Summer in Eastern Europe
Updated: Mar 15
Reaction and Resistance in Belarus and Poland
In Polish, the summer months are traditionally known as sezon ogórkowy (‘cucumber season’). This means the season full of funny, light news that coincide with the parliamentary summer recess – in British it’s known as the silly season. It’s the time of year we are all meant to take a break, go on holiday, and get back to normal politicking from September.
Admittedly, we did have that story of the wild boar stealing someone’s laptop at the FKK beach in Teufelsee. The genuinely funny photos and the main protagonist’s good humour (the man, we don’t know about the boar) means we now have some great new meme templates. This story’s frankly unprecedented global coverage probably shows that we are all in desperate need of light relief. The year 2020, unfortunately, had other ideas.
In a single August week we first witnessed a fatal, and at the time of writing still unexplained, explosion in the port of Beirut. Its mushroom cloud initially acting as a nerve agent for its global witnesses, who not only worried about loved ones but also tensed up in fear of it being caused by a deliberate aerial attack. Protests have gone on ever since and the government has now resigned.
The Presidential election in Belarus, stirred hopes by the main opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. But it has ended with the military surrounding the city of Minsk and what was undisputedly a rigged election. We are now in the third day of demonstrations – the internet in the country keeps being cut off and Tsikhanouskaya escaped to Lithuania.
In Poland, old-new President Andrzej Duda was sworn in with a background of Lewica’s (the Left Coalition) rainbow outfits - later deleted from the official photo roll. It only took a few days for a prominent LGBT+ activist to be thrown into jail for two months for assaulting the driver of a van linking homosexuality with paedophilia. A week earlier, the same activist had put up Pride flags on statues in Warsaw, and this was suspected to be the real reason for the arrest. Spontaneous protests started first in Warsaw, then in solidarity across the country and abroad. In Berlin several hundred people turned up at 24 hours’ notice for a demonstration outside the Polish Institute in Mitte. Thousands of people are in the streets each day in the country. In Warsaw over 50 people were arrested on flimsy, if any, grounds, and protesters were assaulted by the police. Polish social media is full of both traumatic and touching footage.
There are what the media love to call ‘clashes’ between the thousands of demonstrators and the police going on in all three places. What they really mean is that these protests have been escalated by regime forces, whether by the police or the military, with many demonstrators being injured and arrested. All began on the same day, and all are ‘new’ issues – albeit new issues with long, painful histories that have now reached their breaking points. On top of this, let’s not forget that Black Lives Matter protests are still going on in the US, even if coverage has been dropped by the mainstream media. Hong Kong is still in unrest, as are Israel and Bolivia. Femicides in Turkey have reached a new peak. In July there were protests in Serbia, Thailand, Bulgaria, Germany and Mali. The heatwave is paralysing.
It is concerning though, this relative silence from international media on what is going on in Belarus and Poland. The Belarussian election result was reported as a ‘crushing victory’ for Lukashenko, with initially little mention of the fact that everybody knows the election was rigged. Nobody deploys this level of military force after a fair election, and the opposition candidate (whose husband is already in jail for the crime of being in the opposition) does not need to flee for simply losing an election. The footage from Belarus is something out of a bygone era – it’s been a long time since such military force was on the streets fighting its own citizens in order to protect a crumbling dictatorship. Maybe Lukashenko will hold on to his power one more time, but the change has already happened.
In Poland, activists are calling the current events the Polish Stonewall. There have been protests with thousands of people in cities and towns across the country. Things are at a breaking point, with the situation for the LGBT community being in a paradox of being both better and worse than ever. There has never been such visibility and support before, but there also has never been such obvious repression and hate spouted by the government and their allies. But where is the international support, the retweets and Facebook posts?
Back in February, the brewery that owns two Polish beer brands, Tyskie and Lech, backed an event at a right-wing paper which supports the LGBT Free Zones. Activists in Berlin called for a boycott. But when actual protests were going on, and a rival beer brand - Żywiec - hosted a concert where all the musicians clearly showed their support for the LGBT+ community, there was no equivalent media coverage. If we’re going on go on this capitalist virtue signalling, then they presumably need as much buzz around them as the boycott of Tyskie and Lech. Or am I missing something?
I would like to be proven wrong, but the positives of what is going on do not fit in with many people’s narratives of Eastern Europe. It’s easier to see those countries as a part of Europe where human rights are not respected, where the social politics are backwards, and that’s that. In recent years, Poland’s annual Independence Day March has become dominated by fascist groups. The spooky dystopian photos of the march reinforce this narrative and support the idea that the country in its majority holds similar views to its government.
The LGBT Free Zones got a lot of coverage. But the Polish administrative courts have been deeming them as illegal one by one, which didn’t make it beyond Polish-language news. Two opposing views are coming to a head. Enough people are unhappy with the official narrative, and want to fight it – and they want to do this publicly, visibly, in the streets. It’s a huge step and they need international support. This is what helped and is helping the fight for abortion rights in Poland. This fight isn’t won yet, but all public opinion polls suggest that most of the population is against an abortion ban now. It’s a huge change from where we were four years ago.
There is solidarity between Eastern European countries. Since the internet was shut down in Belarus there is a hashtag for gathering information and footage circulating on Polish social media, solidarity actions and coverage of the events in Belarus. Poland has called for an emergency EU summit (the irony here is appreciated). But beyond that, both issues have barely resonated around international information channels, whether in the press or on social media.
Eastern Europe and Eastern Europeans are in this grey area. They are both European, and not European, depending on what is convenient to the current narrative. News coverage of the negatives makes it into the international mainstream as it fits into the historical narrative of social backwardness and corruption from behind the Iron Curtain – it’s what’s expected. Our relationship with Western European countries is tricky. We are often deemed as cheap labourers and second-class citizens, but as we are white we do not experience the same racism as Black and People of Colour. It’s almost impossible to discuss this, because our positionality requires nuance.
The moment we get into the nuances, things fall apart. We are living a real-life Twitter war where we merely exchange our brief, existing views and in doing so erase the initial outburst of hope and positivity. People are tired and angry, and are running out of patience with each other. All these uprisings - not just in Eastern Europe but everywhere - that are currently happening, have been years, decades in the making.
We all need to keep learning, but not every internal battle needs to be fought right here and now. We need to distinguish. There are the battles we are fighting, the battles we are witnessing, and the battles we want to support. The ideal solution would be to start supporting all these movements, as all movements for progress and liberation are equally important. And each one cannot do everything.
We can ensure intersectionality in our struggles by learning from diverse movements around the world, but we must also respect context. Belarussian protesters are trying to topple a dictator of 26 years, and Polish demonstrators are fighting for the rights and recognition of the LGBT+ community, the vilification of which has been high on PiS’s agenda for the past year. We can't expect that their struggles also automatically feature, for example, a prominent anti-racist agenda. It doesn’t mean it’s not present within at least pockets of the protesting masses (and it doesn't mean it shouldn't be a prominent feature – it should be), it’s just not what the issue there is right now. There is a lot of work still to be done. But they will get there. One fight at a time, if necessary
Hanna Grzeskiewicz is a Polish activist, who is also an active member of the LINKE Berlin Internationals. She wrote this article for theleftberlin.com