“Many Ministry of Internal Affairs and OMON personnel are hesitating right now and are trying to choose”

17 August 2020 | kommersant.ru

“Ъ” found out how and why Lukashenko’s opponents have fundraised 3 million dollars on Facebook

Photo: Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

From the very beginning of Belarusian protests almost every Russian speaking Facebook user has come across a link asking for a donation “in favor of victims of violent repressions”. Its organizers — activists of the BY_help project — have managed to collect a record $2,5 million. They are going to spend it on fines and medical help for beaten protesters. At the end of last week the same team started a «solidarity fundraising» for Belarusians who lost their jobs due to disagreement with Lukashenko’s regime. They’ve managed to gather around $400 000. Also, organizers are promising an “allowance” of €1,5 thousand to every member of law enforcement who will publicly announce their resignation to “leave the dark side. Ъ correspondent Alexander Chernih asked BY_help member Andrey Strijak for more information about the fundraising effort and found out how organizers are planning to spend the money they collected. 

— Andrey, could you please first tell us a few words about yourself?

— I’m a civil activist, volunteer, human rights defender. I have been doing this, crazy how time flies, for 20 years now. And for the last 5 years I have been very actively involved in many different crowdfunding and fundraising initiatives. Usually it was fundraising for Belarus citizens who found themselves in a tough situation because of governmental repressions – payment of fines, arrest payments…

Civil activist, volunteer, BY_help member Andrey Strijak
Photo: facebook.com/andrej.strizhak

— Arrest payments?

— Yes, we have this know-how in Belarus — detained people must pay for every day they spend in detention. If you are in the pre-trial detention center, you have to pay for every day you spend at this “Hilton”.

— How much does it cost?

— Fourteen and a half Belarusian rubles, around €5 per day. Not too pricey, in a sense, for a pre-trial detention center at the heart of Minsk. (Laughs.) This is the kind of fundraising that we were doing in the recent years.

— Who are “we”?

— International media consultant Alexey Leonchik, photographer and civil activist Julia Doroshkevich, volunteer and human rights defender Andrey Strijak. These are the “three whales” who started the BY_help project in the spring of 2017. Our first campaign was aimed at supporting persecuted protesters on the «Non-parasite March» which took place in all Belarus cities. As a reminder – that’s when Alexander Lukashenko had the “genius” idea meant to support the Belarusian economy: a special tax on the unemployed. There is a famous caricature: a deputy goes up to the podium in the parliament and says: “Let’s forbid unemployment, and we will not have any unemployed.” This is the kind of logic Alexander Lukashenko used — he wanted to tax those who don’t have any money at all. Naturally, people were outraged, massive protests ensued, authorities responded with repression.

Our team gathered $55 000 from across the world. We had never gathered amounts this large before. The money was spent on supporting people who suffered at the hands of law enforcement.

I’d like to clarify that BY_help is not an ongoing operation.

We rise, like a Phoenix, when we are needed. We work for a period of time, collect money, distribute it, hand it out, prepare our report, and we are done.

“We mind our own business until a new calamity happens in the country.”

That’s when we reappear.

— What happened the next time?

— In 2018, the government attacked journalists in the so-called “BelTA case”, which was absolutely absurd and obviously trumped up, as a pretext. That was when our independent media outlets were charged with breach of copyright of the BelTA state agency. We got involved to collect money to replace the equipment taken from the editorial staff to allow independent journalists to return to work.

The third campaign took place in early 2020, in the wake of mass protests against the so-called profound integration of Belarus into Russia. Our society understands that “profound integration” of this kind will lead us to lose our independence as a nation and to be annexed by Russia. That’s why a lot of people came to support protests for independence. They were fined, too, and we collected around $25 000 that time.

And then very recently we had a huge campaign — ByCovid-19.

“It was absolutely epic when we managed to collect almost $360 000 in just 3 months. We used this money to buy almost half a million protective equipment items, 1500 units of medical equipment and distributed them in hospitals all over the country.”

And then, almost without a break, this large fundraising related to presidential elections started on June 25.

— That is, before the protests even began?

— Yes. That’s because this year’s election featured extraordinarily dirty and aggressive action on the authorities’ part. As you know, both leading candidates, Viktar Babaryka and Siarhei Tsikhanouski, were arrested, sent to prison and isolated even before intensive campaigning began. A huge number of campaign team members and volunteer activists were arrested, there were provocations and beatings — the full arsenal, basically.

The Belarusian authorities have a weak spot: public gatherings. They always trigger a response.

— We are familiar with this in Russia.

