Belarus: Revolution Suppressed or Postponed?
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, 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. 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 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.
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 . 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.
 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.
 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.
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