Belarus: Rev­o­lu­tion Sup­pressed or Postponed?

Foto: Shut­ter­stock, Maksim Safaniuk

The protests in Belarus in 2020 did not lead to a change in gov­ern­ment. But Lukashenko’s chosen way of brutal suppres­sion will not gain him any popular support — and is extremely hard to leave. An analy­sis by Artyom Shraibman.

2020 was the year of many hopes in and around Belarus. Fol­low­ing what was widely per­ceived as rigged pres­i­den­tial; elec­tion, Belaru­sians took to the streets in hun­dreds of thou­sands. The days of the longest serving Euro­pean strong­man Alexan­der Lukashenko seemed numbered.

The sub­se­quent months have shown that not every upris­ing of such mag­ni­tude ends the same way it did in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine or Kyr­gyzs­tan. Degree of the regime’s con­sol­i­da­tion matters. Belaru­sian protests were sub­sid­ing month after month, as the repres­sions grad­u­ally increased.

It is hard to point to a single reason of why the protest move­ment failed to change the power in Belarus in 2020. There were several con­tribut­ing factors. First, regimes of this nature never fall without some cracks in the ruling elite. Belaru­sian bureau­cracy, espe­cially those at the top of secu­rity agen­cies, emerged as a rather solid organ­ism. While a notice­able exodus of offi­cials took place at the Foreign Min­istry, and some other state agen­cies, includ­ing the law enforce­ment, there were no high-profile defections.

This has partly to do with the decades of well-tuned recruit­ment policy by the regime’s lead­er­ship. Poten­tially unre­li­able people never got ele­vated to senior posi­tions, and if some doubts emerged about a person’s loyalty, they were swiftly removed. That hap­pened, for instance, with No2 in Belarus’ power hier­ar­chy, a liberal-leaning prime min­is­ter Sergei Rumas, who was dis­missed in June 2020, just two months before the cul­mi­na­tion of the polit­i­cal crisis in the country. His replace­ment, Roman Golovchenko, former head of the mil­i­tary-indus­trial complex of Belarus, was a much safer bet for Lukashenko. He did not betray the boss in a crit­i­cal moment.

Fear remains another reason of loyalty. The senior offi­cials know too well, what happens with defec­tors. At best, a person ends up in exile, like the former culture min­is­ter, now – one of the leaders of the oppo­si­tion, Pavel Latushko, who found shelter in Warsaw.

Others were lured to stay within the system because of the guar­an­tees Lukashenko pro­vides to them – both eco­nomic ones and the immu­nity from per­se­cu­tion. At the early stages of the upris­ing, oppo­si­tion leaders spoke a lot about the future pun­ish­ment of the human right abusers but paid too little atten­tion to offer­ing a pos­i­tive agenda to the remain­ing bulk of bureau­cracy. As a result, fear of the unknown (in case of protest victory) gave way to con­ser­v­a­tive instincts to stick with Lukashenko.

Kremlin’s support to Lukashenko and the announced readi­ness to deploy Russian police units in Belarus to squash protests also helped the regime to con­sol­i­date itself. However, this was not a reason, but rather a con­se­quence of Lukashenko sur­viv­ing at the peak of polit­i­cal con­flict. Russia saw that he was cling­ing on to power and only then sup­ported him.

Pro­test­ers had vir­tu­ally no peace­ful way to build an effec­tive alter­na­tive center of power inside Belarus. Every effort the oppo­si­tion took to insti­tu­tion­al­ize itself, to build struc­tures, was met with an imme­di­ate reac­tion from the regime. Leaders of the oppo­si­tion, Sergei Tikhanovsky, Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsep­kalo, just like the brave women who took the lead after them – Svet­lana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsep­kalo – all quickly found them­selves in jail or in exile. The broader coali­tion estab­lished after Tiknanovskaya’s depar­ture – the Coor­di­na­tion Council – was out­lawed even before its first offi­cial session and then decap­i­tated in the same way. All the sub­se­quent attempts of grass­root for­ma­tion struc­tures like workers’ strike com­mit­tees, student unions, court­yard com­mu­ni­ties faced the same destiny – impris­on­ment of the leaders and other forms of pres­sure on regular activists.

This put a tough dilemma in front of the protest move­ment. If it remained peace­ful, there was no way to protect the leaders in Belarus from being jailed. If the protest turned violent, as some com­men­ta­tors sug­gested, it risked losing the moral high ground, as well as over­whelm­ing inter­na­tional and domes­tic sym­pa­thies. In the end, the protest remained pre­dom­i­nantly non-violent, and the state grad­u­ally sup­pressed it with over­whelm­ing force.

Since the Autumn of 2020 the country was sliding into its worst human rights crisis since, arguably, the reign of Joseph Stalin. The number of people detained exceeded 35,000; the number of crim­i­nal cases against them is now over 3,000. As of early May, more than 360 people are listed as polit­i­cal pris­on­ers by local human rights groups. In-custody inhu­mane treat­ment has become wide­spread: detainees report beat­ings, food and sleep depri­va­tion, denial of medical help, shower, heating, mat­tresses and sheets, over­crowded prison cells and their “dis­in­fec­tion” with extremely sat­u­rated chlo­rine water, which causes addi­tional health problems.

Belaru­sian par­lia­ment keeps stamp­ing new laws lim­it­ing freedom of media, protest, asso­ci­a­tion, expand­ing police powers to use firearms, enhanc­ing crim­i­nal lia­bil­ity for various speech crimes like “dis­cred­i­ta­tion of the Repub­lic of Belarus”. 11 jour­nal­ists are behind the bars as of early May, and dozens of outlets are being either blocked online or barred from print­ing in Belarus.

