An Interview With Iryna Khalip: They’ll Get Tired of Beating Up Women Holding Flowers
#lifestyle & opinion
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The well-known Belarusian journalist Iryna Khalip refers to the Warsaw district of Śródmieście, where the Jewish ghetto was located, as ‘her place’.
On her mother’s side, she comes from a family of Warsaw Jews. Had it not been for the war, Iryna’s parents would not have had a chance to meet in Minsk. Escaping the Nazis, her grandmother Gitel and grandfather Jerzy Belzacki fled Warsaw with her mother, Lucyna, who was 3 years old at the time, to what was then Soviet Byelorussia. Their entire large family, except for Iryna’s grandmother’s older sister, died either in the ghetto or in Treblinka. Although Iryna was born in Minsk, she has never forgotten about Warsaw.
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In December 2010, during a post-election rally, Iryna was arrested together with her husband, Andrei Sannikov, a presidential candidate. The Belarusian authorities tried to take away their three-year-old son, Daniil, and place him in an orphanage. Andrei was sentenced to five years for ‘organising riots’. Iryna was held at a KGB detention facility for a month and then placed under house arrest. She was subsequently given a suspended sentence of two years’ imprisonment. Andrei left Belarus, while Iryna stayed there to work as a special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta and to continue her journalistic struggle against the regime of Alexander Lukashenka.
If not Iryna, who could we talk to about the initiatives of the Belarusian artistic opposition and the new symbol of protest – women with flowers?
Anna Gavina (AG): What is happening in Belarus right now? Is this a revolution or the evolution of civil society?
Iryna Khalip (IK): Both. Civil society is evolving and has finally started to take its desired shape. For many years, civil society in Belarus was, for some reason, synonymous with the word ‘opposition’, but now it has suddenly turned out that it is the core of the people. However, evolution is taking place in society, whereas there is a revolution in the country. This is manifested by people’s fearlessness, their readiness to stand on the barricades despite brutal, unprecedented repressions, and by the sudden retreat of the siloviki after the first three days of protests. It is especially visible in the attempts of the authorities to use both a stick and a carrot interchangeably, or to bring in strike-breakers from Russia. All this proves that changes are taking place within the state and that the authorities are now grasping at any straw they can find. They are literally being held together with spit and baling wire.
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AG: And how about the saying ‘no revolution is without bloodshed’?
IKh: Unfortunately, there has already been bloodshed, although there are other ways, such as the velvet revolutions in former socialist republics. However, power [in those places] was maintained only with the support of the Soviet Union – and politicians were puppets manipulated by a puppeteer, and when the puppeteer grew older and became decrepit and feeble, the threads wore out, and everything became easier. In Belarus, the situation is completely different. We have a bloody tyrant at the helm who is by no means going to loosen his grip on power, a petty tsar who is only busy making sure he doesn’t lose power for the rest of his days. As we saw this August, he will stop at nothing, nothing at all. I am sure that if Lukashenka had given the order to use live rounds instead of rubber bullets, they [Belarusian security forces] would have carried out the order. They simply got their timing wrong; they thought rubber bullets would be enough.
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Women holding portraits of Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Veranika Tsapkala & Maryia Kalesnikava in the foreground, at a campaign rally on 23rd July 2020, Minsk, photo: Natalia Fedosenko / TASS / Forum
AG: Why have we been witnessing a sort of a ‘thaw’ in Belarus at the moment, and why weren’t people being dispersed last week?
IKh: Honestly, I was ecstatic when the siloviki suddenly retreated, and you were able to walk the streets of Belarus with white-red-white flags without being beaten up. People can gather downtown, block the avenue, walk, wander, scream and rejoice. It’s sort of reclaimed territory. On the other hand, this is just a temporary retreat, a deceptive move so that we can relax and go hug the military, like some girls did on 14th August. It’s so that we’ll let our guard down, and, of course, so that the OMON troops can take a break, gather their strength and have a drink or snack; they’re exhausted too, after all! This is another phase of the confrontation, but the confrontation is still there. It’s scary, because there can be a butterfly effect; the situation could suddenly sway one way or another. Any tiny thing could be pivotal. But it’s beautiful when people are standing on the avenue, singing or praying. This is something we have rarely seen in the last 26 years.
