TRANSITIONS ONLINE: Belarus: Out With the Old

by Rodger Potocki and Iryna Vidanava
4 December 2007

The Belarusian government remains repressive. But the younger generation is getting restless.

The end of the Belarusian democratic opposition’s autumn “marching season” has highlighted several important developments in the country’s youth movement. As was the case with the protests after the fraudulent March 2006 presidential elections, young people made up the majority of opposition supporters taking part in the recent European, Forefather’s Eve, and Social marches. What is new is their increasingly independent stance.

During the European March, young demonstrators defied the decisions of the state and of opposition leaders, formed a separate column, and marched down Minsk’s main avenue. Prior to the Social March in November, youth leaders again declared that they would not follow the route approved by authorities and agreed to by opposition planners. Two separate protests took place. A group of about 200 young people met at the site of the March 2006 demonstrations, marched down the city’s main avenue, passed the KGB building, and ended in Independence Square, where several dozen stood on the steps of parliament, displayed their banners, and sang patriotic songs.

While this drama may have made the marches more colorful, the events themselves were both poorly attended and organized. The division of the marchers symbolized the growing divide between younger and older opposition generations. Young activists were disappointed in the conformism and caution of the opposition leadership, which was frustrated that tens of thousands of the new generation didn’t turn up to show their support for pro-European and pro-democratic views.


In 2007, hope and disappointment have become common, though misunderstood, terms used to characterize Belarusian youth. Recently dashed expectations are a result of youth activism coming of age in 2006. That year, young people emerged as the most active part of opposition society. Youth organized and led the post-election protests. Describing the March demonstrations, a parent explained, “Our children led us onto the streets.” Of the more than 1,000 people arrested, most were young, including many who had never before been active in opposition circles. They protested the regime’s electoral fraud, while pushing the opposition leadership to be more confrontational.

The struggle didn’t end with the destruction of the “tent city” in October Square, where many young protesters were living. Throughout the summer and fall, young people continued to protest by wearing their “For Freedom” pins, organizing flash mobs, and carrying out hunger strikes and other demonstrations. The upsurge in youth activities scared the ruling regime, which retaliated by detaining, arresting, expelling, and firing hundreds of young people. The repressive atmosphere of 2006 was captured eloquently by a photograph of a Belarusian mother outside a detention center holding a hand-made sign that read, “looking for my son.”

This year has been no different. The European Union, U.S. Embassy in Minsk, and Amnesty International have criticized the ongoing campaign against youth. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka plays the role of the good, but stern, “father” to his people, but he is being challenged increasingly by a new generation of disobedient sons and daughters.

Security services frequently visit the families of youth activists to advise them on how to raise their children. It seems at times that the regime is paying more attention to this new generation than to the leadership of the democratic opposition. The regime fears young activists more than any other segment of the opposition and has put them squarely in its crosshairs.

In September alone, more than 100 young activists were detained and dozens imprisoned. The regime continues to use “anonymous tips” of dead bodies, rape, explosives, drugs, and trafficking to harass young activists, and it has trumped up charges of obscene language and other instances of “indecent behavior,” “hooliganism,” and “disrespecting society” to jail them.

One student was expelled from university and another young activist lost her job for political reasons. A youth activist was sent forcibly to a hospital for a psychiatric examination by the KGB. A leading opposition youth group was denied registration. Two young journalists received warnings for working for foreign media. And court cases have been filed against 96 graduates of educational institutions who refused to accept mandatory, state-assigned work placements.


Both sides of the political divide in Belarus realize the importance of youth in the battle for the hearts and minds of citizens and in the country’s future development. There is no doubt that Belarusian youth are largely pro-European and pro-democratic. While to many observers, Belarus seems to be a museum for all things Soviet, young Belarusians today belong to both worlds, east and west. They move easily between languages and travel to countries in the EU and Commonwealth of Independent States. Most see their future in Europe.

