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.

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