The World's Attention is Already Drifting Away from Belarus. It's Far Too Soon | Opinion

The inauguration of Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko was supposed to have been very different. Accustomed to being in total control, the Eastern European autocrat was last week forced to hold the ceremony in secret. For the first time, there was no live broadcast and guests weren't even told what they had been invited to. Roads were closed to make sure no members of the public could get anywhere near the event and in the evening, police fired water cannons and made 364 arrests when the predictable public reaction inevitably came. This is no longer a man exuding confidence and popular acclaim. After 26 years of dictatorship, something momentous is happening in Belarus.

Anti-regime demonstrations began on 9 August, presidential election day, after Lukashenko falsified the results and gave himself an implausibly high 80%. In a country where freedom of expression is severely restricted, opposition effectively banned and that has not had a free and fair election since 1994, few this year expected the election to be anything out of the ordinary. Instead, Belarusians have been taking part in the biggest protests in their history. Now, seven weeks on, after both an uncompromisingly brutal police crackdown and ongoing unprecedented mass participation in protests – the country is in a stalemate.

Overwhelming force to crush dissent has been the Belarusian authorities' strategy from the outset. In the days after the election, having closed off the centre of Minsk, the capital, and shut down the internet, everything short of live ammunition was used to disperse demonstrators: Stun grenades, water cannons, tear gas and repeatedly beating unarmed people with batons into submission. Four lives were lost.

Mass arrests followed, on a scale never seen before. Although the most intense period of arrests was after election day, people are still detained every day. According to "Viasna" Human Rights Center, over 12 thousand have been arrested since the election, men and women of all ages, for taking part in peaceful protests. The sight of police in full riot gear or masked plain clothed security forces grabbing people off the streets and bundling them into unmarked vans has become dispiritingly normal. 80 Belarusians have been formally recognized as political prisoners but hundreds of others are in detention facilities for protesting.

It didn't take long for details to emerge on the conditions in which prisoners were being held. "The sweeping brutality of the crackdown shows the lengths to which the Belarusian authorities will go to silence people", said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch documented what happened at places including the now infamous Okrestino detention center. Former detainees and witnesses they spoke to described beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks and at least one case of rape. Detainees were held in custody in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions, many needing hospitalisation after suffering torture. Their stories are horrific and are many and people now know it could happen to them.

Journalists, officially accredited and clearly marked, haven't been spared. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists there have been at least 170 detentions to date and many cases of violence against media workers and damage to their equipment. Belsat correspondents Ales Lubianchuk and Dzianis Hancharenka, sentenced to 12 days for covering the arrests of other journalists or Yahor Marcinovich, Nasha Niva Editor-in-Chief, arrested on 23 September, are just some of the latest of many penalized for reporting on what's happening.

Any leaders that emerge have also faced arrest or deportation. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader and former presidential candidate, crossed over into Lithuania soon following the election after her children were threatened. Her colleague Maria Kolesnikova only prevented her own deportation by heroically managing to take back her passport when she was held by police and tearing it to pieces.

Despite all of this, the OMON (riot police)'s best efforts to employ violence and instil fear, Belarusians are stubbornly refusing to be intimidated. People continue to come to the streets.

Every Sunday now at least a hundred thousand Belarusians join demonstrations in Minsk. The scale of these gatherings dwarves anything similar since Belarus gained independence in 1991. With metro stations and roads closed people gather in their suburbs and march, loosely coordinated by Telegram (a social media app) to be fluid and flexible, "like water" taking inspiration from Hong Kong.

Columns of people adorned with white-red-white flags of the old Belarusian Republic come together forming massive crowds, taking over sections of the city. Every week they march, always peacefully, calling for Lukashenko to resign and for the violence to end.

But this isn't about just the capital, or about East or West. In the mining town of Salihorsk in central Belarus, Vitebsk and Mogilev in the East, or Brest and Grodno in the West, people are also marching through the streets (albeit less than a month ago), standing in human "solidarity" chains, hanging new flags from their apartment blocks, factories and public squares. In residential courtyards on guitars and loud speakers people blast out songs that have become protest anthems: Viktor Tsoi's "Changes", "Walls" and NRM's "Three Turtles".

Groups always assumed to be loyal to the regime have gotten involved. Olympic medal-winning sportsmen have organized a "Free Association of Belarusian sportsmen" and have been publishing videos in support of protesters. Factory workers joined the marches and booed Lukashenko when he visited what he assumed would be a loyal crowd.

Well known morning show presenters, news anchors and producers on tightly controlled state TV stations resigned in August. Although soon replaced by a team flown in from Russia, it only further signaled where people should not be getting their news. Despite internet shutdowns, independent news site reported a surge in readership, recording 317 million hits in August; a trend it expects to only continue.

Despite this unprecedented citizen mobilization and strongest possible signal that Lukashenko has lost public consent for his rule, protestors have failed to dislodge the president. Strikes were put down; high level defections didn't come; security forces haven't changed sides.

What now then? Every revolution takes its own path and this will not be like the events in Ukraine or Armenia in the recent past. As it stands, however, Lukashenko has time on his side. It's hard to keep that many people mobilized too long and winter is approaching.

But even if he does succeed in clinging on, the country around him has been changed by this past summer. Until this year, there was a common belief that even if real elections were held, Lukashenko would win because of a lack of perceived credible alternatives, belief in propaganda and fear of change. Politics was the domain of marginal opposition groups. That's just not the case anymore. Belarusians no longer believe him, they're not afraid and they want change.

According to Alexander Milinkevich, Belarusian opposition presidential candidate in 2006 and one of the leaders of election protests that year, this time it's different. "Things cannot now go back to the way they were. Belarusian society has changed: through the events of this year a new nation has awoken."

Belarus is often dismissed as a stable autocracy with a passive population where nothing ever changes. Their revolution may take longer than many dared to hope in August but Belarusians this year are showing the world a totally different country. We should keep paying attention.

Janek Lasocki was formerly advocacy coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations and currently writes about Eastern Europe and the former USSR. He tweets @janeklasocki

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​