Forgive me Belarus, I’m now ready to call for your freedom

(Sound on – please play video in background as you read this post)

Please, my Belarusian sisters and brothers, forgive me for my ignorance.

Last year, my wife’s great uncle from Lithuania visited DC as part of a tour of the United States. We set a time for us to meet outside the Air & Space museum on the National Mall, and it was hot. DC hot, and I was still in my suit.

His phone wasn’t working, and we had intermittent communication with someone else on his tour. A half hour passed, I was already sweating through my suit. Another half hour, no texts, and we were about to leave.

Then… “wait, he’s here!”

Our cynical selves imagined in that DC heat that he’d just want to show off his good-looking niece and her moderately handsome husband to his tour group. We knew he had more sympathy for Communism than we were comfortable with, and that convinced us we should keep our guard.

We were wrong.

He split from his group as they entered the Air & Space Museum. I can still feel his firm hug around us. He was so happy to see us and share his stories.

We found a shaded bench on the Mall.

He shared his stories from his travels, including his trip to Minsk.

Kriste and I were…skeptical.

To us, Minsk sounded dangerous. That’s maybe all we knew.

He told us about the beautiful city and how similar it was to Lithuania. How we have such a shared history. How similar our people are, separated by language, a border, and governments.

Minsk, Belarus

This was news to Kriste and me. We were both top students in our Lithuanian history classes! How could we not know about our deep ties to Belarus?

We tucked away that conversation in our heads, and were just grateful to spend some time with Kriste’s great uncle. We enjoyed our time with him and look back fondly on that conversation.

Then I started seeing things on Facebook about Belarus. Belarus was nowhere on my radar, and suddenly some of my Baltic friends started sharing their solidarity with Belarus, and Lithuania looked COMPLETELY on board. I was clearly behind on something, but sure I’ll be supportive.

My Lithuanian organization I’ve been a part of, Ateitininkai, was scheduled to have a call with Rep. Shimkus, chair of the House Baltic Caucus, for August 19th. I was running the meeting, so sure, I’ll add the Belarusian freedom movement to the agenda.

Honestly though, there’s a ton on my mind. There’s a freedom movement here in the US where we’re trying to convince people, including powerful people, that the lives of my black sisters and brothers matter.

We’re in the middle of a pandemic where I worry about my health. And we’re gearing up for a presidential election that sometimes feels like the fight for the existence of the United States.

It’s exhausting.

Then I saw the flag of the movement with my beloved Vytis, the symbol of my namesake.

 

Belarusians call it "Pagonya"

Ok, time to do a double take on my history.

Lithuania and Belarus were part of the same country for a couple hundred years.

First as part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuanian, then as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. 

About a month ago, all that I knew about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was that we kind of made fun of it in my Lithuanian Saturday-school class in Middle School. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth legislature made some rule that if one person of the legislature voted against something, it couldn’t become law. So we joked “I vote you can’t breathe!” The rest of the class held their breaths, pretending to hold it until death.

Now, I’m older, and let’s assume these people were maybe smarter than we gave them credit.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a government that was unified through the legislature, but that central government was weak on purpose. If anyone wanted a new law, everyone would have to be okay with it. No oppression of the majority against minorities.

I guess well-behaved countries rarely make history.

So there was religious freedom. Mosques were built alongside synagogues and churches. This was the time when Western Europe was colonizing, enslaving, and committing genocide. Meanwhile in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, King Władysław IV Vasa in 1632 forbid the printing of anti-semitic books and printing.

Remember that rule about requiring unanimous votes? I don’t know what that specific vote was like, but I can take a guess that everyone was thinking “yea dude, let’s not be anti-semitic or allow it”.

This was the country that produced Tadeusz Kościuszko, a man who can rightly be claimed by Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. Honestly, I don’t care who ‘claims’ him.

This guy was the original white ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. He traveled from the motherland to fight in the American Revolution and tried to use his American estate to free and educate black slaves – including those enslaved by Jefferson. Jefferson, unfortunately, didn’t listen.

Now, our hero has a statue in front of the White House. I believe his spirit redecorated his statue to show solidarity with the BLM movement.

 

This is just part of Lithuania’s shared history with Belarus. We have a history of fighting for freedom, and now Belarus is in the middle of its fight for freedom for itself, and for the future of Europe.

As the Belarusian-American activist Denis Baranov puts it,

We need broad international support to push the negotiations. We need the world to renounce Lukashenka’s legitimacy and recognize Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as the popularly-elected leader. We are trying to prevent the Venezuelan, Romanian, or the last Ukrainian scenario and would like to achieve the Czecho-Slovak, Polish, Armenian, or the Baltic outcome.

Here is his full message:

A few people have asked to summarize what has been going on in Belarus and how they could help. So here it is and please feel free to share it with your networks.