A decade ago, surveys augured of this collective mindset; they found that young Belarusians had no “nostalgia for Soviet times … and would prefer to see the West European model” established in Belarus. In a 1997 national poll, more than 54 percent of young respondents favored democracy, while only 42 percent of the total population sample did. Among university students, support for democracy was 81 percent.

The statistics aren’t much different today, despite the paucity of studies. A 2007 Gallup survey indicated that more than half of those ages 18 to 35 would vote for a candidate for change in the 2008 parliamentary elections, compared with less than a third of those between 36 and 55 and less than half of those older than 56. A recent Belarus Institute for Strategic Studies poll shows that in the choice between joining a union with the EU or Russia, young people overwhelmingly would choose Brussels over Moscow.

The dramatic outburst of youth activism and the appearance of so many new faces in 2006 raised the hopes of many domestic and foreign observers. They quickly anointed the March Youth as “the new force” that finally would bring about change, seeing in it a group intent on achieving results. Other experts discounted the impact of the movement by stacking it against the regime’s massive ideological indoctrination and repression of youth. They predicted either an apolitical and apathetic generation or a legion of young Lukashenka followers.

By summer 2006, it was obvious that most of the new political or civic youth initiatives that appeared during the protests were incapable of establishing strong and effective structures. Bunt! (Revolt) is a good example. Bunt! was established by youth who previously were unengaged politically but were active in the March protests. After bonding through arrest and imprisonment, its founders promised to establish a “different kind of youth group, not like the others.” But a combination of government repression, poor organization, and internal dissention decimated the group, which today is a shadow of its former self.

Other youth initiatives, like Khopits! (Enough), were created only for the elections and never intended to continue. The March events even contributed to the demise of one of the most recognizable of the established youth groups. Zubr (Bison) announced that, in response to the new situation, it would fold and continue its fight against the regime “as a part of a broad nationwide movement.”

Flash mobbing, the best known of the post-election youth activities, was also a brief phenomenon, at least on a mass scale. Immediately after the March crackdown, there were regular instances of young people who, notified via the Internet and text messaging, would suddenly descend on a public space and hold events to demonstrate solidarity, freedom of association, and a rejection of the regime. Some of the more imaginative antics included groups protesting the lies of state television by putting scarves over their eyes when the news was broadcast on an outdoor screen in October Square; reading the Belarusian Constitution near the Ministry of Justice; destroying and throwing away copies of the state newspaper Soviet Belarus; and launching black balloons during Lukashenka’s April inauguration.

By the summer, however, flash mobs had significantly decreased, as many young people had left for vacation. Moreover, as security forces figured out how to track the planners and cracked down on participants, the frequency of flash mobs declined. As one youth leader reported, “It was no fun to take part in a three-minute performance and then spend three hours in the police station.”


The majority of the March Youth lost their enthusiasm when they realized that a quick victory was not possible. They turned away from political and civic battles and returned to normal life.

The eruption of sudden activism was not transformed into systematic activities, in part because the new young activists lacked experience working in established organizations, formulating short- and long-term objectives, and implementing them according to a plan. It turned out that the old-fashioned ideas of training, fund-raising, and organizational development scorned by Bunt! and others as unexciting and ineffective were necessary after all. In turn, however, experienced civil society groups failed to build bridges with the new activists or to provide them with the support necessary to survive growing pains, especially in conditions of repression.

Moreover, after being expelled from schools or fired from jobs, many of the country’s best and brightest left Belarus in search of better opportunities. Eighty percent of those who leave Belarus to work abroad are students.

But while the scale of activities may have declined, the in-your-face attitude remains. One of the most important outcomes of 2006 is that the youth movement has lost much of its fear. Even at the Presidential Management Academy, the educational institution closest to Lukashenka, 250 students signed a petition against the expulsion of a peer for his political activities. This courage has helped a small number of the March groups redefine their goals, revise their strategies, and find their niche in the democratic movement.

