Why Ukraine Failed to Revolutionize Belarus

Given the numerous ties which link Belarus to Ukraine, one might expect the radical political changes in Ukraine to revolutionise Belarus. Yet political activity in Belarus is barely noticeable, despite dramatic developments in Ukraine and the forthcoming presidential election.

Last month, political scientist Tatiana Chyzhova published the results of a monitoring project that reviewed protests in 2014. According to her, public political acts, be they protests or other events, remained few and far between and were ill-attended. In fact, the level of street-level political acts in Belarus was eight times lower than the period preceding Maidan in Ukraine.

Even Belarusian opposition politicians like Pavel Seviarynets who actively advocated for street protests in the past have recently said that calling on Belarusian youth to engage into politics is basically the equivalent of inviting them to stick their fingers into an electrical socket.

At the moment, Ukrainian events have most influenced Belarusian politics through the widespread use of Ukrainian symbols and rhetoric by the Belarusian opposition, but little else.

No Time for Street Protests?

Chyzhova, who works at the Institute for Political Studies “Political Sphere”, counted a total of 81 protests last year in Belarus. That is slightly more than in 2013, when 64 protests were held. This spike in protests was largely due to the local elections held in March 2014 – and if one sets aside the election campaigns, picketing and other social protests - there were only 52 political acts or events.

Most of these actions involved a small number of people and only four events were attended by more than 100 people.

All in all, the study posits that protest-related activity in Belarus in 2014 was eight times lower than in Ukraine, before Maidan. This is just more evidence that Ukrainian-style political change in Belarus is improbable.

Last year, the authorities issued permits for only seven out of a total 52 political events

Many factors have contributed to the low level of activity with regards to street-level politics in the country – mistakes by the opposition, the absence of efficient political organisations, an ideological and methodological crisis among opponents of the current government, and the poor state of the media landscape.

The government has also done their part to prevent people from taking to the streets. Last year, the authorities issued permits for only seven out of a total 52 political events. 33 of 52 political actions ended with some negative consequences for the organisers, be it administrative arrests, fines, detentions or some form of warning.

Ukraine Does Not Inspire Ordinary Belarusians

17 of these political events dealt with developments in neighbouring Ukraine and 13 of them were pro-Maidan, while four were expressly anti-Maidan. Solidarity with Ukraine has even galvanised football fans to engage in politics - probably for the first time in Belarusian history.

A collective photo of Belarusian fans supporting Ukrainian comrades and a flash-mob of support for Ukraine at a football match raised concerns among the Belarusian authorities who were well aware of the role that Ukrainian football fans played in toppling the Yanukovych government in Kyiv.

The opposition community enthusiastically welcomed the radical shift in power in Ukraine and stood behind the new Kyiv government as the war in Eastern Ukraine unfolded, something which the opposition is very eager to demonstrate. Even traditional Belarusian mass rallies unrelated to Ukrainian events and dedicated to specific historical dates (like 25 March) have featured numerous Ukrainian flags.

Some activists have uncritically emulated the revolutionary Ukrainian demonstrations. For instance, last year “Young Front” publicly displayed a banner praising Ukrainian nationalist fighters, among them Roman Shukhevych, despite, however, his active participation in Nazi atrocities in Belarus in WWII. Resorting to such dubious figures was akin to the opposition shooting itself in the foot in the eyes of the public.

the Ukrainian tragedy has influenced Belarusian society by making it even more cautious in its attitudes towards possible political changes

The Chairman of the Belarusian People's Front Party (PBNF) Alyaksei Yanukevich finally reacted to this politically suicidal behaviour before this year's Freedom Day (25 March). He asked the activists to not bring the portraits of Ukrainian nationalists and banners like “Death to Russian Occupiers!” Yanukevich also emphasised the importance of having more Belarusian than Ukrainian flags at Belarusian rallies. Correct as his point may be, unfortunately, the political damage had already been done.

After all, the Ukrainian tragedy has influenced Belarusian society by making it even more cautious in its attitudes towards possible political changes and even more sensitive to any allusions and parallels with Ukraine. Even before the conflict broke out in Eastern Ukraine, 78% of respondents told the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Research that a better future was “not worth bloodshed”. Seventy percent said they did not want a Ukrainian-style revolution. The pervasiveness of this attitude only grows stronger as time goes on.

Fake as Mainstream

Of course, Belarus is not immune to Ukrainian influence. Much of this political influence has a rather destructive character as they lead to the growth of extremist groups of both pro- and anti-Russian inclinations, neither of which are much engaged in the fight for democracy. A case in point is the participation of well-known Russian neo-Nazis from Belarus - like Sergei Korotkikh - in the war in the Donbas.

Many activists of all political stripes and colours are also trying to import ideas to push their positions in the confrontation between pro-Russian and pro-Western elements into Belarus. Two remarkable media stories stand out in particular. Both involve ludicrous accusations and both were reported by authoritative individuals or organisations and turned out to be blatantly false, though no one admitted their guilt.

The first story, from last September, regards wild Belarusian nationalists allegedly brutalising a small child for his wearing Saint George's ribbon – a sign widely abused today by Russian official propaganda. Tut.by, Belarus's largest internet portal ran the story. This fabricated bit of news, however, has never been followed-up and no complaint has been filed with the police by the mother of this unknown child.

The second story was about an alleged incident where a girl in the centre of Minsk had her hair violently cut off by Russian tourists last April. A well-known activist Andrei Kim promoted this story, despite the fact that there has been absolutely zero confirmation of the events described.

Despite the general tranquillity of Belarusian society, proof of which can be found in nearly every successive sociological study, it could become impossible to avoid some violence spilling over from a neighbouring country.

The government will respond by resorting to even harsher measures should anything happen in Belarus. The consequences could be disastrous. A similar situation in the 1990s contributed a great deal to the transformation of another post-Soviet country, Uzbekistan, into a brutal regime. Tashkent then fenced off the war in Tajikistan by persecuting every member of the opposition inside Uzbekistan, cutting ties to neighbouring countries and building up a huge repressive apparatus.

Belarus, for its part, will never endure this level of repression and isolation. Yet the clampdown on the opposition and every public activity after some kind of provocation – which might not even be linked to the opposition – is a likely future possible scenario.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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