On Sunday, 4 March 2018, about 70 people congregated in Lenin Square Brest, Belarus to protest. Perhaps it was an unfamiliar protest scene as there were no placards, no speeches, no megaphones or even voices above a conversational tone. Rather, these protesters were simply feeding the pigeons. For more than a year now,—on most Sundays—hundreds of local residents and environmental activists have gathered to feed the pigeons to protest against the building of a Chinese-funded lead-acid factory. These batteries, widely used in cars, contain sulfuric acid and lead. Both substances are highly toxic, leading residents afraid of the potential toxins seeping in the air and into the groundwater.
The idea of pigeon feeding as a display of hostility might seem peculiar. However, these protesters are forced to find alternative and creative ways to protest as local authorities have only approved one of many requests to hold an official protest. Any dissenting behaviour is generally not condoned. These protesters are acting without their voices. Their petition of nearly 40,000 signatures, roughly 10% of the Brest population—was ignored. Against all odds, pigeon feeding and, at times, holding yellow balloons with the word “life” on them, has become a political act. While it is not a concrete act of disapproval, protester, Ales Ablyak speaking to Eugenia Andreyuk of openDemocracy, shrewdly notes that their unique form of demonstrating dissent has been largely successful for “it was really annoying local officials”. Nonetheless, their act is not without consequences. Authorities have had the leaders fined and detained. For instance, former actor, Sergei Paterukhin was live blogging one Sunday when he was taken away in an unmarked car for the 10th time.
On the surface, residents and activists are protesting out of pollution and health fears. However, environmental scientist and President of Pure Earth, Richard Fuller speaking to the New York Times, notes that many lead-acid battery factories are safely operated in Europe and the U.S.. Rather, protesters may have more deeply embedded objections. Protester, Dmitri Bekalink has no qualm with Chinese investment but finds it troubling that China had tied factory funding to contracts for Chinese construction and engineering companies. Belarus is often a forgotten country. A country landlocked between Russia, Ukraine and three NATO states, Belarus is of no real consequence to the European Union, nor the West, and is cautious of becoming overly dependent on Russia.
The political editor of the leading independent news website Tut.by, Artyom Shraibman said it best, for “Belarus can build many bridges to the West, but it cannot cross any of them”. Out of options, Belarus has turned to China for investments opportunities. In addition to foreign investment and meddling, the pigeon feeding protest can be traced to a more fundamental defiance: objection against President Lukashenko’s 25-year reign; a reign continued by-election tampering. Turning to silent protests may be the only option. Protesters in Lenin Square carefully avoid criticizing the President for fear of retribution. Under President Lukashenko, protests have had violent responses. In 2017, a day of protest and human rights marches led to the deployment of armed riot police, water cannons, the Internet shut down and the arrest of more than 300 people, including the then opposition leader and former presidential candidate.
Protesting by feeding pigeons should be applauded as one of the most ingenious ways of demonstrating dissent. Whether out of potential pollution and health fears, foreign interference or the general disapproval of President Lukashenko, feeding the local Brest pigeons in relative silence is surely as powerful and loud as chanting slogans through a megaphone.