—  The authorities are terrified of people going out into the streets. Even if the reason is not at all political – a protest against a developer, for example. Therefore, people who went out to peacefully protest and support their candidate during the presidential campaign would receive heavy fines every time. By June 25, the total of such fines exceeded $35 000. This is why we started the next fundraiser. And by the morning of August 9, we had raised $200 000.

Everybody knows what happened next. The elections were held on the ninth and the official media reports completely implausible figures, saying that over 80% of citizens voted for the president who has been in power for 26 years straight. Mass demonstrations begin in the country, completely peaceful protests against the obviously falsified results. This time, however, protests are happening against the background of an absolutely unprecedented level of violence by the security forces.

“Police and OMON (riot police) grab citizens, beat them, abuse them, even rape them. Yes, there is documentary evidence – medical documents of people who leave the pre-trial detention center with traumatic injuries to the rectum.”

This chaos, this flurry of violence that spilled into the streets of Minsk and other cities, makes people indignant. And while on the morning of August 9th we had $200 000 in our account, the next day – against the background of the first protests and brutal detentions – we had our first million dollars.

— While violence continued.

—  Yes, for the first time in the history of Belarus the security forces used tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannons. Their entire arsenal was deployed to disperse an absolutely peaceful protest. Well, the behavior of the security officials speaks for itself. The now infamous footage of crowds of law enforcement people surrounding and beating people who are on the ground, defenseless, of law enforcement shooting at apartment building windows, smashing windows of passing cars. Completely unmotivated violence, even animals do not behave like that.

Then came to light the first pieces of evidence of how the detainees were treated in the pre-trial detention centers and police stations. Photos showing consequences of severe beatings, with bruises over literally the entire body. People wanted to help the victims, and those wanted to help were not limited to just the citizens of Belarus.

— Yes, my Facebook feed shows Russians donating money.

—  Many thanks to them for that!

—  Is that why you collect donations through Facebook? For wider coverage, so as not to limit yourselves to just one country?

—  First and foremost, it’s because our government cannot get to Facebook. I have serious doubts that a website for raising funds for those who were arrested or fired for political reasons would be able to operate inside Belarus. Here’s an example: the Mola-Mola crowdfunding service appeared in Belarus in 2019. It collected donations for a variety of purposes – from helping cats to treating sick children. This resource existed peacefully until the summer of 2020, we also used it to collect money for those who received fines and were arrested. For example, there was a situation in May with a paramedic from the city of Lida, who spoke during a livestream with Siarhei Tsikhanouski about the issues doctors were facing and the real situation regarding Covid-19. He was fired, and Mola-Mola was used to raise money for him.

Mola-Mola was co-founded by Eduard Babaryka, the son of presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka. When the election campaign started, the authorities began to clean up all the assets associated with him. And then Belgazprombank simply unilaterally terminated their service agreement. That was the end of the story of a very cool crowdfunding platform. Fortunately, authorities cannot do this with Facebook or PayPal.

“But you are right – Facebook is indeed very convenient. It has internal algorithms that promote its own fundraising fees. If you just put a link to a third-party platform in the post, then Facebook will not promote it further. But Facebook actively promotes its own fundraising pages, like its video content, and this creates a viral effect.”

Moreover, Facebook toolkit allows you not only to donate and share this fact on your page. You can also invite all your friends to donate in a few clicks.

And this is another interesting aspect of fundraising. If you look at our collection statistics for the victims, you’ll see that 170 000 people were and 70 000 of them donated.

— Does Facebook take a percentage of the donation?

—  Yes, of course, the commission is about 6%. There are other commission losses, for example, for withdrawing money and transferring it to cash or to recipient accounts. All in all, you often lose up to 10%. But that’s the price of convenience and viral distribution. This is a business, after all, they have to make money on something. They are no volunteers like us.

—  During the campaign for the victims, you raised a truly large amount, more than $ 2.5 million. Therefore, the question arises – have you already started distributing the money? And who can ask for it? How do you decide who to pay and how much?

—  Strictly speaking, even more than $ 2.5 million – after all, many are still sending money by PayPal, for example. Look, this BY_help campaign targets three categories of people: those arrested, fined and injured because of excessive use of force by the security forces. With the first two, everything is clear – people provide us with receipts for payment of a fine or an invoice from the police “hotel”. But in the case of beatings, everything is more complicated – not everyone has a medical certificate.

—  Many were probably afraid to go see the doctor in this situation.

—  Yes, and our riot police do not issue a certificate that they beat someone. I think that such documents are not issued in Russia either. (Laughs.) In the case of the wounded, the situation looks like this. There are two categories of people. The first are those who still turned to a medical institution. 