After 3 nights of police violence (August 9-11), the police backed off and have not made attempts to disperse the crowds. The minimal police presence resulted in some of the most incredibly peaceful protests you’d see: people are picking up garbage after themselves, trying to stay off the grass and flower beds, and even taking off shoes when standing on benches (this one is a shocker even to me).

Friday afternoon was tense when a large convoy of prison vans was brought over to Minsk city center while the European Parliament’s Special Envoy was denied entry at the Polish-Belarusian border. The weekend has seen larger crowds culminating in today’s nationwide show of unity against the dictatorship. The photos are from the main rally in Minsk where estimated attendance varies from 130K to nearly 300K for the population of 1.9M.

The situation is now entering a peculiar stage where there is clearly broad popular support for the dictator to step down but he is refusing to begin the transition process. He either thinks that the protests will die out soon or that he will be able to provoke another wave of violence to quell the resistance. We don’t know what he and Putin have agreed to this week and that’s the main unknown right now.

We need broad international support to push the negotiations. We need the world to renounce Lukashenka’s legitimacy and recognize Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as the popularly-elected leader. We are trying to prevent the Venezuelan, Romanian, or the last Ukrainian scenario and would like to achieve the Czecho-Slovak, Polish, Armenian, or the Baltic outcome.

So here are the four main things anyone could help with the most:

1) If you have political connections in your country or in Brussels, we need to lobby parliamentary declarations recognizing Sviatlana’s victory. The polling stations that did count the votes properly showed that she had at least 60% of the vote. In some neighborhoods, she received 90% of the vote. Unfortunately, only a couple hundred protocols out of thousands were preserved. This is the issue that some politicians have with pushing for such a declaration.

2) If you have mass media connections, we need editorial boards to start recognizing Lukashenka’s usurpation of power. Several Ukrainian newspapers announced today that they are starting to refer to him as a “person acting in the role of President” and if he decides to go through with inauguration as “self-proclaimed President”. The clear distinction is that “acting President” is a legal title and he is not a legitimate ruler. In addition, we need to start referring to Sviatlana as “presumed winner of the election” or similar. If a publication agrees to follow through with this, we’d like the editorial board to make such an announcement.

3) If you have a business that has international coverage and you use flags to denote the country, please change the flag of Belarus to the historic national white-red-white 3:2 format flag.

4) Donations.

 – There were at least 4000 arrests across the country. Thousands of arrestees in Minsk were subjected to torturous conditions in jails, spending at least one night outside, being held in overcrowded cells (40 instead of 6), and savage beatings resulting in severe injuries. We still don’t know the full extent of the injuries and the time needed to rehabilitate the people. There are reports of amputations and internal organ damage (including reproductive organs) let alone the psychological traumas. There’s an aid fund, which was originally set up to cover fines and jail bills (yes, in Belarus, you get charged for being put in jail). The link is in the comments to the original post.

– The national general strike will continue next week. It has started slowly on Thursday and has been gaining momentum over the weekend. So far no workers have been fired but the dictator has given the orders to start firing people. This may break the will of the people. Most of the large enterprise in Belarus is state-owned so the general strike is absolutely vital to bring the regime to its knees. The link is in the comments to the original post.

– Both fundraising drives are conducted as personal because of very fucked up financial laws in Belarus, which prohibit NGOs from receiving foreign aid. It was passed many years ago to prevent European and American funds from supporting civil society capacity development organizations. The people receiving funds are experienced in distributing the donations and there’s a multi-step verification system in place to reduce fraudulent claims. There’s another link to an article in Russian explaining how it all works in the original post.

Lastly, if you like to make small symbolic gestures, feel free to add any of the Belarus-themed white-red-white frames to your profile photo on Facebook or 🤍❤🤍 and ⬜🟥⬜ to your handles on other social media platforms.

And share any stories of the atrocities of the Lukashenka regime with your friends.

Denis shared the song being played in this post, which can be understood as the theme song of the protests. He describes “It’s the Belarusian version of Polish “Mury”, which is a modified translation of Calatan “L’estaca”. Instead of a stake, it’s about walls crumbling. Prison walls to be exact.”

I recommend after reading this post, to close your eyes, listen to the same song sung below by a different singer, and listen to the cry for freedom.

So here we are today. A Belarusian-Baltic Way rally is planned for Sunday. Even Ambassador Kurt Volker is getting involved with the rally and making it a top priority. (Remember him? He was one of those that testified about untrustworthy Ukrainian people feeding information to Rudy Giuliani in the Trump-Ukraine scandal).

At this point, I’m ready to call upon Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Belarusians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, Russians, and others to re-create the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

For now, our Belarusian sisters and brothers deserve freedom, and I can only hope they can forgive me for my ignorance. For my DC Baltic friends, join the re-recreation of the Belarusian-Baltic Way rally between the Lithuanian-Embassy and Belarusian embassy at noon.

My Baltic friends, I call you to stand with our Belarusian sisters and brothers.

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