Do mass protests have any prospect in Belarus?
After this spring’s mass protests, which resulted in forceful reactions from the authorities, criminal cases, and detainments, protest activity in Belarus has died down. At present, anti-government protests gather few supporters. At the same time, opposition politicians and their organizations are unable to capture the attention of the media and society.
The opposition mainly concentrates its activities in Minsk. The Belarusian provinces appear largely forgotten. The result is low levels of trust and support for opposition parties and movements among many Belarusians. Still, some actors in the Belarusian political field attempt to organize mass protests. Indeed, these actors appear to demonstrate ambitions to take over this sphere of social life and even brand it their own.
Radical agenda becomes repulsive
Ex-presidential candidate and former political prisoner Mikalaj Statkievič, after the hardcore suppression of protests on March 25 this year, promised to organize new and even larger demonstrations. He predicted the growth of discontent in society by the autumn, so decided to organize the second “Angry Belarusians’ March” in October. The first march in February 2017 gathered around 3,000 people in Minsk.
Unfortunately for Mr. Statkievič, his recent efforts have failed to attract many participants or any serious media attention. On 21 October, only about 200 people attended the event called “Angry Belarusians’ March,” which lasted less than an hour and failed to gather much attention from media and society. Seven days later, Statkievič helped organise another street demonstration near the KGB (the national security agency) headquarters, which brought out fewer than 30 participants.
Several reasons explain the small scale of these October protests. Firstly, protest sentiments in society have ebbed. This is also due to the partial stabilisation of the economy. In addition, the authorities suspended the highly unpopular Decree No. 3 (commonly known as the “anti-parasite decree”) and announced other steps for liberalization of the economy.
It should also be noted that Statkievič has confined his mobilization campaign only to Minsk. For some reason, the provinces, where the economic and social situation is much worse than in the capital, have been left out. It would appear the provinces have a much greater protest potential than Minsk. The experience of spring events confirms this statement.
Secondly, the fear of a violent state response still holds a strong influence over Belarusians. After the brutality Belarusian law enforcement agencies showed at this spring’s protests, as well as the criminal cases against activists and independent trade unions, people are less eager to take part in protests.
Indeed, the demonstrations that took place on 21 October were also characterized by preventive detentions of opposition activists. At the same time, the loss of a job after participating in protests is a common story in Belarus. Taking into consideration growing unemployment—despite a stabilising economy—the prospects a not too attractive for anybody.
Thirdly, the only organisers of this October’s street protests were Mikalaj Statkievič and his Belarusian National Congress. Other political organizations did not lend their support. Certain opposition groups have recently switched to promoting an “evolutionary way” and consider dialogue with the authorities possible, at least on some topics. Meanwhile, Statkievič remains more of a hardcore revolutionary.
Most of the political establishment in Belarus considers Statkievič’s slogans extremely radical. For example, during the march on 21 October 2017, participants raised a banner reading, “Lukașescu – you are a monster! Stop robbing our people!” The slogan compared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka with the Romanian communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. This, along with other provocative slogans, appeared to do more to repulse rather than attract support. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a situation where many organisations, such as Tell The truth! with their main credo “For peaceful changes,” will support Statkievič’s radical statements.
So far, people react most to campaigns dedicated to local problems or concrete pressing issues, rather than global ones. For example, the rise of prices for communal public services, gas, public transport tickets, and the elimination of “green spaces” in cities, etc… In times of economic downfall and a constatnt decrease of living standards, social slogans, and not political ones, are what really bring people together.
Why so unpopular?
The above-given points characterize Belarusian protests as a whole, not only those organized by the Belarusian National Congress. At the same time, it is necessary to pay attention to the overall state of protest sentiments in the society as well as to the factors influencing them.
First, one should take into consideration the lack of media exposure given to the Belarusian opposition. In fact, there are no political media in Belarus, which can transmit the messages of this or that political power. The coverage of political events can openly be called miserable. Opposition political activists inconsistently receive media attention, and sporadically appear on-air only during major occasions.