Inicyjatyva (Initiative), for example, decided to focus on carrying out carefully prepared street actions aimed at overcoming apathy and anxiety among young people. By placing a premium on security, diversifying its activities, and working face-to-face with young people, it had organized more than 50 street happenings and actions without any arrests since March.

Until 31 October, when a group was grabbed in October Square because its Halloween costumes “resembled those of criminals,” according to the police. Still, Inicyjatyva has placed opposition flags on the tallest buildings around the city to protest the regime; held a “Day of Flowers for a Good Mood” by handing out 2,000 tulips to people on the streets, including police and soldiers; and celebrated the “Day of Knowledge” by delivering a funeral poster with a picture of a Belarusian-language textbook, a black ribbon, and mourning flowers to the Ministry of Education to protest the disappearance of the Belarusian language from the state educational system.

While few new youth groups have emerged, some established youth civic organizations have benefited from the March events. These organizations have adopted the new activists’ signature forms of resistance and self-organization, such as flash mobs and online communities. Many of the new activists have joined and rejuvenated old structures, like Antifashyk (Antifascism) and Malady Front (Young Front).

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Malady Front is one of Belarus’ oldest and best known youth groups. While many of its former and current leaders have been imprisoned or forced into exile, its ranks have been replenished by the March Youth. Malady Front has borne the brunt of the regime’s repression since 2005. Denied registration five times by the state, its members continue to be detained and imprisoned for the criminal offense of being active on behalf of an unregistered organization. The new activists, many of them still under legal age, have helped Malady Front survive and thrive.

When criminal cases were opened against three members in September, scores of young activists, together with other civil society leaders, arrived at the court to express their solidarity with their peers, despite threats of arrest and persecution. Those on trial were fined but not locked up. While some supporters at the court were detained, fined, or imprisoned for a few days, youth activists appeared to have won a moral victory. The example of Malady Front illustrates the regime’s quandary: its heavy-handed repression only seems to spur greater resistance.


Most traditional civil society groups led by the older generation, however, appear not to have benefited from the March Youth. In particular, opposition political parties have not capitalized on a new generation of politicized youth. Moreover, young people show little inclination to join parties.

Less than successful in reaching out to young people, the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) had to reestablish its youth wing in 2006, and the United Civic Party (UCP) did so only a few months ago. The youth wings of the Social Democrats and the leading party of the United Democratic Forces (UDF), the Party of Belarusian Communists, barely exist. Young people see little future in Marx, Engels, or Lenin. Political parties continue to be headed by older leaders, most of whom are veterans of the 1990s struggles against the regime.

Like many opposition leaders who seemed to discover but failed to engage young people for the first time after March, Sergei Skrabets, a former political prisoner, declared that he would create a national youth movement, but he never did. Such former dissidents, parliamentarians, Soviet era apparatchiki (several were old Communist Youth League, or Komsomol, leaders), and Lukashenka supporters have little to offer youth. They seem unable to speak a common language with a generation that came of age in the 21st century.

There has been an uneasy relationship between young activists and the opposition leadership since 2001, when party leaders settled on Vladimir Goncharik, a graying, communist-era trade union leader, as their candidate against Lukashenka. Young people active in civil society had nothing in common with this member of the Soviet nomenklatura and did little to assist his disastrous campaign.

In contrast, however, young activist campaigned hard for Alexander Milinkevich, the opposition’s candidate in the 2006 elections. Milinkevich was a civil society activist and an academic with less baggage from the past and a track record of working with youth. In a December 2005 survey, more than one-third of those interviewed who supported Milinkevich were under 30.

Despite having a common enemy, there were differences between the older and younger generations even at the high watermark of March. Radical youth disagreed with the post-election strategy of the opposition leadership, criticizing its poor planning and timid tactics. In October Square, the divide between the “tent city” and a leadership that went home each night was clear. Despite his past ties to Lukashenka, another opposition presidential candidate, Alexander Kazulin, temporarily won over many young people with his more radical opposition and willingness to act at a decisive moment.

