Belarusians Pop Car Tires to Express Ukraine Sentiments

On 23 July, the main Belarusian portal TUT.by blew the Internet up with an article about Belarusians who were going around popping car tires with Russian number plates in Minsk.

The site's administration removed nearly two thousand comments for inciting ethnic hatred.

The attitude of some Belarusians towards Russia is getting more radical due to the conflict in Ukraine, and these tires appear to be just one example of their growing displeasure.

In a turn of events unheard of in Belarus previously, people are also target cars with Ukrainian symbols and historical Belarusian white-red-white flag symbols.

Radicalisation is not only a result of the Ukrainian conflict or boom of Russian organisations now active in Belarus, but also from the authoritarian political climate in the country.

The authorities have banned basically any political protests from taking place, so many feel they have no way to express their dissent other than by piercing the wheels of cars.

Fighting in The Streets

On 23 July, TUT.by tells published an article describing how at least three cars were in Minsk, all of which were carrying either Russian numbers or symbols.

The vandals have made use of different means of inflicting damage: popping tires or breaking out windows, scratching the side of the car or pouring buckets of mud on them.

Last year, the Belarusian media wrote about several cases where drivers of public buses hung Russian flags on the window and activists sought their withdrawal. On 30 October 2013, police even detained an activist in Minsk for a few hours as the driver accused him of debauchery.

Not only cars with Russian symbols become victims

Later, however, the police released the activist, and Minsk's public transport service apologised "for the inconvenience"​ and the driver remove the flag.

However, not only cars with Russian symbols have become victims in the latest wave of hooliganism. Recently, a driver who had a Belarusian white-red-white and Ukrainian flag in their, said that someone since May 2014 has been puncturing his tires repeatedly in Minsk.

Until Lukashenka came to power the white-red-white flag served as the official symbol of Belarus. Now the Belarusian diaspora and nearly all opposition parties in Belarus consider it as the only true flag of Belarus.

Country of Intolerant People

Most of these events are, to a large extent, the result of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. While a few Belarusians are fighting on both sides in the Donbass, some continue to battle with one another Belarus, albeit typically in a much less violent form.

This ongoing, growing conflict helps to debunk one of the most popular myths about Belarusians - their tolerance.

Belarus occupies 92nd place in the Global Peace Index. This ranking makes use of three main criteria: the level of safety and security in society, the extent of its domestic or international conflicts, and the degree of a nation's militarisation. Belarus is better positioned than Russia (152nd place) and Ukraine (141st position), but worse than its EU neighbours Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Moreover, recent these offences have ties to another important myth - that of the Belarusian partisans. After the Second World War communists portrayed Belarus as a “guerrilla country”, one that knows how to fight under occupation.

These recent events suggest a growing trend of anti-Russia sentiments. A driver of one of the damaged cars quoted on TUT.by said that, "he had never seen people in Belarus have such a strong dislike for the Russians [before]".

The current radicalisation of Belarusian society has its roots in the absence of democratic institutions and open forums within the country. According to Freedom House's criteria, Belarus has the same freedom rating as China. Belarus needs public debates to help society let off some of its steam.

Pro-Russian organisations supply free Russian flags for distribution in Belarus

However, the authoritarian regime provides few chances for genuine public discussions to take place, as Lukashenka likes to call virtually all pro-democracy organisations a "fifth column".

Therefore, many have only one way of expressing themselves - popping the tires of those who have different political views as expressed by the national insignia of this or that country.

Thus, while most Belarusians hold pro-Russian sentiments, some Belarusians have become sensitive to the Kremlin's barrage of anti-Ukrainian propaganda which has served as a catalyst to revitalise dormant pro-Russian organisations in Belarus.

As part of their work, pro-Russian organisations supply free Russian flags for distribution in Belarus at every turn possible. Although Russian organisations previously did not spread Russian national symbols in the past, in recent months the Belarusian media has reported on a serious spike in their distribution in at least five cities, including Minsk, the capital of Belarus.​

Although Belarusians call the police to try to get them to stop people from handing out Russian flags on the street, there is obviously not much that they can to do. On one such occasion, on 15 July, the police acted and detained people distributing Russian flags in Orsha, a town in east Belarus.

They turned out to be deaf people who were either selling or giving away the flags in exchange for a miniscule wage, as they have an extremely difficult time finding other jobs in Belarus.

Since distributing the symbols of another country remains legal according Belarusian law, the police were obliged to release them, since they had nothing to hold them on.

Belarusian Hooligans and Russian Organisations

Who is responsible for the damage done to the cars remains unknown. In the case of the cars with Russian symbols, suspicion may fall on football fans. Despite a spike in pro-Russian sentiments, Belarusian football fans have much better ties with their counterparts in Ukraine than in Russia.

This is why most football fans support Ukraine today. Their support has only grown in the months since protests broke out in Kyiv last winter. In one instance the police arrested several BATE fans for merely having taken a photo in solidarity with Maidan.

With regards to the cars vandalised that were carrying Ukrainian symbols, activists of pro-Russian organisations would appear to be the most logical and likely perpetrators.

Lately, organisations such as Rumol (Russian youth) have intensified their activities in Belarus through their usual events such as holding sports competitions or tourist rallies.

since late 1990s, Belarusians have been deprived of any real form of participation in the nation's political life

Their last event took place in Minsk region on July 2014. The Belarusian authorities pay close attention to these associations, but do not interfere with their activities. Their hands-off approach is likely due to the fact that Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian federal government agency, is financing these organisations.

Still, it can be ruled out that ordinary Belarusians may also be responsible for these acts of vandalism. An increasingly propagandistic Russian television, which is very popular in Belarus, has created an atmosphere of hatred presenting Ukrainians as fascists or a people who support a junta.

At the same time, since late 1990s, Belarusians have been deprived of any real form of participation in the nation's political life.

As a result, some people may view vandalising someone else's property as an opportunity to express their stifled political views.

No matter who committed these offences, they show that the Russian war against Ukraine will shape not only high level politics in the region, but also affect the relationship between thugs, football fans, youth organisations and ordinary people.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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