Whom the West should support in Belarus? A time for a strategic approach

Anonymous photo action in Belarus: Allegedly, only 3% are supporting Lukashenka. Foto: t.me/belamova

Tradi­tional oppo­si­tion parties and movements has long seized to be a polit­i­cally mean­ingful force in Belarus. It is time for Western decision-makers to finally admit this unpleasant reality and shift its rather scarce attention and resources to more promising segments of Belaru­sian civil society.

After Alexander Lukashenko took and consol­i­dated his auto­cratic power in Belarus in 1996, the oppor­tu­ni­ties for the oppo­si­tional activity have shrunk. Oppo­si­tion was removed from the parlia­ment, local self-gover­nance, electoral commis­sions and nation­wide media. The unau­tho­rized protest activity was made illegal and person­ally dangerous for the leaders and groups, who dared to go to the streets.

Business was explic­itly warned against supporting the oppo­si­tion. The politi­cians had to turn to foreign, usually – Western funding, which in some cases added other aspects to their moti­va­tion. Foreign fundraising has become instru­mental to the opposition’s preser­va­tion, while the connec­tion with the elec­torate has become thinner.

Deprived of political oppor­tu­ni­ties in the country, the oppo­si­tion, metaphor­i­cally speaking, began to rot from inside. Coupled with regular crack downs, this absence of success stories has made even the pro-demo­c­ratic people in Belarus learn a simple lesson – lose affil­i­a­tion with the oppo­si­tion will, at best, do nothing for the country’s future, or – at worst – bring about troubles for a person’s own living.

While the race for pres­i­den­tial elections in 2010 with a dozen oppo­si­tion candi­dates was a rela­tively open campaign, the crackdown on the protests against fraud on the election’s eve with arrests and prison sentences for nearly all oppo­si­tion candi­dates led to a decap­i­ta­tion of the oppo­si­tion parties. Oppo­si­tion leaders that were not impris­oned fled the country or withdrew from political exposure. The aftermath of 2010 is a system­atic destruc­tion of the tradi­tional oppo­si­tion that never recovered from this strike.

The lack of success of the oppo­si­tion has led to a phenom­enon often described as negative selection. Most of the ambitious young profes­sionals, who in other countries might have become political activists, in Belarus prefer other ways of self-actu­al­iza­tion. It may be business, art, civil society, science, education abroad, but not politics. As a result, compe­tence and human resources have been leaving the oppo­si­tion as well. The parties had to rely on the activists and leaders, most of whom got into politics in the 1990‑s.

Finally, even the oppo­si­tion leaders have accepted a bitter reality that they have virtually no chances to win in the fore­see­able future. This has removed the moti­va­tion to unite forces with others. Fractures and frag­men­ta­tion have become a mode of existence for many oppo­si­tion groups.

Since 1996, when Lukashenko removed checks on his power, the oppo­si­tion made nearly 20 attempts to create various coali­tions and blocks. Even the most promising of them – the Coor­di­na­tion Council of Demo­c­ratic Forces (estab­lished in 1999), United Demo­c­ratic Forces (2004), Belaru­sian Inde­pen­dent Block (2009), and People’s Refer­endum (2013) – all ended with emotional divorces.

To reiterate, not only the oppo­si­tion itself is to blame. It is objec­tively hard to sustain a vibrant political activity, when opposed by the consol­i­dated and often brutal author­i­tarian regime. However, this injustice does not alter the fact that the tradi­tional oppo­si­tion is hardly capable of becoming a source of change in Belarus.

The pres­i­den­tial campaign of 2020 has become the best confir­ma­tion of that. The cocktail of economic crisis and Lukashenko’s dismis­sive­ness of the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an unprece­dented rise in political activity in the country. But the leaders, who channeled this popular disaf­fec­tion, were all the political neophytes – the former banker Viktor Babariko, former senior official Valery Tsepkalo and a youtube-blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky.

Where was the oppo­si­tion? Part of them decided to boycott the election. Several groups within the Centre-right coalition were arguing about the procedure to nominate a single candidate, and then failed to do so in time. Some groups and leaders joined Tikhanovsky’s movement and fell under the crackdown together with him. Only two recog­niz­able oppo­si­tion leaders – a former MP Anna Kanopatskaya and the head of a moderate campaign Tell the Truth Andrei Dmitriev – applied for regis­tra­tion as candi­dates for pres­i­dency but were over­shad­owed by the new alter­na­tive leaders.