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A new generation of girls
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A woman protesting on Nezalyezhnasti Square in Minsk, 18th August 2020, photo: Viktor Tolochko / Sputnik / East News
AG: Do you think this revolution has a woman’s face?
IKh: Definitely. Frankly speaking, I don’t pay much attention to gender issues, but it’s obvious now: intrepid, brave, beautiful women have taken to the streets. First of all, let’s recall the crackdown. Everyone, without exception, was beaten up, but the girls didn’t run away; they bravely went out, built barricades, resisted just like the guys did. Secondly, after a three-day bloodbath – to call a spade a spade – women in white T-shirts carrying flowers gathered at the square near the Kamarousky marketplace in Minsk on 12th August. Then these ‘islets’ of women started to appear all over the city and the country. It was incredibly beautiful and moving. The authorities were not in retreat back then, and there was an immense danger that unarmed women with flowers would be beaten unmercifully, making mincemeat out of them. But they took to the streets. Slowly but surely, people were released from the Akrestina detention centre. I don’t know whether these two facts are interrelated, but I want to believe that they are, and women with flowers have definitely become a protest symbol.
AG: Why have these women taken to the streets? Not all the men were detained in three days, or were the men tired and exhausted?
IKh: No, it’s always been like that. It’s just that a new generation thinks it’s an unprecedented situation. Women have always participated in protests. In 2006, when protesters moved towards the Akrestina detention centre, women were in the front lines. When they started throwing flash bangs and using tear gas against us, the men held our hands tight, because the women wanted to approach the OMON and negotiate with them. Both then and now, this women’s way of thinking works like this: ‘I’m a girl after all; they won’t beat me’. But they will beat you. And this new generation of girls thinks they can’t, that they have no right to beat them! On the other hand, there are also stoic women who realise that they will be beaten, but they nevertheless have to protest, because you can’t win otherwise.
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AG: But there were no women in Belarusian election campaigns before.
IKh: Don’t forget that five candidates, two of them women, made it into the election, and two more candidates ended up behind bars: Viktar Babaryka and Sergei Tsikhanousky. Half of Valery Tsapkala’s nomination signatures were rejected. If Tsikhanousky had not been imprisoned, there would have been no Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the election race. If Babaryka had not been in jail, Maryia Kalesnikava would not have been so recognisable now. Tsapkala’s signatures were rejected, a criminal case was initiated against him, and he left Belarus; his wife, Veranika Tsapkala, stayed behind. One could say that Lukashenka himself created this joint election campaign team involuntarily. It’s funny, but he himself created this beautiful image of the three female leaders of this joint team. This coincidence has turned out to be achingly beautiful, and it would be foolish not to use such beauty for a good cause.
We shouldn’t expect everything to be resolved in one week
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A protester hugs an OMON officer during an opposition rally against police violence on Nezalyezhnasti Square in Minsk, 14th August 2020, photo: Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters / Forum
AG: Four out of seven members of the presidium of the Coordination Council are women. In your opinion, is this also a coincidence?
IKh: I don’t think anyone has given it serious thought, although I don’t know the presidium membership criteria. It’s hard for me to comment on that. I can comment only on what they do in public.
AG: Do you like the composition of the council’s presidium?
AG: So the Coordination Council risks turning into a ‘gathering of starry-eyed romantics’?
IKh: I pin my hopes only on the people, only on mass protests; if they don’t stop, I’m sure things can change. In my opinion, this election of presidium members, the adoption of resolutions and negotiations on behalf of the poor are totally ineffective and even harmful. This year, many Belarusians have taken to the streets for the first time. They don’t quite understand how it works, and, out of the blue, there are people on the council who seem to take some responsibility for doing everything themselves. They won’t do anything; there won’t be anything without mass protests. On the other hand, one can’t expect that everything will be resolved in a day or a week – the Maidan lasted almost six months.
