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.


[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.


[4] This conclu­sion is indi­rectly supported by another poll, conducted via phone at the end of 2020 by Polish OSW institute (–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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