Silent Protests Cannot Change the Regime
Last Wednesday, the seventh silent protest action was held in Belarus. Many political analysts welcomed the new format of expressing citizens' anger, yet we need to be cautious with being too enthusiastic about the new movement.
The protests have swept across the entire country – unprecedented in this regard and comparable only with the protest movements before the breakdown of the Soviet Union. There is no doubt about the sincerity and courage of the protesters. Yet is it enough to change the nation?
The silent protests are unaccompanied by any other demand but ousting Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Dzianis Melyantsou of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies characterized silent protests as 'desperation action'. Speaking on the Radio of Liberty, he emphasized: “These actions have no general plan and aim, that is the protest for the protest's sake, demonstration of discontent without clear political demands.”
Hoping that some spontaneous movement can later self-organize and bring about democratic changes is wishful thinking. The crowd is blind, even if it is a crowd of educated people with good intentions. There is an essential difference between a crowd of discontent citizens and organized demonstrations and rallies.
Last action has lost some drive compared to earlier actions, and still it was impressive. However, without proper organization and program, the actions have little promise. In fact, they can easily help to create chaos. And this chaos is much more likely to be used by the regime rather than the democratic opposition. The movement can be effectively highjacked by some people or groups from the regime who will have an explicit agenda and robust organizational structures at their disposal – everything the democratic opposition does not have at the moment.
The resulting changes in Belarus will be not toward a democratic regime, but from today's sultanistic regime toward authoritarianism. In fact, this is how sultanistic regimes always evolve, as argued by the scholars of these regimes Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan.
No Country for Free Men
Some adverse effects have already emerged. Up to 2,000 people were detained at silent actions in June and July. The reaction by the government has proved not only its will to stop protests but also an increasing trend of law-breaking by the police and security agents.
Lukashenka has many legal or seemingly legal instruments at his disposal to persecute the opposition, and so far the regime has tried to adhere to the legal framework. However, now the regime is increasingly breaking its own rules.
In June protesters were primarily detained by people with at least some signs of belonging to government agencies. In July the government resorted to the help of some plain-clothed men on cars without registration plaques who often kidnapped anyone suspicious in the place of protests. Heinrich Boell's famous story “My sad face”, telling how lack of happiness demonstrated by a main character results in his detention, became reality in Minsk. In Belarus, even a suspicion that a person is going to applaud or otherwise display his discontent with the regime – for instance, by silently standing on a square – could trigger a brutal attack by anonymous thugs sometimes followed by disappearance for a few hours. Later the victims are 'found' in jails and courts.
The detentions of journalists have also reached unprecedented scale. Until now, a journalist ID was rather efficient at providing some security at rallies. But at the silent actions the government forces break this rule as well by detaining dozens of journalists.
The result is the emerging atmosphere of lawlessness. After all, no one can be sure that if he resists kidnapping by some unknown people in the center of Minsk today he will not end up in a courtroom accused of resistance to the police. If he obeys the kidnappers, on the other hand, he will also end in the same institutions accused of a milder offense – like obscene swearing.
Another novelty of silent actions is the immense amount of apparently false evidence given by the police in order to convict the demonstrators. It is fatal to the already questioned integrity of the Belarusian police especially because the absolute majority of protesters are not affiliated with opposition or political movements in any way. The plain clothed men detain genuinely ordinary citizens.
All Fall Down
The iron-fist policy bordering on lawlessness is the regime's strategy to deal with political and social issues. Another recipe used by the government to solve economic problems – by decreasing the people's income – has also apparently worked. In May, for the first time since January 2010, the balance of payments became positive. The stabilization is going on and the people are forgetting their grievances and getting used to lower living standards.
This means working for less money. It helps the government to decrease the price of products that are being exported by the country and to increase national exports. This also prevents Belarusians from buying now more expensive imported products and solves the problem of foreign trade deficit.
The Belarusian regime can turn impoverishment into a more gradual process by getting new foreign loans, abolishing many components of the welfare system, reducing subsidies to unprofitable enterprises, and selling state-owned assets. The economic situation will considerably deteriorate, yet there are no grounds to anticipate any collapse or a political revolution yet. After all, as Dzmitry Isajonak wrote in his blog, these troubles may be resolved by non-political means as well, like mass criminalization or labor migration.
Ironically, some grotesque form of Chinese model so dreamed of by the Belarusian establishment may emerge. The wages are already far below the USD 500 per month level even in the capital, while outside Minsk even USD 200 are considered to be good. Do not forget, that level is not new for the country where people used to earn as much money just some years ago.
Furthermore, now the Belarusians have certain savings and property bought in the recent years of relative prosperity. That will help them to amortize their fall into poverty. And seeing no political alternative they most probably may prefer just to survive – by going abroad for work, engaging in illegal business activities or simply staying at home – rather than risking going to the streets to change the ruler.