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AG: Do Belarusians have enough strength to hold on for so long?
IKh: I think they do. Transient victories are very important; they are very inspiring. For example, at some point, nearly 2,000 people were released in a day. Great! This euphoria was enough to raise people’s spirits for almost a week. Ensuring the release of the remaining political prisoners would be really amazing. But the authorities won’t go for that. They are well aware that if Mikola Statkevich, Paval Sevyarynets or Viktar Babaryka is released, they will immediately lead the protests.
One day, they will get tired of beating up women who are holding flowers
Ikh: People are no longer afraid of the street; they are gaining street-protest experience. You can be at a rally; you can march in columns. The authorities are very good at capturing people one by one. Last Thursday, for example, the activist Pavel Yukhnevich gave a fantastic speech at an open-mic event; now, he’s gone. They detained him the same night and took him to Akrestina. Any individual leader who emerges in street protests will end up there. On the other hand, you can be marching endlessly in vain. It takes masses of people to make the authorities meet their demands.
AG: Much has been said about the fact that the joint election campaign team has given the Belarusians a lot of positive energy and love. Have heart symbols and slogans such as ‘You are incredible’ boosted people’s belief in themselves?
IKh: Indeed, the picture has been undeniably beautiful. However, I believe that today’s protests were triggered by two people: Lukashenka himself, with his mean attitude towards the people, and a NEXTA blogger, with his Telegram channel and two million subscribers, who posted information about what was going on in the country and suggestions about where to go and what to do. Plus the accumulated popular discontent with the authorities, especially during the pandemic, where the disease has had an impact on every family: everyone has a godfather, a brother, a friend or an acquaintance who has contracted the disease or died. The Belarusians can see with their own eyes that the state couldn’t care less about their lives.
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AG: Does this feminine, peaceful approach stand any chance of resisting brutal repression?
IKh: Of course it does. In the meantime I’ve read Gene Sharp’s The Methods of Nonviolent Action so often it’s in tatters. I’ve realised he would be very happy with the Belarusians [laughter], although we haven’t tried sitting or lying down yet; there are many things we haven’t tried yet. You’ll agree that these nonviolent methods are associated exclusively with women.
AG: Will women be beaten up anyway?
IKh: They will be. And at some point, the OMON will stop beating them, because one day, they will get tired of beating up women who are holding flowers. Unfortunately, there is also the possibility that people will get tired of being beaten up first. I’ve been hoping for 20 years now that it wouldn’t happen, but it happens every time, and every time, I hope it’s the last time that it happens.
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The ‘March for a New Belarus’, Nezalyezhnasti Square, Minsk, 25th August 2020, photo: Tatiana Zenkovich / EAP / PAP
AG: Maryia Kalesnikava is a musician, flautist and conductor. Why did she decide to drop her conductor’s baton and get involved in politics?
IKh: I don’t know what the driving force was behind Maryia Kalesnikava’s decision. Maybe at some point she got bored with her predictable life in Germany. Elections in Belarus are a powerful emotional punch; they’re very interesting. In Germany, life is planned by the hour for many years in advance, whereas here, you don’t know what’s going to happen to you tomorrow.
AG: Why have artistic people like Kalesnikava and the Kupala Theatre team rebelled? The regime ceased being warm and fuzzy long ago.
IKh: You know, this question has also occupied my mind. Where have you been? Why were you appeased, satisfied with everything? Why didn’t you interfere when we were being stepped on? Everything was fine earlier. Perhaps the coronavirus was such a significant obstacle that it tripped up both Lukashenka and society. I remember that, back in early January, Natalia Radina (editor-in-chief of the Belarusian Charter 97 opposition portal) and I were discussing the upcoming election. I suddenly had this revelation, and I told her that it was not the election itself but something else that did not even exist yet that would destroy Lukashenka. Two months passed, and the coronavirus appeared. The high degree of hatred towards the regime that we are seeing today is due to the fact that it couldn’t care less about our lives or health.