Inter­na­tional com­mu­nity has vir­tu­ally no levers to change the behav­ior of Belaru­sian author­i­ties. Expect­edly, Minsk is not a party to any inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tion that can show its teeth to its members. UN and OSCE deci­sions are con­sul­ta­tive, their crit­i­cism is largely ignored by Lukashenko. Uni­lat­eral Western sanc­tions can only bite as much, since Moscow can extend a helping hand to Lukashenko if he is pushed to the brink. This in itself is a restrain­ing factor for the West, since no one wants to push Belarus closer to Russia by exert­ing too much pres­sure on Minsk.

Repres­sions have two goals behind them – to isolate the most active protest members and to instill fear in the minds of the remain­ing ones. Accord­ing to a Decem­ber 2020 poll by German think-tank ZOiS[1], this cal­cu­la­tion has been tac­ti­cally effec­tive for the regime. 20% of the respon­dents reported that they per­son­ally, their family members, or friends, have been affected by the state vio­lence.[2] While the protest enjoys support of 45% of the respon­dents in this poll (31% dis­agree with the move­ment), 29% say they don’t par­tic­i­pate in the protests because it’s too dan­ger­ous. Addi­tional 13% don’t believe protests can change anything.

The problem for the regime is that there seems to be no move­ment of the actual elec­toral pref­er­ences of the society. The cited ZOiS survey and the series of Chatham House polls[3] suggest that Lukashenko’s support base remains roughly at the same low level it was August 2020 – at about 20%. Given their imper­fect sample – urban inter­net-users, who con­sti­tute about 75% of the society – more rea­son­able assess­ment of Lukashenko rating in the whole pop­u­la­tion would be between 25 and 35 per cent.[4]

After 2020 this figure seems to be the elec­toral ceiling for Lukashenko. First, the vio­lence of the past months has left many people unreach­able for him due to moral reasons. Sec­ondly, unlike the pre­vi­ous years, when Lukashenko was able to inflate his support thanks to the periods of robust growth of GDP and incomes, this option is fore­closed in the coming years. IMF and the World Bank project the stag­na­tion of Belaru­sian economy in 2021 despite the world­wide post-COVID recov­ery[5] [6]. Polit­i­cal insta­bil­ity increases risks for investors and accel­er­ates the brain drain from the most suc­cess­ful sector of Belaru­sian economy. The bud­getary deficit, increas­ingly prob­lem­atic sit­u­a­tion with the debt of state com­pa­nies and of the gov­ern­ment – all suggest that there will be no oppor­tu­nity to buy the lost support back.

It means that the only reli­able option for Lukashenko to retain control over the country is to rely pre­dom­i­nantly on force for the rest of his time in office. This leads to what is usually called “path depen­dency”. Once having entered the track of brutal repres­sions, it is very hard to leave it, because no one knows how the frus­trated and agi­tated society would react to loos­en­ing of control. Need­less to say, such model of gov­er­nance needs more resources than a rel­a­tively stable and peace­ful author­i­tar­ian regime Belarus was until 2020.

This an evident trap in itself. The longer Lukashenko relies on force, the less are his chances to bridge the divide between him and the major­ity of the country, and the less likely he is to fix the strug­gling economy. Lack of a domes­tic and inter­na­tional legit­i­macy puts con­straints to his space of maneu­ver. Even Russia has to factor Lukashenko’s weak­ened posi­tion into their plans vis-à-vis Belarus. Not every agree­ment on inte­gra­tion he signs will be rec­og­nized by the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity or accepted by Belarusians.

It is now clear that the way to polit­i­cal tran­si­tion will be longer than most people expected back in August, 2020. It will likely be accom­pa­nied by more crises, as the current regime will con­tinue to bank­rupt itself polit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally. Although the protests of 2020 have failed to deliver the desired results, they have become a gamechanger in another way. For the first time in 26 years, the oppo­nents of Lukashenko real­ized them­selves as a major­ity. This is a kind of knowl­edge they cannot unlearn or forget, and that will wait for another oppor­tu­nity to man­i­fest itself.


[1] https://www.zois-berlin.de/publikationen/belarus-at-a-crossroads-attitudes-on-social-and-political-change

[2] The survey was carried out online from 16 to 29 Decem­ber 2020. Just over 2,000 Belaru­sians aged between 16 and 64 and living in cities with more than 20,000 inhab­i­tants responded to the ques­tion­naire. The respon­dents were chosen based on quotas for age, gender, and place of res­i­dence to achieve a repre- sen­ta­tive sample for these socio-demo­graphic characteristics.

[3] https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/02/why-belarusian-revolution-has-stalled

[4] This con­clu­sion is indi­rectly sup­ported by another poll, con­ducted via phone at the end of 2020 by Polish OSW insti­tute (https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2021–01-29/belarusians-poland-russia-and-themselves). It esti­mated Lukashenko’s approval level at 41% (with 45% dis­ap­prov­ing of him). This finding, however, is subject to another bias, namely – the fear of some respon­dents to reveal their oppo­si­tional views on the phone to person they don’t see given the polit­i­cal atmos­phere in the country. This jux­ta­po­si­tion of polling results sug­gests that the real Lukashenko’s support rating would be some­where in between of what the online surveys and tele­phone poll indicate.

[5] https://www.imf.org/en/Countries/BLR

[6] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/belarus/overview

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