The protests attracting thousands of people, following the rigged presidential election on 9 August last year, which spread across Belarus – from the two-million population of Minsk to the town of Zhabinka with a population of several thousand – had the character of a mass social revolt. The 80 percent of votes for Lukashenko announced by his loyal Central Election Commission after the first round not only illustrated the dictator’s detachment from society, but also showed his unwillingness to admit his plunging support, as well as reflecting his desire to force society to remain in a patriarchal symbiosis. Instead of campaigning in residential areas and workplaces on the day before the vote, the president paid visits to the military and militia units, where he threatened to punish any form of resistance. And he meant it.
So far, he has gotten away with rigging presidential elections five times. Opponents of the regime have protested with varying intensity, the west has imposed more or less severe sanctions, but he has always managed to somehow get away with it. The reasons – apart from the Russians lending a helping hand – have always been the same: the level of public support for Lukashenko and the legitimacy of his presidency had still been strong enough combined with Belarusians’ alleged inborn reluctance to take part in mass street protests. However, the situation seems to have changed in 2020. It follows a number of reasons, as well as some tactical mistakes made by Lukashenko himself.
Arrogance of the patriarch
Although Belarusian society is one of the least researched in Europe, as the regime banned independent opinion polls in 2016, we know that it is undergoing constant change. Generations, who don’t remember the USSR and enjoy social media and open borders, brought an end to the monopoly on shaping young people through public schools, media and workplaces. Many Belarusians have grown tired of the everlasting and obsolete autocrat in power and want to live like their peers in Europe. The west is becoming the model for organising state and society, especially among this younger generation, and the proportion of Belarusians in favour of the EU is growing. Integration with Russia still remains the most popular option, but Moscow is also perceived as a source of threat. These trends are confirmed by research conducted by the Warsaw Centre for Eastern Studies, as well as by other institutions, such as Global Voices or Chatham House, thus managing to get round the restrictions in their sociological surveys.
Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, and the political and economic model he represents is worn out. In addition to that, over the past year he has also made a number of tactical mistakes that have accelerated the eruption of public anger following the elections. The first was his disregard of the threat of the pandemic. The president arrogantly didn’t wear a mask and did not introduce epidemiological restrictions, instead recommending outdoor exercise and 100 grams of vodka. It was a serious breach of the social contract that had been in force for years: built on providing Belarusians with personal safety and modest material stability in exchange for curtailments of civil rights. Putting human life and health at stake, in order to prevent the collapse of an inefficient economy, unleashed not only anger but also a great potential for the self-mobilisation of a society that was left alone to face a pandemic.
The second mistake, essentially stemming from Lukashenko’s patriarchal worldview, was to allow Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya to participate in the elections. The wife of the popular blogger Sergei who, along with the arrested banker Viktor Babaryka and the unregistered businessman Valery Tsepkalo, could have posed a real challenge to the president, was disregarded by him because of her gender and lack of political experience. However, the supporters of both candidates rallied around her. The result was an outburst of mass support for Svetlana, who became a national symbol of the struggle against Lukashenko.
Finally, the third mistake was an outrageous overstating of the official election results and the extremely brutal pacification of post-election protests. The scale of the repression – photos and videos of those tortured by OMON [editor’s note: Belarusian anti-riot militia] quickly spread around the country and the world thanks to mobile phone videos and social media – was as important as the initial rigging of the elections in fuelling the anger and outrage, if not more so.
In the second half of August, it seemed that the victory of the revolution was just a step away, but Lukashenko managed to crush the summer-autumn wave of peaceful demonstrations with brutality and determination. He began the new year strengthened by the feeling of “cleaning the streets”, but also with two serious challenges: how to prevent the protests from resuming in the spring, and how to wriggle his way out of his diminishing power – promises he has probably made to Putin – while maintaining Russian economic subsidies.
The first task is being tackled with the inherent flair of a real dictator: draconian sentences against journalists and activists, searches and detentions of media representatives and the third sector and planned restrictions, in the Russian fashion, by introducing laws against extremism and foreign agents. The first test of the effectiveness of these tactics will be Freedom Day on 25 March, which is traditionally celebrated by the opposition circles to mark the proclamation of the Belarusian Democratic Republic in 1918. It will be a good opportunity for the protest movement to regather support. After a winter break, it is unclear what the current state of the opposition movement is. Several thousand, if not tens of thousands, of the most active opponents of Lukashenko have left Belarus in the last months. Judicial restrictions probably have an negative impact on people’s readiness to protest. On the top of this, the political emigrants, staying mainly in Poland and Lithuania, do not seem to be sufficiently united and prepared for effective action in the spring.
As far as the second challenge is concerned, Lukashenko has received help from the Russian authorities themselves. The attempted assassination and subsequent imprisonment of Alexei Navalny brought thousands of Putin’s opponents into the streets of Russian cities (although the scale of these demonstrations was comparably smaller than those in Belarus last year). This resulted in the Kremlin’s support for Lukashenko’s suppression of the street protests and his hostility towards their imaginary western sponsors becoming a logical necessity. A symbolic confirmation of the “autocrat alliance” against the threat of “colour revolutions” was reflected by the photos of a smiling Lukashenko skiing and sharing meals with Putin during their February meeting in Sochi. However, this does not mean that the Kremlin has abandoned its long-term strategic goal of a complete subjugation of Belarus, which would be a dream gift for Putin for the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR in December. Nonetheless, a temporary postponement of executing this seems to be a given.
The social anger of Belarusians has not evaporated. While Lukashenko may hold on to power for months, or even years, to come, he is unable to rebuild a broad base of social support. He will increasingly rely on the repressive apparatus, escalated persecution and increased political and economic dependence on Russia. But a return to the previous status quo is impossible, and the next explosion of discontent, as well as further scratches to the apparatus, remains only a matter of time.