“Their discharge summaries include descriptions of damage that is very characteristic of traumatic injuries – it becomes immediately clear that the person suffered from truncheons and did not fall at a drunken party.”

The second category are those who, for various reasons, did not consciously seek medical care although they were injured. In this case, it is possible to simply show your wounds. Take photos, videos – they will be proof enough.

Photo: Vasily Fedosenko, Reuters

 — And what do you actually pay for? Medicines and treatment?

— Rehabilitation, yes. Victims will receive a fixed amount from us, depending on the harm to their health.

— How did you establish these amounts?

— We are guided by the forensic approach to determining the severity of harm. It is used in our legal system, for example, to calculate what article to judge a person under who beat up a neighbor. Bruises without fractures – is one amount. Fractures and serious injuries that require long-term recovery – another, in a very different category. Every case like this is reviewed individually and the payment amount is also decided on a case by case basis. BY_help has joined forces with the Imena media platform, which is also doing its own fundraising: we make a one-time payment, and they take on the long-term support of the most difficult cases. Treatment, rehabilitation, prosthetics, etc. And if a person’s limb is amputated as a result of traumatic injury, this is also an individual case. We are looking for help from business representatives who could help this person over the long term. Because rehabilitation can take a year or more. But such cases, fortunately, are not very many.

— And who are these businessmen?

— Very different people. We started communicating with them just during the ByCovid-19 fundraiser and the Belarus business community was extensively involved in helping people. Many of them decided to continue working with us.

— How many people have already asked for help? And when will they receive payments?

— More than a thousand applications were received from people who had been fined, arrested, beaten. We are currently processing these applications. It is important to understand how Facebook works – transfers to an account take from a week to ten days. Plus, it takes some time to transfer money to beneficiaries. So the process is slow. However, by August 9, we already had some amount transferred to us, which we are now using. And we are slowly working on closing out these items.

“The first thing we did was make the decision to offer payments to the families of the two victims.”

One man, Alexander Taraikovsky, died during the protest. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, he allegedly tried to throw an explosive device at the police. But the video and photos prove that he was standing unarmed, with his hands raised – and he was shot. We decided to offer compensation to the family and negotiate with entrepreneurs on continuing to support the family depending on their needs. We will not leave these people.

The second victim is Alexander Vikhor from Gomel. He was beaten by riot police and died at the hospital when he did not receive medical assistance on time. The authorities now deny the connection between the beating and death, that’s a separate dramatic story. We are not fully in touch with the family yet, but when we figure that part out, we will provide them the support they need.

— When you said that you are guided by the government’s official criteria for payments, I thought: it looks like you are performing the functions of the state, which it has abandoned. After all, how should these things happen? If you are beaten by representatives of the state, you sue and receive compensation from the budget sourced from taxes. This is impossible in your country, so you have created a parallel structure where people pay a voluntary tax. As a result, you form a kind of parallel budget and make payments that, in fact, should be made by the state.

— You know, I am having a déjà vu. I heard about the same thing when we were working on the ByCovid-19 campaign. We were called the parallel Ministry of Health, now you say that we are parallel state budget.

It is true that in a normal country this issue is resolved with the help of the prosecutor’s office and the courts. If a representative of the state has done harm, the state must issue compensation for it – fair is fair. But in Belarus, the courts do not work, and much less so in cases such as these. Therefore … I used to disagree with this wording, because the state did some things in the fight against Covid-19. Much less than it could have, yet the overall input was not small. But in this case, we know for sure that the state will not do anything. Therefore, the analogy is interesting and I might even agree with it.

— How many people do you have in this parallel Ministry of Social Protection?

(Laughs) Yes, I like this image. If we count everyone, I think there are 50 volunteers. Then there is a backbone, about five people who make strategic decisions about how things work. I think the current ministry has many more officials working there.

This is a good time to talk about our second BY_Solidarity fundraising campaign, which we launched on Friday, August 14th. The fact is that the unemployment situation is very bad in Belarus.

“If the authorities find a person objectionable for some reason, they may be blacklisted, which means they will not be able to find work anywhere else, especially if they live in a small town. And so one of the tasks of the new campaign is to support people who have lost their jobs because of their political convictions.”

For example, a person attends a protest, is detained, fined, and then he is fired. This campaign has been launched to support people like these who have suffered for their beliefs.

In addition, we are experiencing a difficult and important situation with civil servants and law enforcement officials. There are normal people working there who would like to leave their job after seeing what is happening. However, many of them probably do not know how to feed their families or to pay off their loans.

We understand that many employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and OMON are hesitating and trying to choose between a well-fed ration and a clear conscience. Obviously, money is not the main motivating factor here. Nevertheless, knowing that you’ll definitely have the money to get your child ready for school makes the decision to leave the “dark side” that much easier, let’s just put it that way.