Since the heady days of March, young activists have become increasingly turned off by the political in-fighting, interests, and egos of the party leaders who head the UDF. Also, the young people who led and made up the square protests believed that they had earned the right to participate in the opposition’s decision-making structures, but they were not allowed to take their place at the table. When internal gridlock resulted in little being accomplished by the UDF, many young people abandoned their newfound civic activism.

A key moment was the May 2007 Congress of Democratic Forces, which was dominated by political party leaders and removed Milinkevich from the leadership, further alienating youth leaders, many of whom boycotted the controversial event. In response, Milinkevich established a civic movement, “For Freedom,” which is built mainly on post-2001 and March Youth.

Although a majority of young activists see Milinkevich as their best hope at the moment, many are tuning out because of his indecisiveness and reticence and questioning his commitment to youth. As one Young Front teenager put it: “We are for Milinkevich, but is Milinkevich for us?”


As the fall 2007 marches made clear, the split between young activists and older opposition leaders is getting more acrimonious. At the time of the May Congress, several youth groups protested the leadership fratricide by issuing a manifesto, “Time to Win,” which criticized the “old opposition” and “permanent leaders” while declaring that victory was only possible with the help of a “new generation of responsible young leaders.”

Prior to the European March, five youth groups accused the opposition organizers of cowardice, weakness, and “betraying youth” by accepting the authorities' decree restricting the protest to the city’s outskirts. Several days later, these activists sought to shame organizers by presenting them with scoops and pails used to clean up after pets. During the Social March, an opposition leader responded by saying that he couldn’t find any youth leaders present to whom he could return the scoops. He also questioned the youth activists’ leadership qualities and characterized some youth groups as “brainless, marginal, and manipulated by the secret services.”

Behind this bickering, a generational shift is taking place in the opposition. A number of the youth active in March 2006 have become regional and operational leaders of Milinkevich’s “For Freedom” Movement. And despite general disengagement from many political parties, several young politicians have reached the level of deputy chair in key parties, although none have been elected leaders. That may change, as some young Turks in the BPF try to win control of the country’s most dynamic and active party.

Established NGO networks, like the Belarusian Association of Resource Centers (BARC), are declining and being supplanted by new networks of young activists, such as the Belarusian Association of Regional Development Agencies (Belarda). The centralized independent trade union structures, headed by the same leaders since the early 1990s, are moribund, but some regional branches headed by young leaders are showing some signs of new life.

Old non-government organizations, like the Belarusian Association of Journalists, have created youth departments. New NGOs that are focusing on cutting-edge issues, such as debating building a nuclear power plant in Belarus, organizing small entrepreneurs, the continuing impact of Chernobyl, and religious rights, are led by young activists. New think tanks, political parties, websites, and publications have been launched recently by youth activists.

Despite this generation gap, there is little proof that young people are turning to the “dark side.” Belarusian youth may be quick to hope, but they are not easily deceived. The real impact of the regime’s propaganda, mandatory state ideology classes, and repression seems overestimated.

Lukashenka has centered his youth policy on the Belarusian Republican Union of Youth (BRSM), a state-controlled, mass-organized group modeled on the Komsomol. The BRSM has branches in all high schools and universities, monopolizes state activities involving students, operates a radio station and a travel agency, and organizes youth labor brigades.

Despite state pressure to join and attractive benefits, the BRSM does not seem to have many active adherents. In a recent student survey, 70 percent of respondents knew about the organization but only 26 percent admitted to being members. Some members were ashamed to acknowledge their status, while others claimed that they had been “enrolled” without their knowledge.

Although the organization claims to have 90,000 members in Minsk alone and a total of 430,000 members nationwide, it could muster only several groups of 20 to 50 members to hold counter-protests at Western embassies when thousands of young people were demonstrating regime in March 2006. This year, it could only assemble groups of 40 to 50 in the capital and the regions to celebrate its fifth anniversary. Financial reports indicate that members paying dues in Minsk total only 3,000.

