was more humane, wise and efficient than to wage heroic yet useless confrontation with the regime. Many of the Kraj activists, including one of the leaders, Vadzim Kabanchuk, later returned to Belarus to continue their activities. They realised, risking people's lives and well-being without any real necessity to do so only helps the regime.

Regional Activists That Walk By Themselves

The opposition should care more about its regional activists - its most valuable asset

The opposition should care more about its regional activists -- its most valuable asset. Regional activists have firm views and courage. But they cannot know, do and prepare everything themselves and need legal advise, as well as  ideological and organisational support from party. Once kicked out of their jobs it is almost impossible for them to find other employment. 

Unfortunately political parties and organisations often have little influence or control over their own followers. For example, many party leaders were embarrassed when Milinkevich collected the best regional cadres first before the  2006 elections and then again to establish his new movement "For Freedom."

In 2010, the parties feared that Nyaklyaeu's movement "Tell the Truth" would "buy up" regional and provincial party activists. They feared this for a good reason, as loyalty of regional structures was nominal due to lack of attention to them from their own leadership.

If the opposition wants to win, it needs more practical and pragmatic individuals

The activists should not be left to their own devices and lead hopeless struggles against the powerful regime as dissidents. In this environment, only a few idealistic people will continue to work for this cause. If the opposition wants to win, it needs more practical and pragmatic individuals.

The massive democratic movement against the Soviet regime in late 1980s was won with seasoned individuals who were often Communist insiders who joined the movement. They saw the benefits of choosing another way.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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