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