The end of ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’?

Protesters in Minsk, August 2020 (image: Photographers Against)

Mikalaj Packajeu and Alan Flowers on the 2020 Belarusian Revolution of the People

Belarus became an independent state in 1991 following the collapse of the USSR. It then started along a path of nation-building, transition to a pluralist democracy, and economic reform. That came to an end in summer 1994 when it elected Alexander Lukashenka, initially a populist politician who soon made himself an autocrat.

Twenty-six years of Lukashenka’s rule gained Belarus the reputation as an autocrat-ruled state pursuing elements of Soviet conservation, a state-run economy, not signing the European Convention on Human Rights, lacking reliable rule of law and independence of courts, holding political prisoners most of the time, and enjoying Russia’s subsidies in exchange for geopolitical and ‘cultural’ loyalty. Lukashenka credits himself for providing ‘stability’ above all and is keen to eliminate any doubts about how firm and unchallengeable his grip on Belarus is. This dampened any expectation for changes in Belarus, so there was comparatively little international attention paid to the country until the recent events of 2020.

The dramatic pictures of mass protest and brutal repression in Belarus that suddenly appeared in July and August 2020 in worldwide media were a result both of issues that have been in place for a long time as well as of novel developments.

Political issues old and new, and why in 2020

For a long time, there have been underlying post-Communist issues ‘frozen’ by Lukashenka. Over the last 26 years the traditional opposition in Belarus had to call for democracy and hold the government accountable to the people over human rights, the rule of law, the rights of organised labour, and better opportunities for non-state sectors of the economy.

The political divides within the traditional opposition follow the left vs right, liberal vs national-conservative patterns from the early 1990s. But over a long time, these differences have been of diminishing practical consequence once any realistic mechanism of gaining any representation in government for anyone from the opposition community had been in effect eliminated under Lukashenka’s regime. It is the demand for free elections which united the whole spectrum of political opposition for over two decades.

Why did these issues come to a head in 2020? On 9th August 2020, a presidential election was held. Prior to that, several new factors had been at work. A new momentum of civic participation in Belarus politics had been developing in Belarusian society over recent years. There were larger than usual rallies in 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of the brief independence of a non-Soviet Belarus. Many observers suggested that the regime was growing more moderate – a perception which created expectations for change among younger Belarusians in particular. More recently, the public widely felt that Lukashenka was negligent regarding public health when the Covid-19 pandemic started – more people than ever began to lose faith in Lukashenka’s paternalistic ‘social contract’. Economically, the situation became stagnation for some, and going from bad to worse for others.

From Lukashenka’s end there has been a combination of decreased material resources – and apparently growth in the government’s sheer arrogance. His system has become over-reliant on various forms of compulsion and repression rather than on the populism of his early years. On the funds side, more recently Russia has been less able and willing to extend its previous schemes of strategic subsidies. A factor which may have emboldened Lukashenka to apply repression was that in 2016 the EU lifted sanctions against some 170 prominent members of his regime implicated in previous episodes of repression.

Turning to the novel developments, the traditional opposition in Belarus had a rather low profile when it came to the August 2020 election. Given there have been no free elections for a long time, the opposition parties saw each election campaign either as a legal opportunity to educate the public, or to make a call for boycotting what was not a real election. But this time the traditional opposition parties’ likeliest centre-left and centre-right nominations – Mikalaj Statkievich, a Social Democrat, and Pavel Sieviaryniec (‘Severinets’ in Russian), a Christian Democrat – were arrested pre-emptively in late May and early June.

So, this time Lukashenka was challenged by several people without links to the traditional opposition scene. Most notable nominations for candidates were Viktar Babaryka (Russian: Viktor Babariko), a recently resigned head of a Russian-majority bank in Belarus; Valery Cepkala (Russian: Valeriy Tsepkalo), who served under Lukashenka as an ambassador and later a high-tech park developer and manager; and Siarhiej Cichanouski (Tsikhanouski, Tsikhanovskiy) who could be described as a blogger and social media activist. Of the remaining candidates, only Hanna Kanapackaja (Anna Kanopatskaya) had historical links with a political party. However, the nominations of Cepkala and Babaryka were rejected and both Babaryka and Cichanouski were arrested before nominations closed. The timing of these arrests enabled the latter’s wife, Sviatlana (Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya), to stand and be nominated saying she was running instead of her arrested husband.

