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Belarusian activist: independence from Soviets ‘never became a holiday’

Kiryl Kryvicki, a student at Vytautas Magnus University and an active member of the Belarusian community in Vilnius, talks to LRT English about why the political opposition in Belarus does not celebrate the independence day on July 3.

August 14, 2020 - Ieva Žvinakytė Kiryl Kryvicki - Interviews

People in Vilnius protest against crackdown in Belarus. Photo: B. Gerdžiūnas/LRT

#Voices – is a project by LRT English looking at important, controversial, or overlooked topics from the perspective of Lithuanian diaspora or expats in the country.

“Belarus is a disorderly post-Soviet republic whose independence day is not connected to the date when it left the USSR,” says activist Kiryl Kryvicki.

While Lithuania celebrates its independence day on March 11, when it proclaimed secession from the USSR in 1990, “for Belarus, the day our parliament announced that we will be independent from the Soviet Union has never become a holiday,” according to Kiryl.

Meanwhile July 3, 1944, was when the Red Army liberated Belarus and Minsk from the Nazis.

“It [July 3] was never a true Independence Day in Belarus. […] It is a day of two foreign states fighting each other on Belarusian land […]. It brought nothing to Belarus, only the destruction of our cities.

July 3 was established as a national holiday in 1996, when President
Alyaksandr Lukashenka pushed through a constitutional change referendum, Kiryl says, “the results of which were falsified”.

“It tells a lot about Lukashenka. He is a Soviet-minded person who relies heavily on the Soviet past. If you listen to his speeches, he always returns to this narrative that ‘we were liberating this land, we were fighting Nazis’. He is referring to Russians and Belarusians as brothers because he says that ‘we were fighting Nazis together’.”

Kiryl says that for the opposition in Belarus, July 3 signifies Belarus’ dependence on Russia.

“In late 2019, there were negotiations about [Belarus’] integration into Russia. There were several meetings of governmental representatives from Minsk and Moscow. […] A former Belarusian foreign minister recently said that Russia offered Belarus to give up 95 percent of its governmental responsibilities to this union state.”

Kiryl also explains that the opposition in Belarus celebrates Independence Day on another day, associated with “true freedom and democracy”.

“On March 9, 1918, the first document of the Belarusian People’s Republic was signed,” he says. The document proclaimed Belarus independent from the former Russian Empire as of March 25.

“This was announced by the First All-Belarusian Congress and it was, in fact, a national democratic government, oriented towards building a more democratic, liberal Belarus.”

However, it was soon crushed by the Russian Red Army. But for Belarusians, opposing the Lukashenka regime, the true independence day is still March 25, he says.

According to Kiryl, the white-red-white flag and other symbols of the Belarusian People’s Republic, often seen at pro-democracy rallies, have been adopted by the opposition as a demonstration that Belarus can still choose a democratic trajectory.

“During the 1990s, when we first gained our independence [from the Soviet Union], this flag and the coat of arms were also our symbols and they were supported widely by all layers of the society.”

“But then Lukashenka came to power in 1994 and, on June 7, 1995, he denounced them, bringing back the modified Belarusian Soviet flag and coat of arms.”

“[Lukashenka] sees Belarus as a Soviet republic still. That’s why, right now, this historically-based flag of our independence in 1918 and in 1991–1995 is so valuable to the people. Simply waving this flag shows that Belarus has another choice.”

No illusions

Kiryl says that political oppression and worsening economic situation is making people in Belarus rebel against the Lukashenka regime.

“The level of support of Lukashenka, according to independent surveys, is just 3 percent,” he says, adding that persecution of the regime’s opponents and detention of people show just how vulnerable the government feels.

Many people are putting their signatures down for opposition candidates seeking to challenge Lukashenka in the presidential election this August.

“People want choice, different candidates, and hope,” according to Kiryl.

However, he adds, the situation in Belarus is still far from what happened in Ukraine in 2014 when the Euromaidan revolution toppled the country’s pro-Russian government.

“We can see that the state still has the obvious power, with the majority of military and police on their side.”

“I don‘t see any reason why Lukashenka would hold democratic elections right now. His campaigns in 2006, 2010, and 2015 showed how all of this became orchestrated.”

According to Kiryl, for the actual political change to happen in Belarus, help from the Western neighbours, including Lithuania, is crucial.

“Lithuania is our neighbour. It’s a very ruthless thing that the Belarusian regime built the nuclear power plant [some 40 kilometres from Vilnius] without even participating in diplomatic negotiations with Lithuania. It hurts diplomacy so bad that it’s not even possible to measure.”

“But I think that Belarus in the future will need support from all of its neighbours. […] To establish a strong liberal Belarus, we will need strong dialogue with Lithuania.”

“It’s time for the Lithuanian policy makers to step up from words to actions. A lot could be done at the level of Lithuanian Seimas and the European Parliament.”

“The Lithuanian MEPs have a right to say a word in the European Parliament and to introduce a new round of sanctions or restriction measures towards regime officials. There must be a consistent pressure on Belarusian government to free the political prisoners, who are suffering for their political views.”

This text was republished through the partnership between New Eastern Europe and LRT English.

Kiryl Kryvicki is a Belarusian activist studying at the Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas

Ieva Žvinakytė is a journalist with LRT

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