But the opposition politicians also suffer from a common problem: they try to reach their audiences only on major occasions, too. Sometimes, it seems that the political powers only come in the lead-up to some big event (a national holiday) or to some egregious failure of government.
In the meantime, people become unaware of the opposition activities if politicians do not stay in touch with them. In turn, the political powers lack feedback from the people and sometimes are ignorant of real problems and concerns within society.
Here, one should pay attention to the way protest organizers promote their events. Usually, their outreach efforts are limited to rallying cries on social networks and rare diatribes in the media. For the first time in recent years, Minsk residents saw leaflets and stickers all over the city calling people to join protests—coverage seemed quite large-scale, at least in the capital. Such a grass-roots approach is important for enlisting the older population, who are not active internet users and tend to consume media 100 per cent under state control.
The spring events once again demonstrated the protest potential of the Belarusian provinces. Unfortunately, the political opposition still focus more on the capital. The economic situation in these regions is much worse than in Minsk. This would logically make Belarusians in the provinces more willing protesters. Moreover, the provinces experience an extreme lack of media attention, too. This is why anyone who brings attention to provincial problems becomes labelled a local hero. Any wide, national protest movement needs to be in touch with all the Belarusian regions, not only with Minsk.
Branding protests – Statkievič ™
The largely negative, radical protest agendas are deficient in ideas for how to change the country for the better. Audiences have grown tired of them and have started to lose interest, which plays a big role in the small scale turn-outs at mass protests.
Still, the authorities consider the protests a serious threat. At times, state propaganda has claimed Statkievič was the leader of all “radicals” and street protests actions in the whole country.
Preemptive detentions before 21 October demonstrations, as well as attempts to disrupt the march by blasting loud Soviet music over Independence Square (where the marchers planned to gather) confirm this opinion. Finally, Statkievič himself was detained on 30 October 2017.
The number of protesters out on 21 October is not so important—what holds greater impact is the manner of the protests themselves, and the substance of the anti-government statements. Statkievič’s long-term goal appears to be to become the undisputed leader for any protest event of any scale in the country.
Street protests will be in demand in any state with any political system. At the moment, demand for radical slogans and street protests appears to be low among Belarusians. But as one can see, the situation in Belarus can change quite quickly, and in the event of a systemic crisis in the country, protest sentiments can grow and result in truly unpredictable consequences.
Tadeusz Kosciuszko and The Un-Soviet Heroes of Belarus
On 9 October 2017, the Belarusian Association in Switzerland brought to the attention of the media the controversy over Tadeusz Kosciuszko monument in the Swiss town of Solothurn. Belarusian diaspora created and funded the monument, dedicating it “to an outstanding son of Belarus.” This wording led to a conflict with the Polish embassy, which ignored all offers to partake in the project.
Apparently, Polish ambassador in Bern Jakub Kumoch asked Swiss authorities to remove all mentions referring to Belarus. Belarusian diaspora in Switzerland did not agree and went public with this story, sparking a discussion of Kosciuszko’s legacy, both internationally and within Belarus.
Belarus, along with Poland and Lithuania, remains the rightful heir to the symbolic legacy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yet, in contrast to its neighbours, it remained reluctant to appropriate its heroes, choosing to build the national narrative on the Soviet era material.
From Belarus to Switzerland
Tadeusz Kosciuszko was born in Mieračoŭščyna – a manor in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the time, currently located in the Brest region of today’s Belarus.
Following revolutionary ideals, Kosciuszko volunteered to join the American Revolutionary War in 1776. A talented military engineer, he commanded the construction of fortifications, including the fort at West Point. In recognition of his achievements, the Continental Congress made him American general. Yet in 1784, Kosciuszko followed the call of his heart and returned to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where he commanded the anti-Russian uprising of 1794 against the partition of his homeland.
After the defeat of the uprising, the Commonwealth seized to exist and Kosciuszko spent two years in Russian prison. After being pardoned, he moved back to the US and later to the Swiss town of Solothurn, where he spent the last years of his life. A prominent human rights proponent and a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, who called him the “purest son of Liberty,” Kosciuszko left his fortune to free and educate American slaves.
