The revolution of modernity against an anachronistic regime
These days my country Belarus is in a deep political crisis. While mass demonstrations against falsified elections continue, the regime responds with violence against peaceful demonstrators and tortures people detained during the protests. At the same time, there is an extraordinary experience of solidarity, dignity and self-organization among those in Belarusian society demanding reform and democratic change. Mutual support and self-expression offer a positive and unifying glance at a future for our nation that is self-determined and self-confident.
We clearly hear voices of support and solidarity from many countries. Today all people in the world see that Belarusians want change, peace, justice, fair elections and other key milestones of a modern and progressive democracy.
Unfortunately, it is not easy to get it when you deal with a repressive and manipulative regime using violence, fakes, shaming and blaming against peaceful people. We all do hope very much that positive changes will be possible without further violence, but it is still a long way to go.
Setting the scene
Belarus has long been ruled autocratically. As the BTI 2020 country report on Belarus summarizes, “Lukashenko began his own nation-building experiment with a focus on the country’s Soviet heritage and the concept of a unique Belarusian path, opposing the liberalization, democratization and de-Sovietization going on in other post-Soviet states.” His “Soviet-style model” has endured for already 26 years, since 1994, allowing for no separation of powers, no local self-governance, no opposition in the parliament and no independent judiciary. At least since 2006, all power is concentrated in the hands of the president and his administration.
Still, in the context of an authoritarian and repressive regime, there were several ups and downs regarding the political climate. Most indicators of the Transformation Index BTI showed a modest upward trend in recent years, albeit from very low levels of political and economic transformation and governance, and primarily to make “some concessions […] in order to facilitate economic and technical cooperation with the West.” (BTI 2020) From 2015 until the beginning of this year, the political climate was calmer. However, this situation totally changed in the first days of the presidential election campaign in May 2020.
It is logical to ask the question, why after 26 years of autocracy in Belarus such incredible wave of protests is happening now. There are several factors, which can explain it. First of all, it is economic stagnation, lack of economic reforms and limited space for economic modernization due to overregulation and bureaucratization of governance. Another important reason is a crisis of social policy, the most illustrative evidence of which is the “anti-parasites decree” of the government (taxing unemployed people, sometimes single mothers or people with disabilities), which led to massive protests in 2017. People felt that the regime demonstrated disrespect and tried to compensate own mistakes and budgetary gaps by getting into the pockets of ordinary people.
Belarusian society also negatively perceived Lukashenko’s efforts to promote integration with Russia. According to sociological surveys, about 79% of the population do not want tight integration and prefer partnership relations as independent states. Recently, another factor contributed to popular unrest: the dissatisfaction with the official COVID policy, which again burdens society with all the costs, while the state didn’t initiate any support for independent economic actors and instead falsified medical statistics decreasing the number of victims and infected people. An ossified and inflexible leadership deaf to the demands of a new generation completes an overall sad picture marked by extremely high distrust of civil society towards political decision-makers in Belarus.
The presidential election campaign unfolded against the backdrop of such a simmering and multi-faceted public discontent. As an additional and surprising factor, it brought many new faces into politics. Their distancing from the “old opposition” and a naïve but honest strategy to enter the political process and take part in elections relying on rule of law and free and fair electoral procedures catalyzed mass hopes and beliefs of people. However, this approach immediately faced numerous repressions before, during and after elections.
What happened around the elections in society?
It is quite evident that the recent developments changed our society profoundly. The main aspect is the political mobilization of citizens on a massive scale. The large majority of today’s protesters is not accustomed to political activity, had remained passive during previous elections and was only recently mobilized to translate dissatisfaction into protest and take it to the streets. Public protest consolidated around three key persons (banker Viktar Babaryka, dissident blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski and former Director of the Belarusian High Technologies Park Valery Tsapkala) and achieved record numbers in signing in for them as alternative candidates.
The Belarusian opposition and protest movement also demonstrated rather new political techniques like queues of solidarity, IT platforms to receive and document photos of voters’ ballots to compare and challenge official results like Golos (Voice) and like-minded observation initiatives like Chestnye Liudi (Honest people). The second wave of political campaigning with three female leaders headed by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya upheld the huge popularity and received large support in the form of massive meetings all over the country, with the largest one in Minsk gathering about 60,000 participants.
Politically mobilized citizens rallied around the overarching issue of electoral fairness and specifically a fair counting of votes. This constituted a ground-breaking development for Belarus: Voters required from local polling stations timely and fair results to be announced in the evening of August 9. The members of polling stations were certainly not accustomed to such public demands for transparency and accountability and many deserted their posts, but at least 100 of them published official protocols, which stated that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was the winner by a large margin over the incumbent president. Nevertheless, the Central Election Committee announced totally opposite results, which declared Lukashenko to be the winner with 80.1% of the votes. In light of such a blatant fraud, a huge number of citizens joined peaceful and creative street protests on an almost daily basis (marches, chains of solidarity, strikes, flash mobs etc.).
What happened around the elections in government?
The Belarusian authorities committed numerous violations of human rights and manipulations of electoral legislation. Several political leaders like Tsikhanouski and Babaryka were put into prison on fictitious accusations early in the election campaign. Also, several persons were not registered as electoral candidates, despite the fact that they had fulfilled all the requirements. For instance, Babaryka succeeded in collecting over 400,000 signatures for his nomination. Instead, other candidates with less public appeal (who had not been fulfilling the requirements regarding the submission of a sufficient number of supporters’ signatures) were registered in an obvious attempt to create solely the appearances of alternative candidates in what was never meant to be competitive elections.
