Why did Belarusians not turn from peaceful protest to violence and murder?
If there are three hundred “terrorists”, where are the terrorist attacks?

Ukrainians like to accuse Belarusians of “protesting wrongly” and not overthrowing Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime by force. Meanwhile, the law-enforcers in Belarus have counted three hundred “terrorists” and are threatening people with radicals. Where are these radicals? We spoke with the founder of the White Legion, Siarhey Bulba, and the representative of Paspalitae Rushennie, Siarhey Biaspalau. 

Sample photo. Protests against the demolition of an old railway depot in Helsinki, Finland. May 1, 2006.
Photo: Ville Oksanen / Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

A country full of “terrorists”

There are almost three hundred names of Belarusian “terrorists” in the List of Organizations and Individuals Involved in Terrorist Activities kept by the Belarusian State Security Committee (the KGB). Except that they haven’t done what is usually meant by “terrorist act”. For example, the “terrorists” list includes those convicted of “incitement to hostility”, such as former deputy prosecutor Yauhen Babak, who in August 2020 initiated an inspection of the actions of law enforcement officers who beat up bikers in the Uruchcha district in Minsk, or Sofia Sapega, who was accused of working for the Telegram channel called “Black Book of Belarus” created to de-anonymize law enforcement officers.

The KGB now predicts “a significant escalation of the situation along the perimeter of Belarus”, “attempts to destabilize the situation” in Belarus from abroad, announces new arrests and promises a tougher “counterintelligence regime”. But why were there no “radical acts of terror” that KGB chief Ivan Tsertsel had predicted, or at least large-scale barricades, mass fights with riot police, and Molotov cocktails at the protests after the 2020 elections?

Why didn’t Belarusians choose violence in 2020?

The protests of Belarusians against the results of the 2020 elections were decidedly peaceful. Footage of the protests clearly shows security forces attacking demonstrators — not demonstrators attacking security forces. There were few examples of anything resembling violent confrontation except for barricades on the first nights of the protests and cases of self-defense against law enforcement (often without insignia, or “people in civilian clothes”). There was no mass throwing of stones, Molotov cocktails or even bullets fired at the security forces.

Why did people choose the path of peaceful protest? Here’ what Siarhey Biaspalau — media spokesman of Paspalitae Rushennie — told Belsat::

“In August 2020, Belarusians did not have the necessary training and, unfortunately, did not have weapons. You may remember that weapons were taken away even from hunters. That is why the radical resistance was only partial, because fighting against the armed punishers with bare hands would have been suicidal.

There was also an opinion that a week, two weeks, a month later the punishers would take the side of the people. We all remember how many law enforcement officers burned their service cards, threw their uniforms in the garbage. Even Lukashenka’s security staff did it. There was a time in August when they were really lost, but as life has shown, the criminal order is more important for them than the people. I hope that no one will give them flowers and shout “The police are with the people!” After all, they are not with the people, but with a degenerate”.

Siarhey Bulba was one of the founders of the Belarusian Military Association in 1991, and in 1995 he headed the White Legion patriotic organization, which ceased to exist in the mid-2000s.

In a conversation with Belsat, he recalls how at the end of June 2020, former members of the White Legion released a musical album “White Legion” featuring military music. He says that they “intuitively felt” that something was coming and “wanted to set the vibration for a real struggle, a real revolution”. But the protest chose the song “Mury” (The Walls) as its anthem, which Bulba calls “a lullaby not suitable for revolutions”.

“Psychologically, people were not ready: it seemed that if 100,000 of us took to the streets, the police would immediately take our side,” Bulba recalls. “But in reality our side was not formed. The second center of power was not formed”.

In 2020, he believes, the leaders were “not natural” — not those “who were given the appropriate energy from God”. For example, the vibe was “I would not have gone to fight for Tsikhanouskaya.” The leaders of the 2020 protest and those who stood behind them “did not take into account the reality” when they bet on peaceful protest and preservation of the system,” Bulba believes.

A march of many thousands came to a cordon in front of the Palace of Independence. Minsk, Belarus. August 30, 2020.
Photo: Vot tak TV / Belsat

In the late 1990s, Bulba explains, the police were part of the people, and in 28 years Alyaksandr Lukashenka has made the law enforcers a separate caste. According to him, in the late 1990s and early 2000s the White Legion was really preparing to restore constitutional order, while the authorities did not disperse “150 vigilantes in the forest near Slutsk,” as the then head of Lukashenka’s administration Viktar Sheiman said. They let them go quietly, even though the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs received a positive answer to the question of whether they actually had plans to overthrow Lukashenka.