Belarusian patriots vs. Polish diplomats
In 2016, Belarusian Association in Switzerland initiated a crowdfunding campaign to create a monument to Tadeusz Kosciuszko in Solothurn, timing the unveiling ceremony to his 200th death anniversary. At the very start of the project, the Association offered Polish embassy to participate, yet did not receive any answer.
Independently raising a sum of over € 7.000, Belarusian diaspora decided to write a dedication “to an outstanding son of Belarus from grateful compatriots” in German and in Belarusian.
According to the deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association in Switzerland Aliaksandar Sapieha, Polish ambassador Jakub Kumoch contacted the mayor of Solothurn, demanding to remove the inscription in Belarusian. Apparently, fearing international scandal, the mayor gave in after the threat that Poland’s official delegation might ignore the town’s commemorative events.
Later, the Polish Foreign Ministry explained that Kosciuszko’s contributions to the history of humanity could not be limited to being just “a son of Belarus.” However, this position did not prevent Poland from marketing Kosciuszko as “son of Poland” in the past, even though the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by no means was a modern nation-state with a clear national identity as we understand it now.
After the media ran the story, Belarusian MFA interfered into the conflict, bringing in a more balanced position. Temporary charge d’affaires of the Belarusian embassy Pavel Matsukevich mediated a compromise with the municipality. In the final version, the wording included Kosciuszko’s name, dates of birth and death and the dedication “From the Belarusian Association in Switzerland.” Belarusian embassy also found a donor, who partly compensated the monument costs.
On 20 October, in an interview to Radio Svaboda, Polish ambassador explained his position, refuting all accusations and shifting the blame to the municipality of Solothurn. Two days later, Kumoch spoke of Kosciuszko as “a national hero belonging not only to Poland but also to the US and Lithuania, whose legacy is lately also being appreciated in Belarus.” In a conciliatory tone, his address on the occasion of Kosciuszko ‘s monument unveiling in Solothurn was in Belarusian.
Meanwhile in Kosciuszko’s homeland
Looking at the actual Kosciuszko’s commemoration in Belarus, Kumoch might have simply stated the unpleasant truth for the Belarusians. Up until now, there are only two busts (not monuments) of Kosciuszko in Belarus, one of which is on the territory of the American embassy in Minsk. A modest museum at his birthplace in Mieračoŭščyna remains off the beaten track.
The Swiss story prompted Belarusians to acknowledge these facts at last. On 11 October, Belarusian journalist Hleb Labadzenka started a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the first Kosciuszko’s monument in his homeland. Responses to the campaign were positive, collecting almost € 6.000 within a short span of time.
During Lukashenka’s rule, Belarus has been glorifying Soviet-era heroes, ignoring other prominent figures of its history. For instance, Kosciuszko’s contemporary, composer and a participant of 1794 uprising, Michal Kleafas Ahinski remained another forgotten hero. His palace in Zalesse, Smarhon region, where the composer spent 20 years of his life, reminded a haunted place for a long time.
In 2001, the only monument to Ahinski was installed in Maladzečna with funds collected among the city population. The restored palace opened as a museum only in 2014. Almost all funding came from the European Union’s cross-border cooperation programme Latvia-Lithuania-Belarus.
Is Belarusian political regime willing to embrace new national heroes?
Recently, one of the major Belarusian state TV channels, Belarus 1, showed a story about the Military Academy at West Point and Kosciuszko’s contributions to its history. The official media clearly stated his Belarusian roots – this did not happen often before.
As the position of the Belarusian MFA regarding the incident in Switzerland demonstrated, Belarusian regime does not mind to play around with national mythology, especially in light of recent flexible approaches to strengthen the independence. From a different point of view, Belarus could profit from the tourist potential of its non-Soviet history and revive rural regions.
Finally, Kosciuszko monument in Switzerland might have also reminded Belarusians not to leave history up for grabs. Historical legacies and heroic narratives are the foundations of every nation, and Belarus has a right to use them in the same manner as its neighbours do.