Editor’s note: This film will be removed on April 24, 2019.
In Minsk, young men and women parade in military uniforms in the capital’s Victory Square, while crowds of onlookers wave the red and green flag of Belarus. Band music plays and the president’s speech, given at the foot of an obelisk memorial for fallen soldiers, encourages national pride and warns against enemies of the state.
Belarus remains close with Russia and offers a glimpse of the Soviet Union before its collapse; the secret police are still called the KGB and the collective farms of the Soviet era endure.
The country is commonly known as “Europe’s last dictatorship”. Its president, Alexander Lukashenko, came to power in 1994 and has remained in office ever since. His government has seen human rights activists imprisoned, political dissidents silenced, and protests violently dispersed.
His rule has divided the country. On the one hand, there are those who look to Moscow and accept the authoritarian power, fearing a situation similar to Ukraine, which had descended into civil war. On the other, there are those who have been resisting the government for years.
Almost all my life I wanted changes for my country, and I do not give up hope that these efforts will one day bear fruit.
A number of civic leaders have been working to chip away at the repressive regime, despite threats of imprisonment and reluctance from western powers to intervene.
Among them is Ales Bialiatski, a longtime human rights defender who was imprisoned in 2011 on charges of tax evasion and spent almost three years in prison before being released.
“For me, freedom is not just a word, it’s a fundamental state of my life. But in fighting for freedom, I lost that freedom,” he says.
He is the founder of the human rights centre, Viasna, which offers financial and legal aid to political dissidents. His activism has taken him to high-level talks with Europe’s security organisation OSCE as he tries to hold his government accountable.
“Almost all my life I wanted changes for my country, and I do not give up hope that these efforts will, one day, bear fruit,” he says.
But as Lukashenko wins another presidential election and politically manoeuvres to appease both Russia and western European powers, the road to change looks tougher than ever.
The Belarus Dilemma follows Bialiatski and other civic leaders as they fight for a better future for their country, no matter the threat.
|Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, has been in power for more than 20 years [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]|
By Manon Loizeau
The first time I travelled to Belarus was when I was 20, and I witnessed Alexander Lukashenko’s election.
I was living in Moscow.
At that time Russia was opening up and Belarus stayed locked in the Soviet Union.
From Moscow, I watched closely what was happening in Minsk, the fear that people lived in, the repression by the secret police. I kept in touch with people inside who told me the true story unfolding in their country.
Alexander Lukashenko has kept his country cut off from the world for more than 20 years.
For many years I have been wanting to go back to Belarus and make a film. I wanted to tell the story of people who have never stopped resisting. People who have never given up their ideals of freedom, justice, the rule of law, and their dream of one day being part of Europe.
The opportunity to make this film came and, over the course of two years, I was able to finally meet and film the incredible freedom fighters who, despite the ongoing persecution of the regime, despite years and years spent in prisons, despite the indifference of the world, still fight for their rights and the idea of democracy.
By making this film I wanted to tell the story of this silent resistance, the story of this forgotten country and these forgotten people.
Mikola Statkevich, a political opponent, spent more than five years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera