Chants of “Long Live Belarus” echoed through a busy intersection in the Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove, as people dressed in red and white — the colors of the Belarusian flag — proudly waved their home country’s banner and sang patriotic songs.
Local Belarusians, part of Chicago’s large Eastern European community, have been rallying in solidarity with the people of Belarus since that nation’s August 9 election in which President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term over opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya with what officials declared was 80% of the vote.
Since then, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of the Belarussian capital, Minsk, charging that the election outcome was rigged and demanding the resignation of Lukashenko, whom critics have characterized as “Europe’s last dictator.”
“All the power is in the hands of just one person. And what’s on his mind? No one knows,” said Stas Pivavarau, who held red and white balloons. “Against his people, he is prepared to go as far as he can, simply to remain in the seat.”
Pivavarau, who moved to Chicago a year ago to be with his parents and brother, had been studying in New Zealand and supported Tsikhanouskaya in the recent election.
“This woman has become a symbol of changes — positive changes,” he said.
In Belarus, protests over the election results have been met with violence at the hands of police, including beatings, torture, arrests and detentions.
“It’s painful to even watch the pictures of the people, so that’s basically why I’m here,” said Marat Dzekevich, who wore a Belarusian flag on his back. “Even though I’ve lived in the U.S. for 16 years, my heart is still with Belarus.”
Zhanna Charniauskaya, an organizer with a nonprofit cultural organization called Belarusians in Chicago, said the Belarusian people lack basic rights such as freedom of speech, assembly and to protest.
The high school chemistry teacher immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. She lived in Wisconsin with her husband and children for two years before settling in the Chicago suburbs.
“People are politically intimidated,” she said. “If we have a political opinion, and if it’s more or less a public person, they lose their jobs and are put in jail.”
Safety for families back home is a major concern for the Belarusian community in the U.S. Many of Charniauskaya’s relatives, including her brother, sisters-in-law and nephews, have taken part in the protests.
Pivavarau said his sister in Belarus is frightened to leave her home.
Dzekevich’s nephew in Belarus was walking home with his friends when he was detained by police, jailed and beaten, even though he did not take part in the demonstrations.
Dzekevich said the authorities confiscated his nephew’s phone, which left him unable to contact his parents.
“Until the morning when he was let out, no one knew where he was, so it was very stressful for my family,” he said. “The police brutality is all over the place. They just lost the sense of humanity in them.”
Belarusians in Chicago recently submitted a petition to U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. Charniauskaya also plans to send another petition to Senator Tammy Duckworth on behalf of the group.
“We will try to reach every representative to create pressure that Congress takes serious steps against the authoritative regime of Lukashenko,” she said.
“I hope we have enough strength for the protest not to die down. So, I’m sending the message to our people in Belarus that we’ll be doing whatever is possible here to keep your spirits up. And I want you to know that the world is watching, and the world is giving you a helping hand.”