While the BRSM is the best-known youth group in Belarus, its reputation is less than stellar. In a December 2006 youth focus group question about the BRSM, the terms “lie” and “pressure” were evoked frequently. BRSM has been linked to neo-Nazi groups tolerated if not supported by the regime. During the past summer there were discussions about BRSM creating paramilitary structures to “help maintain law and order” on the streets. Clearly, the regime’s policies have not succeeded in winning over youth.

Lukashenka has criticized the state’s other mass youth organizations for their “mistakes.” In a leaked state survey of GomelUniversity students, only 17 percent of respondents indicated that it was important to be “patriotic.” In a fall 2006 focus group, young people who took part in the March events but were not affiliated with any political party or NGO made it clear that their motivations for protesting were the limitations placed on their personal freedom, disgust with state propaganda, and anxiety about their own future and the future of the country. As Milinkevich has noted, “this generation wants more freedom, freedom of thought, and self-expression.”


Why, then, aren’t there more young people openly in opposition? The bottom line is that the majority of young people in Belarus occupy a “grey area” of activism somewhere between the extremes of the opposition and regime supporters. They often are unknown and unseen by internal and external observers.

Ten years ago, a national survey of youth found that only 6 percent of respondents actually took part in protests. Today, not much has changed. A recent survey found that just 10 percent of students can be considered “active.” More than 50 percent of respondents believe that their classmates are passive. Three quarters of the students surveyed had never collected signatures for a candidate (the least risky political activity in the survey), 56 percent had never participated in a demonstration, and 50 percent had never been involved in a charity event.

But while only a small part of youth said it is ready for open protest, a significant portion said it is dissatisfied with the current situation in the country. To the question, “what would you change if you were elected president of Belarus?” 16 percent of a group of non-active students answered “everything.”

Thus, while most young people are politically passive, many are not apathetic. They are presently focused inward on activities promoting self-realization. More than 37 percent of students surveyed declared that the main value for them is “to be themselves,” and another 32 percent cited “internal harmony.”

Young people are participating in a broad range of independent activities, many of which are anti-establishment but not overtly political. Among other activities, they take part in underground publishing, environmental initiatives, local Internet radio, open-air music festivals, alternative religions, and amateur filmmaking. As one observer put it, “lots of small clubs are popping up, like mushrooms after rain.”

While innocent enough, these youth initiatives are perceived as a threat in “Europe’s last dictatorship,” where any independently organized activity is considered dangerous. They usually take place, however, below the authorities’ radar screen, and even that of the opposition. Sadly, when the mainstream opposition does take notice of some unconventional youth activity, like graffiti art, it sometimes joins the regime in condemning it as “anti-social behavior.”

But many people – youth and observers alike – believe such independent initiatives shouldn’t be discounted. Young people are self-organizing, establishing small personal networks, carrying out local actions, and expressing their independence. As one activist who works with youth explained, these creative youth initiatives “are eroding this regime and its ideology from the inside.”

Together, these activities are contributing to a growing and evolving civil society. In contrast to many higher-profile political actions, some of the campaigns have achieved concrete results. Over the course of 20 years, for example, the underground counterculture magazine Idiot has attracted and promoted creative activists in Vitebsk. More recently, students launched a campaign and were successful in convincing the administration of BelarusianStateUniversity to build parking spots for bikes. Through other efforts, youth groups were able to get radio stations to play more Belarusian music and cell phone and Internet companies to translate their websites into Belarusian.


Perhaps more importantly, like their peers around the globe, young Belarusians are merging their eclectic activism with the Internet. According to statistics from December 2006, 32 percent of the working population of Belarus regularly use the Internet. Of that figure, half are people younger than 30.

In a recent survey, students cite virtual activities as second in popularity only to going to discos, clubs, and movies. While most young Internet users in Belarus consider the Web to be primarily a source of entertainment, those heading online can’t avoid the news and other serious information posted on Belarusian web portals. Dozens of NGOs and independent newspapers have their own websites, and some of them are more popular sources of information than local state newspapers and websites.

