Belarus is in the deepest political crisis in its modern history. Public protests of hundreds of thousands, representing all social layers and groups, have continued for four months, and spread across the whole country. They initially erupted following the largely flawed presidential election on 9 August, in which the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory. Yet it is the post-election police brutality and ongoing repression against peaceful protesters and their supporters as well as blatant disregard for the rule of law that has been pushing people out into the streets since then. As of late November, human rights defenders have identified 146 political prisoners in the country, and altogether over 30,000 people were prosecuted. While over 9,000 criminal cases have been initiated against peaceful protesters, none of the 4,000 complaints about violence from the security services has been investigated to date.
Even though this important level of repression is traumatising the nation, the protests are not dissipating. They are changing the format – for example, the last few Sunday demonstrations spread out across many local neighbourhoods to eschew the police violence. The public will likely continue protesting for two main reasons. The first is that the regime of Lukashenko has fully lost legitimacy, and is incapable, in the public eye, to govern the country – politically, economically or security-wise. Although independent polls on political issues have been banned in Belarus, online polling and expert estimates indicate that Lukashenko’s support is no more than 20-25 percent. Therefore, one of the main demands of the protesters is Lukashenko’s resignation.
The second reason is that profound changes have taken place in Belarusian society. Two generations came of age during the 26 years of Lukashenko’s rule, who want their rights to be respected and the government to be accountable to them. These people are in their 40s and younger and they have been part of cultural and information globalisation. For them, Lukashenko’s regime is archaic and retrograde, and it is failing to provide prospects for an exciting future.
The growth of the private sector and the emergence of the middle class (today over 40 percent of all workforce is employed by private firms) as well as the spread of internet-based media, which overrode the state monopoly on information, have also played a crucial role in the rapid development of civic consciousness in Belarus.
Despite the harsh conditions, local activism, and other forms of self-organisation (for example, independent trade unions, student movements, and others) are mushrooming. They undermine the viability of the regime and lay down the social and cultural foundations concerted public action in the future. This is building democracy bottom-up. It is a profound and probably irreversible change with long-term consequences. The paternalistic model underpinning the Lukashenko regime is outdated and no longer sustainable.
However, the regime has the potential to keep going for the short or medium term, even though it is crumbling in places. It relies on the personal loyalty of the high number of security services, which Lukashenko set up from scratch when he first came to power in 1994. Today the security services are controlled by his oldest son Viktar (National Security Advisor to his father) and are insulated from outside influence. Their thinking is manipulated by state propaganda and many officers likely lack the education to make an independent informed analysis.
Pervasive state control, both within public institutions and society at large, also makes it difficult to bring the regime down speedily. For the most part, the ruling elite have not yet realised that Lukashenko’s policies are doomed and will ultimately ruin the country. They undervalue the wider social transformation in society and believe that the protests can be suppressed through repression. Many public officials enjoy the material or status benefits associated with being in the government. They want to rip them whilst they can and believe that the time is not ripe yet to jump off the ship. They do not see the political opposition as a viable alternative.
The opposition is in a difficult position – half of the political leaders have been locked up by the regime, whilst the other half has been expelled from the country. These politicians are also political ingénues, as they had not been in the politics before. They need time, resources, and expertise to be able to translate their demands into effective political action. For the past three months, they have focused on helping the victims of repression, putting international pressure on the regime, and demanding a fresh election. This approach, however, has not worked. The opposition needs a long-term strategy to erode the regime. It needs an actionable plan to reach out to public officials to splinter the ruling elites and the security services.
Lukashenko is trying to engage in a phony dialogue by co-opting and dividing the opposition. However, he has neither the willingness nor the capacity to negotiate seriously. Under the pressure from the Kremlin, he is going through the motions of initiating constitutional reform. The process lacks transparency and does not involve consultation with wider civil society or the real opposition. The proposed amendments and the timeframe for their adoption remain unknown. The leaked draft, however, suggests further infringements on citizens’ rights, such as a ban on public organisations to ‘interfere into state affairs’ and on individuals with a criminal record to hold state posts, as well as the ability of the state to restrict the right to strike. Lukashenko might try to let the amendments be endorsed by the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (a quasi-Soviet gathering of public officials and handpicked loyal representatives of society), planned to be held next year. He might also try to constitutionalise the Assembly, becoming the chair of its presidium, which will allow him to retain the reins of power.
Russia is backing Lukashenko as it finds him the best guarantor of its interests in Belarus at the moment. Yet, the Kremlin is trying to increase Belarus’ dependency on Russia through a number of tactics, including pushing him towards constitutional reforms to devolve his powers and sponsor pro-Russian political parties. Lukashenko does not find himself in a desperate position, however, as Russia is unlikely to withdraw its support. The Kremlin fears the domestic spill over effects of the Belarusian revolution and wants to reassert its ‘sphere of influence’ to the West.
The most likely scenario in Belarus is a long-term erosion of the regime through mounting social pressure. The absence of meaningful democratic structures and a system of pervasive state control may suggest a lengthy and excruciating transition with more repression in the short term. A dialogue with Lukashenko’s highly personalised regime is unlikely, either in the short or in the long run, although a significant economic decline or the Kremlin’s tight squeeze might spur it to adopt a slightly more flexible position.
The West should continue exerting pressure on the regimes in Minsk and Moscow to listen to the demands of the Belarusians. It should increase the costs to Russia of supporting Lukashenko’s regime. The West should invest in helping civil society build resilient democratic institutions to enable the political change that society desires. It should also build direct connections with Belarussians and involve them in its networks and institutions. This will keep the West faithful to its own principles and values and it will enhance its soft power abroad.
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