Masks make repression anonymous. Rip them off, and dictatorship has a face: an individual who can be made to take responsibility for his actions. That is the new lesson from Belarus, where women protestors have been pulling the balaclavas from the heads of the OMON riot police.
The simple act of defiance upends the power dynamic. It happens when the OMON man (for it always seems to be a man) is briefly outnumbered. The protestors could pull him to the ground, smash his head with a brick or douse him in gasoline. These things happen in other political upheavals. But this is Belarus. The demonstrators do not hurt their persecutor or demean him. They just make sure his face is photographed.
I have watched many clips of these unmasking actions in recent days. The OMON man suddenly looks human. He also looks abashed, even ashamed: no longer a tough guy in a tough team, but a human being, caught doing something wrong. There will be women in his life: he is certainly a son, perhaps a brother, most likely a husband, maybe a father. As well as relatives, he will have female friends and neighbors. These women may take part in the protests. Many of them will at least sympathize with them. They know the stagnant, bombastic regime that rigged last month’s election, that clings to power with the help of the Kremlin, meting out beatings and humiliation to those who resist it.
Maybe many of these women and their menfolk in and around our OMON man’s life did not know his profession. Now he is unmasked, he fears they will recognize him as a thug and a traitor. He will have to face them, in the stairwell of his apartment block, while shopping, at sporting events, and at family gatherings. They may confront him – “why are you beating us?” Or maybe they will just turn away. Either way, he will notice a different tone of voice, an averted gaze, an invitation not issued or accepted. His colleagues worry too: they may be next to be unmasked and the next to be ostracized.
When regimes fall, they split at the top and crumble at the bottom. Both are possible in Belarus. The task of the protestors and their friends abroad is to speed both processes. The physical unmasking of individual agents of repression is one step. Another is to do the same thing electronically en masse. The opposition seems to have got hold of the personal details of every member of the Belarusian police force. It plans to publish them.
Another line of attack is against the regime’s external presence. Belarus has scores of embassies and other diplomatic missions. Some of the staff may be diehard regime supporters. But many must feel queasy about what is happening back home. Maybe they have children studying at universities. They must watch the videos of police brutality with sickening apprehension.
These people can switch sides. A handful has done so already. The ambassador to Slovakia was an early defector. His colleague in the Netherlands has given a remarkable interview criticizing the repression. We need more.
The key to victory is momentum. People inside the regime must increasingly think it is doomed. Nobody wants to be on the losing side. As those challenging it grow more confident of victory, more people join them. When the masked men with the truncheons refuse to use them, and those in charge flinch at giving orders them, it will be time for Aliaksandr Lukashenka and his gang to head to the waiting helicopter. May it be soon.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.