Belarus Is Having an Anti-‘Cockroach’ Revolution

For three decades, Alexandr Lukashenko has successfully crushed all organized opposition to his rule—but the pandemic has changed everything.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in Beijing
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko walks toward Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 25, 2019. Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

The most unusual ongoing protests in the world, and the most disruptive to the existing political order, aren’t in the United States, but rather in Belarus. After 26 years under the firm rule of Alexandr Lukashenko—a president who has never before in his tenure faced any significant challenger or political pushback from his citizens—Belarusians are now gathering in the streets and online to make a call to “Stop the Cockroach.”

It is difficult to overstate how unusual these protests are. Everywhere else in Europe, there is a normal push and pull between government and citizens. In those countries where political protest is an option for citizens, it can serve as an impetus for dialogue or a change in political leadership, forcing a problem into the open or revealing a wound that has long been covered and now needs to heal. Even Russia, with its de facto opposition leader Alexei Navalny, has outlets to organize expressions of political discontent.

But since 1994, protest has never been an option for average Belarusians. Lukashenko, who has been called the last dictator in Europe, has ruled in the absence of all political opposition for nearly three decades. There are no real opposition parties in Belarus, no social movements, no underground online communities. In Lukashenko’s Belarus, when there has been even a hint of unrest—even when silent protesters have stood in a public square for too long—authorities have shut it down swiftly and immediately. In some instances, even pedestrians passing by a peaceful protest have been swept into police vehicles and whisked away—better to get everyone off the street and sort out the protesters from the pedestrians later than let a crowd gather. The political situation may be dire under Vladimir Putin in neighboring Russia, but in Belarus it’s worse than dire—it’s nonexistent.

Or at least that’s what everyone thought. It turns out there has been unrest simmering all this time, so deep and low that it didn’t register with most people; it just took a destabilizing event as big as a global pandemic to uncover it.

There have been four elections in Belarus since 1994, and Lukashenko has won every single one of them with more than 75 percent of the vote. He has never faced a single real challenger since becoming the president; he has never even felt the need to participate in the debates that normally precede an election. He hasn’t even groomed a successor. Most simply assume one of his sons will take over, and only after his death or if he chooses to step down.

But when Lukashenko announced in early May that he would hold presidential elections in Belarus in August, during a global pandemic that he has publicly called a hoax, many Belarusians became fed up. They took inspiration from a relatively unknown blogger named Syarhey Tsikhanouski from Gomel, the second-largest city in Belarus. On March 11, he had taken off on a trip around the country in a van with the phrase “Country for Living” painted on the side—an ironic reference to a phrase from one of Lukashenko’s propaganda videos. His goal was to talk to his fellow Belarusians and publish videos on his YouTube channel showing what real people really thought about their country. He would stop in small villages and towns in Belarus and document the realities of life there—the lack of innovation, the poverty, the inertia, the absence of hope for a different life. He found that people were surprisingly open with him and that they were hungry for an opportunity to say what was on their minds, because no one had asked them how they felt for a long time.

Flying under the radar of government authorities, he was able to travel and post his videos online, and some of them went viral. In one of them, an elderly woman poses the rhetorical question of what to do when you have a cockroach in your house, and nonchalantly replies that the only thing to do is to find a flip-flop and kill it.

On May 6, Tsikhanouski announced his intention to run for president against Lukashenko—under the campaign slogan “Stop the Cockroach.” Tsikhanouski’s blog and his quixotic candidacy quickly earned a surge of support. People came out in droves—most of them wearing masks and some of them carrying flip-flops—to sign a petition to get him on the presidential ballot, an act of political protest that has never before been seen in Belarus

Predictably, Tsikhanouski was soon arrested under dubious charges and thus made ineligible to run for president. But this time, Belarusians haven’t given up. After his arrest, his supporters found a way to keep the momentum going—they recruited his wife, Svetlana Tihanovskaya, to take his place and started collecting the signatures for her to be included on the ballot.

In reality, there’s little chance that Tsikhanouski or anyone else can actually beat Lukashenko in the presidential election. But for the first time since he took office, Lukashenko’s standing and reputation in Belarus have taken a serious hit. Regardless of the final outcome of the election, something fundamental has shifted in Belarusian politics.

At root, it’s about the coronavirus pandemic. Lukashenko’s approach to the coronavirus has shown Belarusians how little their president cares for their safety and well-being. He is one of the only leaders on earth to openly call the coronavirus a hoax and refuse to take any measures to protect his citizens. He didn’t close schools or stores or cancel sporting events. He didn’t impose stay-at-home orders or require people to social distance. Instead, he recommended people drink more vodka and go to the sauna more often if they wanted to avoid getting sick. While even Putin was compelled to cancel a hugely significant and symbolic parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of V-E Day in Moscow on May 9, Lukashenko did the opposite. The parade in Belarus went on as planned, with the president saying that nothing could keep the Belarusian people from celebrating their history, not even the risk of a virus that was quietly and quickly spreading through the country.

The fear of the virus spreading has made donning a mask in public normal, and this has helped make protests visible in Belarus. The ability of Belarusians to wear masks and gather in public, which was previously banned because the government didn’t want protesters to hide their faces, has given them the ability to be anonymous and engage in political discourse never before available to them without fear of reprisal for the first time ever. They are taking to the streets, are standing in lines longer than a half-mile for two to three hours to register alternative candidates on the presidential ballot, and are emboldened by new cries to remove Lukashenko and “Stop the cockroach.”

But the thing about cockroaches, as everyone knows, is that they’re survivors. Without a doubt, this is a turning point in Belarusian presidential politics. Lukashenko will win another term. But there is finally a real and even likely chance that this will be his last term—that this pandemic has not only given Belarusians a glimpse into the realities of the regime that has led them for 26 years, but has also shown them that a new path forward is possible.

Vitali Shkliarov is a Harvard University fellow at the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Twitter: @me_vitali

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