A leaked state survey of students at two universities in Gomel found that more than a third of respondents listed the Internet as their primary source of information — and this figure is from one of the country’s least developed regions.

Other than the websites of state newspapers, the regime’s presence on the Web is relatively minimal. The regime fears the Internet as a source of independent information that circumvents its media monopoly, propaganda, and ideology. But even more threatening is the growing number of young Belarusians joining the Web 2.0 generation. As kitchens were for their parents in Soviet times, the Internet has become a place where young Belarusians interact with others, discuss events, exchange opinions, and share ideas.

Students surveyed mentioned they frequently take part in Internet forums, chats, and blogging. Online, young Belarusians are finding like-minded peers who share the same values, join with them in virtual communities, and even interact in real life. Thousands of members of social networking sites are sharing breaking developments with each other, including information that does not find its way into the mainstream state or even independent media. Belarusian youth dominate the country’s LiveJournal community, the world’s 15th largest.

The past year has shown that the Web is being used effectively to improve and increase the boom in youth self-organizing. After the “tent city” was demolished, young activists took refuge in various online communities. The Internet became a virtual square, where young activists camped out, held fireside chats, and cooked up new forms of resistance. The Web has improved the security and dissemination aspects of their actions because of enhanced discussion. Today, hundreds of young people are planning and coordinating civic and political actions online.

In March 2007, Belarusian bloggers successfully launched an Internet campaign to collect bail money for Dzianis Dzianisau, a youth activist and one of the “tent city” leaders who was imprisoned for his political activities. In Grodno, blogs have become the focal point of efforts to mobilize citizens to defend the city’s historical monuments, which are being destroyed under the pretext of reconstructing the OldTown.


Despite the scale and diversity of youth activism, opposition leaders still don’t really understand youth initiatives. In addition to the generation gap, there is also a digital divide between the traditional opposition and the new wave of youth activists.

All is not split, however, as some older opposition leaders are using the Web. For someone who still writes his speeches by hand, for instance, Milinkevich’s recent decision to start blogging is quite revolutionary. Also, the blog of Ales Michalevic, a 30-something deputy chairman of the BPF, is already one of the most popular political sites on Belarus’ LiveJournal.

But there is also a creativity gap. After 13 years of ineffectual struggle, the older generation does not respond well to new challenges and is suffering from a dearth of new ideas. Around the time that BPF leader Vincuk Viachorka led the older generation on yet another march commemorating Belarusians executed by Stalin’s NKVD, his son Franak organized a flash mob that mocked the 130th birthday of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the predecessor of the NKVD and KGB, by laying a toy gun at his statue.

Moreover, some of youth’s political passivity is attributable to lackluster mentorship. Focus group participants indicated that youth do not find the “old opposition” to be interesting. “The protests should be more fun,” said one young activist at the European March. “There should be fewer boring speeches with superficial words.”

Despite their skepticism, however, young activists respect the experience and achievements of the older generation, especially in the fields of promoting independent education, defending human rights, and fostering national culture. Participants of youth focus groups said they were ready to share their ideas with democratic leaders and to take part in actions addressing concrete problems, such as Lukashenka’s plan to build a nuclear power plant. This indicates the possibility for cooperation.

To make any progress, the democratic opposition in Belarus must be united, inclusive, and broad-based. At the moment, a majority of the young generation is neither influenced by the opposition nor controlled by the regime. Opposition leaders must hear the voices of the new generation, acknowledge its grievances, redress the generation gap, and channel the energy of young people toward promoting democratic change.

Youth activists have always been the foot soldiers of the opposition’s campaigns, and they likely will be again during the 2008 parliamentary elections. The greatest legacy of March 2006 is that young people seem to have shaken off their fear of the regime. Many are ready and willing to be more politically active, but they want to call some of the shots and be taken seriously.

Rodger Potocki is an adjunct professor of East Central European History at GeorgetownUniversity.

Iryna Vidanava is the editor of CDMAG, an independent magazine for youth in Belarus.