At the onset of her campaign Tsikhanouskaya made two creative and popular moves. Firstly, she unified three of the candidacies by setting up a joint campaign team with Cepkala’s wife, Vieranika, as well as with Babaryka’s campaign leader, Maryja Kalesnikava (Russian: Maria Kolesnikova). That female trio became the most recognisable face of the Belarusian presidential campaign of 2020, holding rallies with tens of thousands of participants – magnitudes unprecedented for Belarus. Secondly, Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign was largely an extension of her husband’s campaign under a simple slogan to make Belarus a “country comfortable to live in”. However, her main message was that if elected she would not stay to govern but would ensure that Belarus would have a proper free and fair early presidential election as soon as possible.

While the traditional opposition has not been leading the protests, and there has been criticism of Tsikhanouskaya’s team from the opposition’s veterans, the ‘break’ from the historical opposition community should not be overestimated. When Tsikhanouskaya was forced to leave Belarus soon after the August 2020 vote, the advisers she appointed in exile included senior figures from the traditional opposition’s centre-right and centre-left sections. But, unlike before the election, the ‘new opposition’ leading figures now included certain former senior diplomats who served under Lukashenka until recently.

What triggered resistance to Lukashenka

Lukashenka was officially declared the winner in the first round of the 2020 presidential election, claiming to have heavily defeated his main and very popular rival, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The magnitude of the discrepancy with Lukashenka’s popularity was so enormous and evidence of reported vote-rigging so numerous that Lukashenka’s declared 80% victory appeared an outrageous and crude fabrication to a very large section of the Belarus people. There was an unusually large network of election observers and an independent online system registered voters’ declared choice. Based on polling station results where the count could be verified, election experts – and importantly increasingly the public – believed that Tsikhanouskaya had won in the first round. This triggered the initial explosion of popular rejection of the official results, and outrage on the streets about the rigged election.

Election-rigging as such was not exactly news in Lukashenka’s Belarus. But a recent opinion poll suggested that while 60% could reconcile themselves with yet another rigged election, the public has been unable to tolerate the extreme brutality unleashed by Lukashenka’s forces against the initial protests. Mass protests have continued for over four months, being mobilised by the police’s continuous brutality involving stun grenades, shooting and torture, with at least 30,000 detained and several killed between August and November. The public anger has been refuelled also by the state’s refusal to bring any members of Lukashenka’s security forces to justice for the unlawful violence.

A few features are worth highlighting about the Belarus protests so far. The protesters have been generally orderly and disciplined and almost exclusively non-violent in an almost ‘Ghandist’ manner. Also noteworthy is that no issues of grand geopolitical or ‘civilisational’ strategies have been prominent (the opposition are not seeking Belarus to be focussed towards ‘the West’ or with Russia or China).

Geopolitical concerns and Belarus public attitudes

Russia has, so far, expressed unequivocal support for Lukashenka. The potential for Russian intervention has been a major concern both inside Belarus and internationally. It would appear Lukashenka’s propaganda has been exploiting such fears for a long time and in a manner resembling a hostage-taker. At the same time, it can be argued that the longer Lukashenka stays on with Russia’s backing and the stronger he mobilises the population against himself – and Russia – in the process, then the more deterred from intervening the Kremlin will be. Contrary to that reassuring position, there is also a view that today Russia’s aggression could be less of a calculated plan than something triggered by seeing an opportunity. It would of course appear helpful to Lukashenka’s opposition in Belarus, who have no wish for a Russian intervention, if the international community was pre-emptively acting to discourage any potential Russian aggression.

The traditional white-red-white flag of a democratic Belarus has now been raised (quite literally) by many members of the public with no previous interest in politics. It is not that the opposition has evolved in Belarus – but rather that there has been a tectonic shift in Belarusian society itself. This dramatic change in the public attitude has been made irreversible by both the arrogance in robbing voters of this presidential election, and by the massive brutality against the protesters. A prominent feature of this dramatic public change has been local communities’ self-organising, widespread expressions of solidarity and the humanitarian volunteer movement. Given the expected role of general strikes at the final stages of toppling Lukashenka’s regime, organised labour will likely enjoy a significant position in Belarus’s post-Lukashenka politics.

These recent events are no reason to suddenly categorise Belarus as a “delayed Ukraine” or analogous to any other neighbours. Since August 2020 Belarus has been visibly progressing to a more ‘normal’ East European member of the European continent while taking an unusual and rather traumatic path towards this. While Lukashenka still clings to power, now is the critical historic point to help the nation of Belarus make the transition from an autocrat-ruled state to a participative pluralist democracy.

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