Eastern Partnership & Russia

The Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Belarusian Democratic Movement…

Belarus, 31 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The German section of the ISHR reminds the famous words of Mikhail Gorbachev and says to the President of Belarus: “Mr. Lukashenko, you are clearly late!” On this special holiday, the day when this barbaric Wall collapsed, the Germans in particular must remember this touching historical moment and support the Belarusian people. The power of President Alexander Lukashenko has been growing over the past 26 years, as has the power of his people, and the fact that he is fighting with people with a military uniform and a Kalashnikov clearly shows that he has missed all opportunities and his time has passed.

The fall of the Wall through the eyes of Western Germans in Moscow

Foto: Haus der Geschichte, Bonn

Exactly 31 years ago, the Berlin Wall fell. And just as all people probably remember what they were doing the day Kennedy was shot, so every adult German still remembers exactly what he was doing on 9 November 1989, the day the Wall fell. Millions of impressive, exciting and memorable memories.

I was a Western German and quite naive, a young political science student from Frankfurt am Main, and during perestroika, Gorbachev and the “wind of change” I specialised in the Soviet Union.

A young girl who couldn’t understand why her grandparents had done nothing against Hitler, and who hoped that behind the Iron Curtain many world secrets would be revealed. A young girl who had to learn Russian from scratch.

At that time, it was quite difficult for a person from West Germany to learn Russian. There were many obstacles to overcome and countless rules to follow. Only a very few Western Germans agreed and paid for it. Especially for living in a Russian dormitory, the sight of which made my parents cry (during their visit as part of a tourist group controlled by Moscow representatives).

That’s where I slept on the night of November 9-10, 1989, when people drummed at my door and started running in the corridor. “The wall has collapsed!”, “The wall has collapsed!”. Did I mishear? Suddenly the door swung open: “The wall collapsed!” someone yelled at our five-bed room. Our group of 20 students from all over Germany suddenly started rushing back and forth like in an anthill. There were Berliners among us, and they somehow managed to make a phone call, in the past it was quite difficult to look for information due to lack of Internet, so we all tried to find out anything from the only old TV – and yes, in the Soviet Moscow we learned about what had happened from the short news. People raising their hands as a sign of victory and people falling into the arms of a friend laugh and cry on the Berlin Wall. It was unbelievable, we hugged, cried and laughed. It was no longer possible to fall asleep.

The Berliners did not have to endure the tedious wait in Moscow and somehow managed to fly to Berlin right during the events. They returned from there with the latest Stern magazine, where you could see pictures of the reunion, and the pages of this magazine hung on the walls of our corridor until the end of our study trip.

Yes, I will never forget this moment, this overwhelming feeling. I am proud that all these people have overcome their fears, that they have not given up, that they have gone out peacefully over and over again, that they have represented the abstract concept of “people” a million times and finally made it “tangible”: “We are the people!”

The decisive moment: “We are the people!”

Of course, there are always many factors that are important for such a historic event.

These factors include the collapse of the Soviet system, the economic divergence between East and West, the unity of the German people, and the leakages in the Iron Curtain, which, on the one hand, showed that not everyone in the West is a drug addict, but that, on the other hand, there were far more atrocities committed by the the GDR than could have been imagined. (And ISHR is proud to have made an important and unique contribution to debunking the myths about the West and the East). Of course, it was also Gorbachev’s personality, his good relationship with Kohl and so on – the eldest of us were able to experience this first-hand.

Best conditions for changing the system

Of course, not everything is as brilliant as it seems, changing the system always involves thousands of small and big problems, even if the initial conditions are as good as they are in Germany.

But the really decisive point, in my opinion, was the moment when a person felt that not only he and a small circle of his friends and acquaintances were suffering from an unnatural political system, but obviously the vast majority. The moment when a person sees that others don’t want and can’t stand it anymore. The moment when a person finds himself in the street with thousands and thousands of other people standing together back to back. The moment when you can feel that “We are the people!”

Parallels with Belarus – decisive moments

And the moment when Mikhail Gorbachev warned the GDR management: “Those who are late are punished by life!”

Yes, it is a natural life. This is exactly what is happening now 30 years later in Belarus. I think that the situation in the GDR automatically reminds all our adult Germans of the situation in Belarus. Hundreds of thousands of peaceful, “ordinary citizens”, young people, women, families who have overcome their first fear, who now know that they are not alone and they are not a small group. They all just don’t want to be with their president anymore.

And, of course, there are always many factors that are important for such a historic event.

Lithuania – a small but wonderful partner; Coronavirus and Lukashenko’s bold statements

Thus, the Iron Curtain, behind which President Alexander Lukashenko literally grew, allowed a serious leak in the face of a brave little European Lithuania, which over time has become a kind of oasis for Belarusian free thinkers. This great gate has shed light on the fact that, on the one hand, there was no evil chaos in the West and, on the other hand, that Belarus is still firmly anchored in the Soviet structures.

The Coronavirus may also have played a role. The Belarusian president, who caused a world sensation with his brave words (“It is better to be a dictator than a gay”), challenged the pandemic by saying: “It is better to die standing up than to live on ones’ knees”.

One candidate after another: “Go straight to the prison”

The fact that in the Belarusian election campaign at the beginning of the year all presidential candidates (except for Lukashenko) were gradually exposed as “criminals” and persecuted may have raised some doubts even among the most obedient Soviet nostalgics. For example, the critical blogger Sergej Tichanowski was arrested at the end of May, the bank director Viktor Babariko and his son were arrested in June, and at the end of July Valery Tsepkalo fled the country with his two sons.