The Western policy makers, including the political foun­da­tions and national govern­ments, have never had too much funding or political attention reserved for Belarus. That is precisely why it is important to focus all the available resources and energy on those sectors of civil society, which have the long-term potential to bring about positive change and democ­ra­ti­za­tion of the country.

The impulse to this change can only emerge organ­i­cally from inside the country. There is hardly any feasible way to speed up the civic matu­ra­tion or to make society demand pluralism and self-gover­nance. Such changes are usually driven by tectonic internal trends of urban­iza­tion, devel­op­ment of a private sector, gener­a­tional change, rising levels of education or degra­da­tion of the ruling regime.

On the other hand, even despite regular crack­downs, some civil society orga­ni­za­tions are vibrant and gaining steam in Belarus. This pool includes networks of grass­roots volunteer initia­tives, the crowd­sourcing and crowd­funding platforms, human rights defenders’ groups etc.

One of the most acute examples of this is the #ByCovid19 initia­tive. It was born as an alliance of initia­tives from several civil society sectors. They managed to crowd­source unprece­dented amount of funds (hundreds of thousands of Euros) and hundreds of volun­teers to support the frontline health­care workers with what they needed. While the govern­ment did little and, at times, was dismis­sive of the pandemic, the volun­teers produced masks, face-protec­tion plastic screens and other kinds of protec­tive gear. They organized the delivery of food and disin­fec­tants to doctors all over the country.

Key to their success was the profound public trust earned by their actions. Building that trust is crucial to the long-term sustain­ability of civil society groups, but also for the nation­wide and local inde­pen­dent media, human rights defenders and bloggers.

These mani­fes­ta­tions of civil activism at first glance might seem somewhat apolit­ical or toothless. This is a mistaken percep­tion. The mentioned #ByCovid19 initia­tive has grown out of another project #ByHelp, which, among other things, used to run crowd­funding campaigns in support of activists and politi­cians, who had been fined for street protests. There is no doubt that technical expertise, skills of networking and mobi­liza­tion gained during COVID-19 outbreak will be used again future, poten­tially – in circum­stances that are more political.

These new movement mark a change of mind of the Belaru­sian society. 15 years ago, there was only few inde­pen­dent political and societal activity besides the tradi­tional oppo­si­tion movements and some brave human right groups. Today, broader parts of a more self-confident society take over respon­si­bility for their issues no longer waiting for the author­i­tarian state to organize public life.

Auto­cratic systems built around the person­ality of the leader can fold like the house of cards, with no one expecting it. If followed by vacuum, the new regime might appear to be even tougher than the previous one. To prepare for the inevitable time of changes in Belarus, civil society struc­tures should be ready and able to coor­di­nate citizens and take respon­si­bility for the country’s future. Alas, as of today, the Belaru­sian oppo­si­tion does not qualify to be this force.

Supporting the hori­zontal infra­struc­ture of activism, together with inde­pen­dent media, bloggers and human rights defenders, would be an invest­ment into a long-term resilience of Belaru­sian civil society. These agents of change, unlike the tradi­tional oppo­si­tion, are likely to make a differ­ence for the demo­c­ratic opening of the society.

For European partners, a learning should be that the former focusing on elections and campaigns as leverage for and indicator of demo­c­ratic change is no longer an appro­priate political strategy towards Belarus. Even though election campaigns can become a catalyst for poli­ti­za­tion, democracy is more than just more or less free and fair elections and must grow from the bottom. Working for opening spaces for civil engage­ment might be more promising on the long run.


Hat Ihnen unser Beitrag gefallen? Dann spenden Sie doch einfach und bequem über unser Spenden­tool. Sie unter­stützen damit die publizis­tische Arbeit von LibMod.

Wir sind als gemein­nützig anerkannt, entsprechend sind Spenden steuer­lich absetzbar. Für eine Spendenbescheini­gung (nötig bei einem Betrag über 200 EUR), senden Sie Ihre Adress­daten bitte an finanzen@libmod.de


Verwandte Themen

Newsletter bestellen

Mit dem LibMod-Newsletter erhalten Sie regelmäßig Neuigkeiten zu unseren Themen in Ihr Postfach.

Mit unseren Daten­schutzbes­tim­mungen
erklären Sie sich einverstanden.