The campaign was accompanied by the intimidation of voters, and administrative mechanisms were used to pressurize especially people employed in the state sector, like in media, culture, medicine, education, etc. After the first results of political surveys had been published in internet, the government introduced a ban on exit polls and sociological surveys about candidates. Massive propaganda, fake news and defamation towards alternative political leaders became an everyday practice of the state-controlled media.
In the absence of international election observation by the OSCE, local observers were pressurized and not allowed to observe the counting procedures (only outside of the polling stations). Thus, the falsification of votes (proved by numerous video and audio evidences and comments by some members of polling station committees) was the rule rather than the exception. Those members of committees publishing non-falsified results were immediately subjected to management pressure and even dismissals from their jobs.
The sham elections were complemented by sheer brute force. The repression apparatus of the state reacted with unprecedented violence against peaceful protesters on the streets of Minsk and all over the country on the evenings of 9-11 September 2020, with several victims, reports of tortures and lawlessness from the police towards detained people (about 7,000 detained).
What are the effects at the society level?
Despite the impossibility to foresee the way out of this political crisis, which becomes deeper with each new week that passes, it is necessary to mention that Belarusian society has even now been transformed into some new quality. This is already an irreversible outcome of the situation. Belarusian citizens initiated an internal revolution of dignity and self-respect, they were able to overcome fear and helplessness. This process of redefinition might be hard to understand in established civic nations of Europe, but to my country, it appears like its white-red-white flag has got new life and meaning as a symbol of a free and progressive society striving for change. We witness these weeks an explosive growth of civil society activities, self-organization of people in local and professional communities, massive volunteer and pro bono activism and an enormous activation of all social-political communication in social media and between people. Now we hope the world redefines Belarus and regards it no longer as an old-fashioned autocracy, but, first of all, as a peaceful and developing community of citizens.
Thousands of people articulated their positions and demands to the present government, which are simple and clear: to stop police violence against citizens, to release all detained people, to have Lukashenko resign from presidency and to organize new free and fair elections with international observation. Unfortunately, none of these requirements are satisfied. Being not able to force change but wanting to distance themselves from previous, outdated and restricting environments, people leave state sector workplaces, pro-governmental trade unions and GONGOs to make their point clear.
Threats and challenges
There are several threats, which influence the present situation. Unfortunately, massive repression against key grassroots leaders of the peaceful protests continues. All the members of the Presidium of the Coordination Council established by the proposal of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya are now imprisoned or were forced to leave Belarus. The only exception is Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, but only due to a high level of media attention and direct protection of ambassadors of EU states who come to her flat every day in solidarity and support. There are also many lawyers and political activists who are engaged in the campaigns of the candidates and are now being detained or pushed out of Belarus. The head of the Catholic church in Belarus, Metropolitan Tadevush Kandrusevich, who publically condemned the violence, as a Belarusian citizen, was still not allowed to come back home from Poland.
While the violence of the police and of people without identification against peaceful demonstrators continues, this violence has become more targeted now. Only during the Sunday protests of September 13, over 700 citizens were detained. Strikes at big state-owned enterprises are suppressed via intimidation and active repression against strike committees’ members. There is also a lack of coordination and leadership of the protest movement. Protests are spontaneous and decentralized, which works both as a plus (difficult to neutralize) and a minus (discoordination) for the protesters. After active repression against protest leaders, there is no clear plan or strategy how to overcome the political crisis.
If to speak about international arena, ongoing protests make Lukashenko weaker in his relations with Russia. Putin announced that he recognizes the election results and guaranteed Lukashenko the backup of a special police force by request, to be potentially used against protesters. In the narrative of integration, Belarus becomes more vulnerable to Russian expansion. At the same time, the reaction of Western politicians is more symbolic than effective. Even including Lukashenko in the list of persons under sanctions became problematic to establish as a joint position of the EU, with strange positions about the necessity to keep the door open for dialogue, while he demonstrated total unwillingness to have a dialogue with any opponents inside the country.
So what can we expect in some short or mid-term perspective? The most probable scenario is that the crisis will intensify and Belarus will turn into a police state where power is based only on violence. However, it is certainly not clear how the present regime is going to guarantee the functionality of the country, when the dominating majority of people does not recognize the regime as legitimate. Most probably, this will foster a tendency of establishing so-called alternative society inside Belarus – where people try to live without contacts to the state and organize direct mutual support and services for each other, unite in clubs, communities and other formats.
Russian expansion can take different shapes: either as an intensified integration process, but with no legitimate Belarusian partner, or as a softer version of such integration – slow or more intensive economic absorption, purchase of valuable Belarusian assets etc.
International pressure on the Lukashenko regime, in turn, can only be effective if it will be consolidated, if all political heavyweights will coordinate their positions and act jointly. At the time of writing, such a scenario seems highly unlikely.
The best possible optimistic scenario, then, is reflected in the demands articulated by the protesters: that violence and detentions will be stopped and new fair elections will take place. I have to confess that it is not at all obvious to me as to which actors could actually introduce such changes.
Still, in the longer perspective, and despite the lack of a visible scenario for positive change, the current power in Belarus has no future, and practically no present. Only the past remains – then let it be in the past!