Voila! Women’s trio of the Belarusian opposition

Of course, the personal qualities of three young women were important. Namely: the blogger’s wife Svetlana Tichanowskaya, the diplomat’s wife Veronika Tsepkalo and a good friend of the bank director Maria Kolesnikova. All three are not experienced politicians, Tichanowskaya is 38 years old, former Foreign Languages Secretary at an NGO, now a housewife and mother. Tsepkalo studied economics, now she is the diplomat’s wife and mother, and 38-year-old Kolesnikova is a professional musician. Her good German is certainly the result of her studies at the Stuttgart University of Music and Theatre. Tichanowskaya was able to register herself as a presidential candidate after her husband was imprisoned, while two other women supported her in her presidential campaign after Babariko was arrested and Tsepkalo escaped.

Born out of necessity – natural, brave and sincere

Thus, the women’s trio of the presidential election campaign this summer was literally born out of necessity in Belarus. But, obviously, this is what contributed to their success, because in their election speeches women did not hide it: they spoke about their husbands, families, friends who were in prison or on the run with their own children, they were not old political foxes, they were natural, brave and sincere. And this was echoed by the population. In particular, Svetlana Tichanowskaya noted that she was somewhat shocked by everything suddenly happened to her. People were flocking to her election rallies. Who wouldn’t have flinched in this situation? She even said something like: “Excuse me, I have to take a deep breath” at the beginning, and you felt it even through the TV screen, how well everyone understands it, and she stands for that sincerity, brave, the “ordinary people” who were standing here next to her.

The people of today

fltr.: Maria Kolesnikova with heart, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with fist and Veronika Zepkalo with the Victory sign, © Advertising for major event in the capital Minsk on 30 July 2020.

Of course, they were not so “simple”, all three are “the people of today”, educated, experienced abroad, with extensive connections. Their appearance, election videos and symbols were modern and professional, yet easily accessible to the masses and easily reproducible. That is why the crowd has always been urged: people, we live in 2020, use modern technology to reach others.

Elections results – the stakes are too high

Exactly two months ago, on the evening of 9 August, the election results, as always, were declared a huge victory for Lukashenko and a low (although by Belarusian standards high) share of votes for Tichanowskaya (80:10%). While in Germany such election results at the federal level were generally accepted only before the “fall of the Wall” in the GDR, in all (six) presidential elections Alexander Lukashenko always achieved 80% during his current 26-year term. The exact average of the six election results is at least 80.31%.

It is quite possible that the Belarusians would have accepted the final result of 51% for Lukashenko, but the result of 80:10 indicates frank falsification of elections, and protest demonstrations began immediately throughout Belarus.

We know what happened next from shocking footage from the news, and those of us who had any contact with Belarus received shocking pictures directly on their mobile phones.

Inhuman police violence – Muuum, help! – President with a Kalashnikov assault rifle

The peaceful demonstrator, pursued by a small police group, was caught and beaten until he stopped moving, all accompanied by panicking, heart-breaking screams of a child: “Mum, look what they’re doing, Mum…”. This was the first message I received from a Moldovan colleague per WhatsApp. Dozens of new messages came from all channels.

Thousands of protesters were sent to prison, and many of those released showed clear signs of violence and reported about horrific torture. Meanwhile, the 66-year-old president, dressed in military uniform and armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, publicly thanked the police officers for their good work.

Death of Gennady Shutov, ISHR supports his family

Several people died in these clashes; one man, Gennady Shutov, was “accidentally” shot and killed by a policeman in Brest (ISHR reports and tries to support his family. He has five children left).

Too many bad things

Obviously, Svetlana Tichanowskaya suffered a lot after the elections, so much so that she fled to Lithuania with her two children, where she was officially taken under state protection. Her husband is still in prison in Belarus. Veronika Tsepkalo escaped to follow her husband and children. Who remains is Maria Kolesnikova, a musician who studied in Stuttgart and who has always inspired people with the words: “We must not be afraid, we must stand firm, we must fight for our homeland here and now…”. But on 7 September, they put a bag over her head and tried to get her out of the country… However, at the moment when she tore her passport, she chose prison in her homeland, not a voluntary exile abroad.

Have you noticed that if this was a scenario for a thriller or a horror movie, people would find it all too exaggerated? If only the action had not been dated before the Wall fell. But no, all this and much more has happened today and here in Europe, because Belarusian Brest (780 km) is less than twice as distant from Berlin as French Brest (1600 km).

The historical turnaround in Belarus is justified and irreversible, the people of Belarus have experienced and seen who they are and how many of them, and the whole world has witnessed it.

It will not be easy

Again, not everything is as bright as it seems, changing the system always involves many problems – big and small, especially here where conditions are much worse than in Germany.

I am convinced that there are also many silent citizens of Belarus who are afraid and sceptical about the big changes. During my last visits to Belarus four years ago it seemed to me that the majority of the population is still sceptical. Belarus was practically an oasis for the Soviet melancholics. Many of the young students I met were also very outspoken about politics. Although the issue of corruption is still quite relevant in Belarus, Lukashenko has never privatised anything comparable to other post-Soviet countries, it is worth learning from the mistakes of others. Relations with Putin’s Russia will be very difficult, but there are many opportunities for greater political liberation of the Russian people. Last but not least, it is also clear that the overthrow, abdication and final end of Alexander Lukashenko’s rule through new elections will mark the beginning of a painstaking change of system, and Belarusians should be very careful and make sure they are not deceived.

Time for the Belarusian people; Lukashenko is late

On this special holiday, the day when this barbaric Wall collapsed, the Germans in particular must remember this touching historical moment and support the Belarusian people. The power of President Alexander Lukashenko has been growing over the past 26 years, as has the power of his people, and the fact that he is fighting with people with a military uniform and a Kalashnikov clearly shows that he has missed all opportunities and his time has passed.

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