Hundreds of security officials and civil servants in Belarus have resigned in recent months after a violent crackdown against unarmed protesters following Alexander Lukashenko's disputed re-election.
The Telegraph has spoken to a number of officers who describe repulsion at the regime's brutality and widespread apathy in their ranks, although many feel unable to leave due to financial penalties.
One criminal investigator, 30, described how on August 9 he was told to put on a bulletproof vest and patrol the Belarusian Investigative Committee building as his superiors expected violent riots in the wake of election results.
Instead, he was left patrolling an empty building as hundreds of riot police brutalised and detained protesters. Thousands were arrested, and hundreds were later tortured in custody.
The investigator, who did not wish to be named, quit five days later. “Everyone was appalled by the atrocities that were happening,” he said.
“I would tell them, ‘There’s a solidarity chain outside. Let’s put on our uniforms and join in’, but everyone was too scared.”
Belarus’ security services have inherited a rigid top-down hierarchy from their Soviet predecessors, as well as a high tolerance for violence and an intricate bureaucracy that discourages initiative, former security officials said.
Mr Lukashenko has since tethered security officials to their jobs with financial tie-ins that make defections costly and highly complicated. Students at state-funded colleges (including police academies) have to work in a job designated by the state for at least two years unless they want to pay back as much as £10,000 in tuition fees, in a country where an average monthly pay is around £380.
Security officials typically work on temporary contracts, and any early termination can set them back an equivalent of several thousand pounds.
The 30-year-old criminal investigator from Minsk, who has a wife and a young child, had to pay back about £2,300 when he quit his job in August.
Security services are crucial
Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, has made no secret of how crucial security services are to the survival of his regime.
He spent two weeks before the elections touring military and police bases. In a highly symbolic gesture, he reportedly donated half of the potato harvest from his personal farm to riot police officers.
Unlike their counterparts in Russia, law enforcement officers are generally well paid and have access to subsidised loans and housing.
Reporting by The Telegraph as well as accounts in Belarusian media indicate that law enforcement officials typically make twice as much as the average Belarusian, with riot police receiving hefty bonuses for working overtime at protest rallies.
For Yevgeny Babak, quitting his job as an assistant district prosecutor in Minsk was easier since he does not have a family to support.
Mr Babak, 29, was on duty all day and night on August 9 and was receiving constant updates from a friend when the internet went dark across the country: police snatching passers-by, shooting rubber bullets, throwing stun grenades at unarmed protesters.
Sitting at the district prosecutor’s office in Minsk’s north-east, Mr Babak and many of his colleagues openly cheered on the protesters to fight back. For several days, Mr Babak would leave work and stand with a group of demonstrators outside the metro station before heading home.
As reports of police atrocities snowballed, the prosecutor’s staff kept on pressing their bosses: when can they investigate the blatant crimes everyone witnessed in the streets?
Encouraged by his colleagues, Mr Babak filed a formal request for an investigation into a series of violent beatings of motorists in his district. When his request was stalled, he quit.
“Everyone at work understands that what’s happening is not OK [but] everyone is scared for themselves and their jobs," he said.
Supervisors at the prosecutor’s office, the Investigative Committee and police stations have been holding “two minutes of hate” sessions for their employees since early this summer to mock opposition leaders and press the message of President Lukashenko, according to three security officials who were present at those meetings.
In private, however, staff would make fun of those “political updates.”
Reaching out for help
More than 700 security officials who quit in recent weeks have reached out to grass-roots initiative BySol which offers legal advice, training and financial aid to civil servants, security officers and workers at state-owned factories, said Andrei Strizhak, BySol’s co-founder.
The actual number of the officers who have stepped down in protest is much higher, he believes. Belarusian news outlet Tut.by has reported several high-profile resignations at the Prosecutor General’s Office, including a senior prosecutor.
The August atrocities have also taken a toll on officers’ families. Last week, the wife of a riot police officer who was pictured taking part in the August crackdown told local media that she divorced him because she could not handle the hate messages she was receiving.
A large number of security officials who “stay in the system are sabotaging its actions,” Mr Strizhak said, quoting recent leaks of personal data that named and shamed officers involved in police atrocities.
Protests a way of life
Sympathetic officials inside the security apparatus have also helped a number of opposition figures and activists flee Belarus in time before they were formally charged and put on a wanted list, according to Mr Strizhak. Belarusian security services continue to carry out Lukashenko's orders.
But protests have become a way of life for many in Belarus. Residential neighbourhoods have turned their local playgrounds into protest venues, students stage daily sit-ins during their lunch break, and the elderly march across Belarusian cities every Monday, chanting “Grandmas are with the people!”
On Sunday, demonstrators flooded Minsk ahead of an ultimatum set by the opposition for Mr Lukashenko to leave office.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on Mr Lukashenko to resign, halt violence and release political prisoners, warning he would otherwise face a crippling general strike on Monday.
Vera Golubovich, 62, attends rallies every Sunday after church.
She set off last week with another member of the congregation, discussing whether it was better to take a shower curtain instead of a raincoat in case police use water cannons.
The retired translator went to a pensioners’ anti-government march earlier this month and saw a stun grenade go off a few feet away after riot police tried to disperse the crowd of health care workers rallying nearby.
“Going to the protests is scary but it’s not scarier than living with this violence” she said. “You can't feel safe anywhere now.”
While protesters carry on marching in the streets and baking cakes, Mr Lukashenko and his security services insist that there can be no room for compromises, which, to some observers, makes the regime too fragile.
“This system is too rigid to survive,” said Mr Strizhak of the BySol foundation. “If Lukashenko begins to make concessions, it’s going to fall in a flash.”