Now, says Bulba, “Lukashenka can kill people, but the rest of us are forbidden to think about it”. The murderers of Raman Bandarenka remain free, “the criminal code was not written for them”. Lukashenka proves to the law enforcers that they “have nowhere to go after they have betrayed the people”. Bulba recalls the terrorist act in the Minsk subway in 2011. The authorities claimed that it was committed in order to “destabilize the situation,” while many Belarusians believe that the authorities were in fact behind the attack.

Why haven’t they switched to the “non-peaceful” way yet?

Nevertheless, it was not all peace and flowers. There were sporadic Molotov cocktails, there were attempts to set fire to cars and buildings of law enforcement bodies (although some cases, like the burning of Haidukevich’s house, look suspicious and could be a provocation of the authorities). Meanwhile, the security forces were shooting at demonstrators, killing people, torturing prisoners to death, and driving them to suicide attempts.

After a full-scale war in Ukraine broke out, Belarusians began to perform sabotage acts on the railroad, even attacking the Russian “Flying Radar” with a drone. Meanwhile, Ukrainians in the Russian-occupied territories repeatedly killed collaborators, even in Russia they blew up propagandists Darya Dugina and Vladlen Tatarsky.

Why didn’t Belarusians move from burning property to more radical actions?

“Unfortunately, in Belarus itself there is a serious lack of knowledge and weapons, thus radical people use what they have at hand,” says Biaspalau.

Even burning cars or damaging railroad relay boxes is equated with terrorist acts by the Belarusian authorities, Biaspalau notes. And to commit a murder or make an explosion, you need knowledge and weapons.

“Belarusians want someone else to decide first,” Bulba believes. “Belarusians put hope in the Ukrainians, thinking that someone from somewhere would come and solve our problems”.

And if we take a look at our history, it’s really like this: when a foreign power came, we didn’t overthrow it ourselves, but waited for the next historical wave to overthrow the previous one. From generation to generation, we’re really getting used to the fact that it’s not up to us to decide, but that the circumstances will be such that the previous invaders will be kicked out”.

Sample photo. During the protest march, girls approached law enforcement officers in the cordon of the Government House, hugged them and gave them flowers to demonstrate the peaceful nature of the protest. Minsk, Belarus. August 14, 2020.
Photo: Vot tak TV / Belsat

What about the Belarusian rebels from the time of the Russian Empire and the Soviet partisans, who actually killed people? Bulba replies that now “people have moved away from nature,” because in the Second World War, a person did not have to violate moral principles to stick a pig or cut off a chicken’s head and kill the enemy. Urban upbringing made people more humane: we eat meat, but we buy it in the store, and we don’t kill livestock.

The overwhelming majority has been indoctrinated into thinking that the Belarusian people are timid, deprived of honor to the level of total obedience, Bulba says with certainty. Lukashenka does not share such humanism, “he is a bearer of another culture, so he hates everything Belarusian and allows Asian methods”.

Is a significant radicalization of protest possible in the near future?

Modern society has a long way to go to resort to violence against people, argues Bulba. He recalls the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, a non-violent protest in 2004. Ukrainians then had a long way to go before the violence of the Euromaidan protests in 2014. Moreover, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, unlike Belarus, had many nationally oriented communists who “allowed a generation to grow up ready to defend their country.” In Belarus, such people were “severely cut out” in the 1990s, and in 2020 there was a “cleansing of Belarus of anything capable of resistance.”

But now some Belarusians are fighting for Ukraine, while others are practicing with their weapons in the colors of Paspalitae Rushennie. And what about Belarus? Should we expect radicalization? Or are the most radical Belarusians now living in Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania?

“Unfortunately, I don’t see any conditions for a significant radicalization of protests in Belarus yet,” Biaspalau answers. “In fact, all radicals are now either fighting for Ukraine or preparing in camps, but not only in Poland and Lithuania, but all over the world.

I think this factor will grow, and that is good. After all, this is the time when we need to gain experience and prepare for the so-called zero hour. That’s why I urge everyone to join the Paspalitae Rushennie to get military training”.

Sample photo. Field exercises of the Warsaw team of Paspalitae Rushennie. March 13, 2023.
Photo: Alisa Hanchar / Belsat

Bulba, however, sees no reason for being optimistic about the number of Belarusians fighting for Ukraine or training in Poland and Lithuania.

“They are “cool, great guys,” whether in Paspalitae Rushennie or in the Volat battalion, but the number of law enforcement officers in Belarus is orders of magnitude higher – even excluding engineering troops and passport office workers”.

Bulba doesn’t rely on other forces either in Belarus or abroad and believes that the “hundred or two” that there are available would be enough to seize power in a situation of powerlessness or demoralized state leadership.

In Bulba’s opinion, Belarusians are now “in 2004, according to the Ukrainian chronology”. He notes that it will take some time to change the mass consciousness “from just going to a rally and expressing discontent on Facebook to actually thinking about how to get rid of Lukashenka”.

Ales Navaborski /