Belarus: No Appetite for Revolution?

The political year for Belarusian opposition will begin with a traditional rally on the so called Freedom Day 25 March. This day, which celebrates proclamation of the Belarusian People's Republic in 1918, in the past was bringing to the streets of Minsk thousands of people opposing the government of Alexander Lukashenka. This year, no massive attendance is expected.

Even the November presidential elections – unlike in 2006 or 2010 – will probably not cause serious post-election protests. Developments in neighbouring Ukraine seriously changed the calculus of political change in the Eastern European country. The Ukrainian crisis forced the government, opposition, Russia and the West to look differently at the power struggle in Belarus.

Maidan Cancelled

Addressing high-ranking police officers on 5 March, the Belarusian President said there would be no 'Maidan' protests (i.e. Colour Revolutions) in Belarus.

Two days later, the Belarusian People's Front, one of the nation's opposition parties, proposed to abandon its plans to hold 'Maidan' protests following the November 2015 presidential election.

Inspired by the success of the Colour Revolutions elsewhere, the Belarusian opposition has on multiple occasions tried to oust Lukashenka through post-election protests. They have failed, however, as the main prerequisite for it is a fragile and dysfunctional state.

This year, a successful anti-regime protest movement is even less likely. Unlike in the past, no serious international players will risk a "revolutionary" scenario. Still, provocative actions by a few remain a distinct possibility. Were clashes to occur following the announcement of the election results, the situation in the country would only take a turn for the worse.

Why the West Supported Regime Change in Belarus in the 2000s

Lincoln Mitchell, who for many years worked for the National Democratic Institute in post-Soviet nations, has recently published a critical book on Colour Revolutions. He argued that "by the spring of 2006 Belarus was one of the few countries in the world, certainly the only one in the former Soviet Union," where Washington sought regime change.

Geopolitical calculations explain why Belarus gained reputation of the last dictatorship in Europe

Even though post-Soviet regimes such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, or Uzbekistan had greater problems with human rights and democracy, it is Belarus that was branded Europe's last dictatorship by the United States.

Geopolitical calculations explain why Belarus gained such a reputation. At the time, US interests were focused on the Middle East. Minsk aroused Washington's concern due to its active engagement with radical Middle Eastern governments, including its cooperation with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Mitchell writes, "[I]n the 'us versus them' framework of the early Bush years, Belarus had become part of 'them' and, by doing so, a target of the US.”

Because Belarus possessed little strategic value to the United States, it was often dismissed as a murky Eastern European state under Russian control. The only purpose Belarus served was to showcase Western commitment to human rights, democratic freedoms, and nuclear non-proliferation.

The West's Change of Heart in 2015

As of 2015, the geopolitical situation has changed. As the Belarusian president is happy to boast, and the opposition readily complains, the West has viewed Belarus in a different light following the onset of the conflict in Ukraine.

Western governments are now telling Belarusians that independence should come before democracy

According to Yanukevich of the BNF party, Western governments are now telling Belarusians that independence should come before democracy. With the emergence of a new power constellation in Eastern Europe, the West has formulated a new strategic task for Belarus - to avoid a Russian takeover.

At the same time, Belarusian cooperation with the Middle East has become less of a problem for Washington both due to the changes in the Middle East, such as the multilateral negotiations with Iran, and thanks to the more cautious approach taken by Belarus with regards to its foreign policy.

In particular, in the early 2010s Minsk minimised its contact with Iran and Syria as these countries faced increased international isolation. Only after the international standing of Iran and Syria had improved and their talks with Russia and the West had resumed did Belarus reactivate its contacts with these states.

The recent United States' decision to lift sanctions on the Belarusian national oil company Belarusnafta is just the latest proof that Minsk has managed to sort out its Middle Eastern affairs.

Belarusians Will Take No Chances

When explaining his appeal to not flood Minsk's central square in November 2015, chairman of the People's Front Alyaksei Yanukevich said that few people would participate. According to him, Belarusians fear a repeat of the Ukrainian scenario in Belarus. Yet the problem lies not only, if at all, in concerns about what happened in Ukraine.

All these years, the Belarusian opposition has misapplied the lessons of protests in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan

All these years, the Belarusian opposition has misapplied the lessons of protests in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in Belarus. Belarusian circumstances were, and are, very different than the circumstances in the countries where the colour revolutions had "won". When the government effectively controls society and provides people with many essential services, post-election protests are unlikely to produce a change at the upper echelons of the state.

Mitchell lists four main premises for that have lead to these colour revolutions. First, an opportunity to effectively participate in an election and making a plausible claim about the opposition's victory. Second, the media should be able to anticipate election fraud, to inform the people when such fraud is inevitable as well as cover the ensuing protests.

Third, the population should not be intimidated by the state. Fourth, in cases where colour revolutions are successful, foreign and international donors and democratisation-oriented NGOs have “a degree of political access and involvement in the countries where they work[ed] that would never be tolerated in their own countries.” None of these conditions apply in Belarus.

Sitting on a Barrel of Gunpowder?

To sum up, a successful colour revolution is impossible in Belarus. There is some probability that protests will occur, however, and this is not necessarily good news. As the Belarusian left-wing Prasvet web-site has recently commented, all the recent talk about election fraud has led to the opposition losing interest in working with the public. It lamented, "The mobilisation [of radical forces] still supercedes agitation, and popular support for opposition remains what it was five years ago."

The events in Ukraine has led many Belarusian activists to believe in the efficacy of radical rhetoric and methods, regardless of the mood of ordinary citizens. At the same time, the developments in Ukraine have influenced Belarusian law enforcement bodies and the state security apparatus. They may now be more willing than ever before to resort to extreme measures in order to defend the government. Russia may also be prepared to respond more radically to any new post-election protest in the former Soviet nations.

Were a radical provocation by a minority group to lead to a bloody clash in the wake of the 2015 presidential election, Belarusians would only suffer to lose from it. The political regime in the country would become more brutal, its politics more radical, and Belarus's relations with the West would deteriorate once more. Yet, the appearance of radical nationalist initiatives such as 1863x.com suggests that such a scenario may not be as far-fetched as it might appear.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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