The 'kindness and propaganda' of a life in Belarus

By Manish Pandey

Published 1 June 2021

Opposition supporters say last year's election in Belarus was rigged | Getty Images

It's been called "Europe's last dictatorship". This year it was banned from Eurovision.

And now, Belarus has been making headlines because of the detention of an opposition Belarusian journalist, after the Ryanair plane he was travelling on was forced to land.

That's led to the threat of increased sanctions on the country by the UK, EU and US - and global protests.

So from protests to pandemics - what is life like in Belarus?

President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for nearly 27 years and is nicknamed by some as "Europe's last dictator".

Officially, he won the election last year by a landslide - but the opposition movement and Western governments including the UK and EU say it was rigged.

President Lukashenko insists he won fairly and has said protests against him are a Western-backed plot.

The mass protests led to a government crackdown, with people sent to prison or exiled | Getty Images

Maria was born and raised in the capital, Minsk - but is currently living in exile in Lithuania after protesting against the government.

The 22-year-old lived in Belarus for 20 years, before moving to London. But in the summer of 2020, Maria found herself going back "for democracy".

"I wanted to participate somehow in the future of my country, even though I couldn't vote [because of Lithuanian citizenship]," she tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

Getty Images

Maria says "outstanding alternative candidates" to the current president were "Belarusians that you'd want to follow and see as representatives of the country".

But many of those candidates were arrested for what Maria describes as "ridiculous" reasons - such as allegations of money laundering.

The crackdown on opposition politicians led people to the streets to protest across the country.

Maria first protested at the embassy in London - but it was seeing security forces arresting and beating people in her home country that sparked her return to Belarus.

"I took the decision to support my friends and relatives and participate in the protests. I didn't realise at the time how big this would be."

Maria was prepared for a few nights in prison, but "not for the amount of violence" she'd experience.

'We've seen terrible things'

She says she was arrested and beaten by security forces.

"On one of the nights, I was lucky to escape. I was separated from my friends and they started to attack us with stun grenades and continued shooting," she said.

"It was just an awful night."

"We've seen terrible things, what they were doing to people, how violent and brutal they've been. We were lucky to survive."

Security forces have been accused of a violent suppression

Maria says the violence she faced caused her to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Eventually she fled to Lithuania with her husband out of fear of persecution and further violence.

The EU and UK has imposed sanctions on members of the Belarus government for repression and intimidation against protesters, and called for new free and fair elections with all political prisoners released.

The Belarus government has denied widespread allegations of abuse.

From Portugal to Poland, global protests like this one in Warsaw have been taking place in solidarity with Belarus | Getty Images

Maria says she was "raised as a normal kid".

"You're taught to be kind and caring towards others, but [you are] brought up in a system from kindergarten to university - unless you can escape," she says.

She says Belarus is "a strict country where you always have to fight for your rights".

This begins at school, "where you don't always get the right education because there's a lot of propaganda".