— And how much are you willing to pay to push to make this decision?

We decided on a one-time fixed amount of support – 1 500 euro per person.

— Why this amount?

According to official statistics, the country’s average salary is €500 a month. The reality is much worse, of course but we decided to use this mythical amount of €500, which Lukashenka always talks about.

“We pay three months’ salary because that’s the amount prescribed by law in cases of illegal termination.”

As you can see, our internal legal logic matches that of Belarus’s legal system.

— You seem to duplicate the government system again, only more efficiently.

Well yes. (Laughs.)

— What makes law enforcement personnel eligible to apply for this money?

Public declaration that a person has resigned – or would like to resign. Our idea is for a policeman to shoot the following video: “I am leaving because …” Such examples already exist. People will know that they can follow their conscience, that there is nothing to be afraid of, that they will have financial support for the next few months. On the other hand, the same video will motivate others to do the same if they are hesitating to exchange a hearty ration for freedom.

— I don’t really understand why it was decided to do a second, separate fundraising campaign for this. People might not understand that these are two different campaigns. Wouldn’t it be easier to collect everything in one jar?

Here is why this would be difficult. The BY_help campaign works with three different categories of people. Volunteers know how to process applications, how to pay money, and so on. But if you also task them with distributing money for people who got fired or people intending to resign, the team will collapse. You do remember that the team consists of volunteers. That is, it would be an additional and rather big burden on the processes that have been tried and tested and are working well. This is the first reason for creating a separate fund with a separate team of professionals, that includes the BY_help campaign founders.

And the second reason is that over the past few days I have received thousands of messages in all messengers from people asking for just this approach crowdfunding. The Belarusians and the diaspora want to donate for just such things these days. We have found large businesses willing to support this work. For example, IT entrepreneur Mikita Mikado (co-founder and CEO of PandaDoc — Kommersant) got involved. People understand that this type of fund can determine how quickly changes can come to Belarus. After all, if you are feeling financially stable, you’ll be much bolder in expressing his opinion and defending your rights.

— Is a “fund” simply a word or do you intend to register it as a non-profit?

At the moment, the Solidarity Fund is just a name, not a legal entity. But in the future, we will have to register as an official entity. Although I am personally a spontaneous human rights activist who believes that people do not need any permits and additional registrations to come together and work. However, there are more pros than cons: if we can register as an organization, we will be able to use various tax deductions, there will be less commission losses as money makes its way from donations to the people who need help.

— You have already collected over $3 million in total. Do you have a target amount you are trying to reach? And what will you do if there is some surplus left after all money is distributed?

You see, we act based on what is happening here and now. The situation in Belarus does not change daily – it changes twice a day! People really want to help the protesters, and the authorities have an equally strong desire to suppress these protests. There is a momentary lull right now, but we are ready for the moment when the authorities start to issue fines again, to beat up and arrest people. So it’s too early to relax, there may still not be enough money.

We also understand, however, that we have collected really large amounts. I have already said that we are gradually moving towards creating a foundation. And this foundation may have its own programs.

“In a twist that surprised even us, we have turned from people who were looking for money into those who could conceivably start helping with money. But this is all just speculation.”

The situation is evolving so quickly that you simply do not have time to strategically plan anything. Right now we say that there is a lot of money but what if arrests resume tomorrow? Still, thanks for asking these questions, it makes me think through possible future actions.

— What do you see as the worst and best scenario?

The best case is the release and exoneration of all political prisoners. Dismissing all criminal cases against them. And I’m not talking just about those people who have been detained over the past few days of the protests. This also applies to Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Viktar Babaryka, recognized by the human rights community as political prisoners.

We need an end to violent actions by the security forces. Dismissal of those people who participated in all this. A fair and open trial.

And third – the recognition that Alexander Lukashenko lost this election. Start the discussion of how to have a peaceful transfer of power to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. And subsequently, just as she said in her main campaign promise, new presidential elections, fair and democratic.

“‘Even Alexander Lukashenko will be able to participate in them, if he still has the desire and ability.”

After all, life can be surprising like that.

In any case, we are looking forward to changes, and we are creating these changes. We are doing everything to make sure new Belarus comes true. We understand perfectly well that this is our only chance. Backing down now, losing now will be the worst case scenario. There will be no place for us in this country.

— Who is “us”?

Us – people who want a new Belarus. People who are openly saying that they are tired of the 26-year rule of the same person. The Belarus that Alexander Lukashenko is building has no place for people like this – they will simply be imprisoned, all without an exception.