Supporting protests for democracy in Belarus is costing jobs for academics, artists, teachers, workers and journalists from public bodies
At the last meeting of the teachers in the city of Lida to prepare for the start of the course, Marina Ostreiko got up, got on the stage and cried out against the manipulation in the Belarusian presidential elections on August 9. “Members of the Electoral Commission have falsified the elections because we have maintained silence. We have done it for 26 years but now the whole country has risen up ”, said the Geography professor before her colleagues. Someone recorded that speech and posted it on the networks. It went viral. Two days later, 59-year-old Ostreiko received a document terminating her contract at school number 6 in Lida.
The teacher had been teaching at that school in western Belarus for three decades; the last three courses, she combined annual contracts with her active retirement. “It is clear retaliation and I knew it could happen, but I was overwhelmed with anger and horror at what is happening in Belarus. I had to talk, ”says Ostreiko, a petite, easy-smiling woman who wears shiny green-rimmed glasses. The school denies that it stopped having the veteran teacher because of her activism, but Ostreiko has no doubts; She assures that her continuity had been confirmed that week.
Aleksandr Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader who has ruled Belarus for 26 years and has built his regime on the pillars of security agencies, has already warned that teachers who do not support “state ideology” should not be in the classroom. And its policy of strategic arrests of opponents and threats has also been joined by a wave of purges in public and state companies. Dozens of people have been fired or forced to leave their jobs in factories, state media, hospitals, universities or public artistic institutions for participating in protests or supporting mobilizations against the authoritarian leader, police violence and electoral fraud that add up more than a month in this former Soviet republic.
Historian Irina Romanova sees a parallel between what is happening and the methods of the Stalinist period. Dismissals for ideological reasons are not something new in Belarus, she and other colleagues from the Academy of Sciences were fired in the 2000s, accused of taking an ideological position that did not “correspond” to them and even of wanting to “undermine the foundations of state ideology ”. However, now it has gone further, she says. “There are arrests even for the fact that, without sharing your employer’s policy, you quit your job and made it public,” says Romanova, who today teaches at the European University of Humanities, based in Vilnius (Lithuania). Like two famous presenters of a state channel who resigned in protest at the public media coverage of information related to the protests and are now serving ten days of arrest. “As in the 1930s, they can sew a case for inciting colleagues to rebel. And if that continues, all his colleagues, relatives and acquaintances could be under the spotlight for complicity ”, he warns.
The Belarusian Solidarity Fund, a project launched by Belarusian philanthropists, members of the diaspora, and tech entrepreneurs to help financially those who have lost their jobs due to political retaliation, has already received 816 requests for support in just over 20 days. The fund, which has raised 1.6 million euros from donations from 33,000 people and which carefully reviews each case, has so far approved 300 applications. Because, in addition, losing your job in Belarus can also sometimes mean losing the state apartment that also goes with the contract in some positions.
The purge affects all grades of the professional ladder. From the mechanic Semen Fedotov, fired from his position in the assembly line of the famous Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) for going on strike, to high-level professionals with a rich curriculum and international reputation. This is the case of Alexandr Mrochek, chief cardiologist of the Belarusian Ministry of Health and until a few days ago director of the Scientific and Practical Center of Cardiology. The 66-year-old doctor was distressed by the level of violence by Belarusian security forces against protesters during the first days of protests. And he raised his voice. “It is impossible to be silent when you see blood. All this affects the destiny of people, their future, their families and their children, “he commented in an interview in a state newspaper. In those days there were documented cases of torture and ill-treatment in police custody, and hundreds of injuries and four deaths were registered, at least one of them due to live ammunition.
Mrochek did not go out on the street, but he spoke out in that interview. And a large part of the cardiology center staff joined the protests against the violence of the authorities, which also directly affected one of their anesthetists. Soon after, the health minister informed the cardiologist of his dismissal due to loss of confidence. “As a doctor, as a humanist, I had to react,” says Mrochek calmly, pointing out that the system is not only punishing those who actively participate in the mobilizations, but also those responsible for those teams. Thus, retaliation and punishment are shared and have a certain emotional and exemplary charge. “This policy is going to have a social impact. The loss of experienced health personnel in hospitals will be reflected in the care, ”remarks the white-haired, blue-eyed doctor. From leading one of the best teams in the country and receiving decorations for merit to work, Mrochek has gone on to be a pensioner and be on the blacklist.
“Going on strike against electoral manipulation was the only option. Even though I’m on the street now, ”Semen Fedotov remarks, waving little oxygenated dreadlocks that frame the middle of his head. The 19-year-old mechanic spreads his worksheet and other documents on a table on a terrace in central Minsk and shows them. One of them points out that his dismissal is due to “failure to fulfill his job duties without a justified reason.” Along with Fedotov, the state company has also dispensed with its eight brigade companions. “At first they tried to intimidate us, they even told me that the KGB [los servicios de seguridad del Estado, que en Bielorrusia conservan su nombre soviético] would come for me. Now the colleagues who are in the factory continue to receive pressure ”, says the mechanic, who explains that the MAZ plant and other factories controlled by the State have gone from open strikes to boycotts: power cuts, altering some of the machines , lose pieces; the system is known in Belarus as the “Italian strike”. MAZ, which manufactures city buses for countries like Poland and a wide range of trucks as well as other vehicles, denies problems in its production chain and remarks that it has no information about the case of the young Fedotov or his teammates.
Where performances have not been able to resume is at the prestigious Yanka Kupala National Theater, the oldest in the country, with 9.4 million inhabitants. The Ministry of Culture has announced that the institution remains closed; there will be no performances, at least, until November. The company has been dissolved after more than 70 people resigned in protest at the dismissal of its director, Pavel Latushko, who supported mobilizations against electoral fraud initiated by the theater staff, where the traditional white Belarusian flag flew for a few days. -red-white, today a symbol of opposition.
“We could not remain impassive in the face of what was happening,” explains the well-known Belarusian actress Zoya Belojvostik forcefully. Sitting on the terrace of the colorful theater viewpoint, the artist explains that most of the actors and technicians recorded a video and signed an open letter against police violence in which they demanded transparent and honest elections. She says that they knew there could be retaliation but agreed to face it together. That is why, when Latushko – now one of the leaders of the opposition – was fired and after trying to negotiate unsuccessfully with the Minister of Culture, they began to present their letter of resignation in cascade. “It was not a dismissal, but it is clearly interpreted as if they were showing us the door for us to leave,” says the actress, who has received several state awards and medals.
Curled up in a fluffy pastel sweater, the artist, who comes from a dynasty of actors linked to the Yanka Kupala, in which her grandfather and father also worked and in which her daughter had now started, is worried about the future of country after government reprisals. “Soon there will be no decent and respectable people in Lukashenko’s institutions. With this regime, only rats and cockroaches in human form will be able to stay ”, he laments. “Now we are not afraid for ourselves, but we are afraid for the Belarusian people. We have already seen that they can be beaten, killed, they can make people disappear “, he argues,” How to go on stage with this reality? It would mean that everything is correct, close your eyes; and, although we are actors, we cannot do that ”.