In August, Rodion Begliak returned to his home country of Belarus to vote in the presidential election. He planned to visit friends and family and return to his management consultant job in Moscow. It was to be a short visit.
But once there, little went as planned for the Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business Class of 2019 MBA. His quick trip home became a nightmare when he was swept up in an anti-democratic crackdown by the government of President Alexandr Lukashenko, who defied the will of the people and declared himself re-elected despite losing in a landslide. Protesters thronged the streets of the capital city Minsk and elsewhere, and Begliak, caught up in the chaos, was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. Fearing for his life, he fled to Riga, Latvia, where he remains as a political refugee.
Poets&Quants reached him there. This is his story.
IN BELARUS, A RIGGED ELECTION
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarussians experienced the freedom of democracy under parliamentary republic. It was a short-lived freedom. Lukashenko took power in 1994 and has controlled the government ever since, more than a quarter-century of authoritarian rule.
Many thought 2020 would change that. But in the runup to the August election, Lukashenko ordered the arrest of opponents Sergei Tikhanovsky and Viktor Babariko, and the exile of opponent Valery Tsepkalo. He then claimed he was reelected for his sixth presidential term — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
After Sergei Tikhanovsky was imprisoned, his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a human rights activist, became the opposition candidate. Belarussians united behind her against the dictator. But unity was not enough. “We’ve had a long-term problem with elections because our votes are not counted properly,” Begliak tells P&Q. “In 1999, Lukashenko kidnapped the former head of the Central Election Commission, who was responsible for counting votes in Belarus. He was never seen again.”
In ways big and small, Lukashenko has tightened his grip on power in recent years. He banned the use of software created to count votes independently, making it so that anyone outside of Belarus would be unable to participate in the election. He went further, removing the curtains in voting booths and banning phones in Belarussian embassies. The airwaves have been dominated by his propaganda. Yet Svetlana Tikhanovskaya gained an estimated 60-70% of the vote, a crushing victory.
Lukashenko, Europe’s last true autocrat, refused to leave, claiming that 80% voted for him and declaring that he would remain president. Fuelled by widespread anger over the undemocratic nullifying of the election, Belarussians took to the streets, demanding that Lukashenko finally resign. They now have been protesting for over 100 days.
What began as a demand that the authoritarian leader step down after 26 brutal years in power was answered with mass violence and arrests on the streets as police cracked down on protesters using rubber bullets, stun grenades, batons, and worse. Many have been imprisoned. Some have never been seen again.
ARREST & IMPRISONMENT
After Lukashenko’s declaration of victory, Begliak joined the protesters on the streets of his hometown, Homyel, and began to clap.
“A few years ago, young men gathered in the street and clapped to show their protest towards the president,” he says. “From that point on, this was seen as a sign of disrespect towards Lukashenko and became a legitimate reason for being arrested in Belarus.”
As Begliak clapped on the streets, violence broke out. “That evening, the police started going insane. In Minsk, they began throwing hand grenades into the crowd and shooting rubber bullets.”
Along with many others, Begliak was arrested. Held on the ground with his arms behind his back, a policeman clasped his hand on Begliak’s throat so that he would be helpless.
“They brought me to the police station where men from the special police forces were running in for ammunition, shouting at us so that we wouldn’t dare move,” he recalls. “They put us into the car and brought us to a different police station, where they started to beat us.”
Begliak describes the beatings as “standard procedure.”
“As I learned later, they beat everybody in the beginning to break our will so that we would obey the police forces. I was beaten by four people with my arms behind my back. I couldn’t do anything. They held me face-down so that I couldn’t see who was beating me. On the streets, all of the police officers wore masks so that they couldn’t be identified.”
Begliak was questioned alongside two other detainees: a medical student from Turkmenistan who’d come into the streets from his university dormitory to see what was going on, and a construction worker who’d been walking home and was arrested for no reason.
“At least half of the detainees which they captured were not even protesters,” Begliak says. “They were just people walking through the center of the city at that time who were beaten and then thrown in jail. To make matters worse, if a Belarussion policeman refuses to follow Lukashenko’s orders or steps down from his position, he automatically gets 10 years in prison.”
Before going to trial, each detainee was forced to sign documents saying that they participated in mass riots and attacked the police, a way to justify the beatings. The next day, Begliak was put in prison for 10 days.
After appearing in court, he and the others were brought to another station. All of the jails and prisons in the country were full at the time, so they stayed in a police station gymnasium until it was determined where they would go to for their 10 days of detainment.
While Begliak was escorted to prison, things worsened on the streets. Enraged by the mass beatings and killings, protesters began to lash out at the police. Arrests escalated. Begliak recounts that the police began even more brutal beatings of the new detainees in the station.
He recalls that a young man behind him started to lose control as he witnessed others being beaten.
“He refused to obey the police’s orders and he started to scream, calling for his mother and father. The police began beating him again. Three hours later, we were all taken in vehicles again and escorted to prison. He and I were forced into a small compartment with just a small hole for oxygen. He wouldn’t stop screaming, so the police threw pepper spray through the oxygen hole and I had to try to calm him down.”
When they arrived at the prison, everyone was unloaded except the young man.
“The police said that he needed special treatment, meaning that he would receive an additional beating. Later, when I got released from prison, I found out that he was found in a coma in a nearby hospital and was dead four hours later. His fingers and ribs were all broken, his skull was cracked, and he’d been beaten to death. He was 25 years old.”
At the prison, police forced 25 people into a cell designed for five.
“We were given almost no food, soap, or even toilet paper for the entire period of the arrest,” Begliak recalls. “We were forced to sleep in rows on the cold, hard concrete floor for the first 24 hours.”
He jokes that because of his management consulting background, he was able to evenly distribute people through the cell, instructing everyone to place their shoes between their body and the floor so as to avoid damage to their internal organs from the cold temperature.