Canadians rally behind Belarus

    Demonstration at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton on August 13. Photo: Marco Levytsky

    Marco Levytsky, NP-UN National Affairs Editor.

    Close to 60 people, mostly from the Belarusian community, gathered in front of the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton on August 13 to denounce the Lukashenka regime.

    Carrying the red and white flags of independent Belarus as well as other historically significant symbols, they chanted “peremozham” (we shall overcome) and “Zhyve Belarus” (Belarus lives).

    Canadians are rallying behind the Belarusian people as they mount daily protests following the disputed elections which gave President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term.

    Protests have already been held in several Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

    The Belarusian Central Election Commission claimed that Lukashenka won 80 per cent of the vote, but unofficial exit polls run by the opposition, showed challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya winning 80 per cent instead.

    Western democracies have condemned the elections as neither free not fair, but countries such as the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Turkey and the Central Asian states have congratulated Lukashenka on his victory.

    In a statement issued the day after the election Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, François-Philippe Champagne, said: “Canada is deeply concerned by the actions of Belarusian authorities following yesterday’s presidential elections which have reportedly left at least one person dead, seen many arrested and further eroded the democratic legitimacy of the vote”.

    “The people of Belarus have demonstrated their desire for democracy through their unprecedented mobilization over the past few weeks. Free, fair and inclusive elections are critical to any functioning democracy. Prior to the election, Canada had voiced its concern over the arrests of opposition candidates, prominent Belarusian bloggers and activists for participating in peaceful protests. We call on the government of Belarus to exercise restraint and uphold respect for human rights.

    “Canada remains committed to the people of Belarus. We will continue to closely follow developments and call for the results of Sunday’s election to reflect the will of the people,” he added.

    But representatives of the Ukrainian, Belarusian and other communities have asked Champagne to go much further. In an August 13 letter to the minister, Alexandra Chyczij, National President of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress; Alena Liavonchanka of the Belarusian Canadian Alliance; and Marcus Kolga of the Central and Eastern European Council in Canada, called upon the government to:

    • Refuse to recognize the results of the August 9 election, as published by the Belarusian Central Election Commission;
    • Unequivocally condemn the Lukashenka regime’s persecution and violence against demonstrators, opposition leaders and media;
    • Together with our allies, implement Magnitsky sanctions against representatives of the Lukashenka regime responsible for targeting demonstrators, suppressing dissent and violating internationally recognized human rights;
    • Together with our allies, support Belarusian civil society and Belarusian groups seeking freedom and democracy.

    Other proposals which have been circulated at rallies across Canada include:

    • To immediately cease all humanitarian, financial and technical assistance to Lukashenka and his structures;
    • To ban imports into Canada or add additional state duties on products manufactured by slave labour.

    Members of the Belarusian community in Canada are very concerned about the safety of relatives still in Belarus. People we spoke with at the rally asked us not to use their names for fear of reprisals against their family members. Communication is very difficult because the government controls the internet and is trying to shut down all communication except that put out by state authorities, they said.

    Indicative of the extent of Russification in Belarus, speakers addressed the gathering in Russian – not Belarusian. They told us they did not have the opportunity to learn Belarusian in their native country under the Soviets, or under Lukashenka.

    One speaker, who addressed the gathering in English said that special police units have used flash/bang grenades, bullets (and not only rubber ones), water cannons and tear gas to suppress peaceful protests. They have even driven large military trucks into the crowds.

    “More than 6,000 people have been detained and kidnapped over the past four days. Multiple personal stories of people being raped and tortured have come up. Between 30 and 50 people are thrown into jail cells that can only hold four. They have no food, no water, not enough air to breath in the cell.

    “There is a story of a lady who was shoved into a police vehicle and beaten by 10 policemen who pulled down her pants and said they would rape her.

    “There is another story of a diabetic thrown in jail whose insulin medicine was taken away by the prison doctor who said ‘we are not going to feed you anyway’”.

    She added that state authorities kept Tikhanovskaya detained for seven hours, forcing her to record a video in which she asked protestors not to resist police. They drove her to the border of Lithuania where she had to flee.

    Another participant told New Pathway – Ukrainian News that what Belarusians are striving for is a democratic society, a return to Belarusian – not Soviet – symbolism, Belarusian adopted as the state language and movement towards the West and away from Russia.