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AG: How can creative thinkers help the protests and benefit the opposition movement?
IKh: Creative thinkers can be useful in many ways. They can be transformed instantly; they react quickly: ‘No, guys, this option doesn’t work; let’s use plan B’. They respond in the blink of an eye. Since these are creative people, they generate ideas that a spin doctor would never come up with. Something may seem silly at first sight but turn out to be precisely the solution that works. Pragmatism is good in democratic countries, where elections are treated seriously. Clear-headedness, political spin machines and PR work there. But when it comes to overthrowing a dictatorship, a hothead is needed. And creatively minded people are known for being emotional hotheads.
AG: And what are the shortfalls?
IKh: The same traits. Advantages can instantaneously turn into disadvantages and vice versa. Perhaps, excessive naivety and emotionality.
One day, a Hollywood film will be made about her
AG: How did you take Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s words after she left Belarus?
IKh: I know their methods; I was kept in a KGB detention facility. I know how they act, threaten and intimidate, who and what they use for blackmail. I completely understand Svyatlana and the reason she left. In no way do I blame her.
AG: In general, does a woman entering politics in Belarus have a right to be weak? Some have criticised Tsikhanouskaya for this weakness, as she should have realised what she was in for.
IKh: We shouldn’t forget that Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya wasn’t running for anything. One day she simply replaced her husband, who couldn’t provide his signature at some point, as he was in a detention centre. I interviewed her and asked her detailed questions about that. She explained to me that she had registered an election advocacy group and was waiting for her husband to be released from administrative detention and that he would pick it up from there. Sergei himself didn’t intend to be actively involved in the election and, by the way, he wanted to campaign in favour of boycotting [the election]. He saw campaign rallies as a platform to collect information for his blog, Country for Life. For the first two weeks, Svyatlana wasn’t visible at all; she stayed at home with her children, while Sergei organised campaign rallies. Then he was arrested, and she had to get involved in the campaign. And then, when Babaryka was put behind bars, and 50% of Tsapkala’s signatures were rejected, she ended up being all by herself. She was the only person who had a chance to register, so she deserves every respect for having withstood it all. I think that Svyatlana did a brilliant job, and the fact that she survived until election day itself is heroic. One day, a Hollywood film will be made about her.
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Speaking of her departure, I don’t know how she was intimidated. They can be highly sophisticated when it comes to that. Tsikhanouskaya’s problem is that she hasn’t read the right books. At one of the election press conferences, Svyatlana was asked about what she was reading. It turned out that she wasn’t reading. Had she read Varlam Shalamov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Yevgenia Ginzburg in due time, she would have realised that the methods used by law enforcement officials never change. Since these [works] were written by people who survived the Gulag, then there is hope. When I was intimidated in prison by KGB agents, I kept telling myself, ‘God, Shalamov described this’. And it made me feel better. Books are everything.
AG: Do you think Maryia Kalesnikava and Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya will inspire Belarusian women to take a more active stance?
IKh: Absolutely. This campaign has had a positive impact in that it will be difficult to cage up girls who have taken part in the campaign, rallies and protests, who have lined up with flowers in human chains of solidarity. The life of an activist sucks you in; it’s difficult to go back to being stuck at home and keeping quiet.
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AG: Would you be prepared now to speak out openly against the authorities after everything you’ve gone through?
IKh: I hate bureaucracy, so I will never join the Coordination Council, with its presidiums, resolutions and authorised representatives. I won’t be there; I’m a free spirit. My preferred option is civil initiatives. I think they’re the future, and I would definitely join them. As for speaking out against the authorities, I’ve been doing that for many years now.
Interview conducted in Belarusian by Anna Gavina, 25 Aug 2020, translated from Russian by Natalia Mamul, Sep 2020
Anna Gavina is a Belarusian journalist and a student at the Warsaw University of Technology. She writes for the Internet publications Tut.by, 34Travel, and zupelnieinnyswiat.pl. She lives in Warsaw and Minsk.