Backing Police Who Lay Down Their Arms in Belarus

Until five days ago, Mikita Mikado was most known in Belarus as a successful member of the diaspora — an internet entrepreneur who headed to the United States and built a successful Silicon Valley startup called PandaDoc, a electronic document competitor to DocuSign. But after his native country was swept up in a sham election that has led hundreds of thousands to take to the streets, the previously nonpolitical businessman emerged as something else — a 34-year-old activist willing to put his money where his mouth is as armed forces marched against his fellow citizens.

“I appeal to the Belarusian security officials. If you want to be on the side of good, but finances do not allow, write — I will help,” Mikado posted on Instagram, offering to help pay the loans or salaries of any law enforcement officers who quit their jobs and refused to follow what many see as illegal violence from Alexander Lukashenko, often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator.”

Mikado’s social media post garnered tens of thousands of responses, with hundreds coming in from military and security officials, including some who recorded videos of themselves denouncing the Lukashenko regime while laying down their arms. It quickly spawned an online fundraising effort, where he — alongside other Belarusian businessmen, Olympians and journalists — have already raised a half-million dollars while imploring troops to back the protesters over the government. They hope to raise millions more in the coming days. Meanwhile, more than 170 volunteers are working to help those who quit find new jobs, mostly in IT, although other industries could soon be included.

“The violence that has happened makes absolutely no sense,” says Mikado, who felt moved to do something after watching videos of riot police brutally beating free election advocates. “I couldn’t be silent, nor could I not do anything about it.”

The Gestapo was going on in the department, people fell into a coma from the pain, they were beaten and humiliated.

Belarusian police officer, writing to Mikita Mikado

The son of a doctor, Mikado was born in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. When he was 19, he arrived in the U.S. to work on building a number of websites, which helped him fund a few software firms before he created PandaDoc in 2013. While the company began in Belarus, he soon moved it to the Bay Area, although most of his 300 employees are Belarusian. He still visits the country most summers, and was there shortly before the coronavirus pandemic began.

Last week, Lukashenko, who has served as president since 1994 after the Soviet Union fell, was said to have won with 80 percent of the vote against popular opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The sloppily rigged results have led to international outcries, as the European Union, United States and others have called the election illegitimate. The Kremlin, in neighboring Russia, has recognized Lukashenko’s victory and promised to uphold its treaty and defend Belarus from a foreign invasion … which caused many to fear Lukashenko would blame the protests on foreign adversaries. On Monday, the embattled president reportedly promised to “transfer my powers” under a new constitution, but would not do so “under pressure from the street!”

After posting his video urging law enforcement to defy illegal orders to injure, torture and kill peacefully demonstrating citizens, Mikado found that many were afraid to go against their superiors. The problem wasn’t just losing their salaries, he discovered; in Belarus, the dictatorship’s command includes contracts that levy huge debts on anyone who quits their job or is fired for not following orders (for instance, one may incur as much as $25,000 in debt, in a nation where the average monthly salary is just under $500). “You are indebted for life” if you don’t comply, Mikado says.

Plus, Belarusian officers say that the administration holds incriminating dossiers, which can be used to prosecute them in court if they go against orders. “The Gestapo was going on in the department, people fell into a coma from the pain, they were beaten and humiliated,” one officer wrote to Mikado, fleeing the country after his attempt to resign was rejected. “Colleagues who stayed [at] work began to say that they wanted to initiate a criminal case against me.”

In less than a week, Mikado and his fellow volunteers have convinced 30 officers to quit the force with promised pay, and the numbers are growing exponentially. “Day over day, we triple the number of people,” he says, as his group is in talks with 300 law enforcement officials and has taken in money from thousands of donors. They have been encouraged by promises from Tikhanovskaya that any officers who do rebel against Lukashenko will be supported financially once power is transferred, perhaps even by having their loans forgiven completely. “The more this gets publicized, the more people will switch sides.”

Their work is but one sign of how digital efforts have aided calls for free elections and freedom of assembly and the press in Belarus, particularly as messaging platforms like Telegram have been used by activists to communicate past the regime’s repressive social media blackout. One YouTube and Telegram channel in particular, Nexta — “Someone” in Belarusian — has flourished, with 1.5 million followers posting videos of police brutality and crimes by security forces, despite the channel’s founding five years ago by then-teenager Stepan Putilo as a music site and a staff of just four people in Warsaw.

“That’s what’s so interesting about this protest: It’s decentralized,” Mikado says. “They are just people like me, people who have seen the violence.”

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