One Hundred Years of Belarus Independence Proclamation: Uniting the Nation or Dividing the Opposition?
On 1 March 2018, Minsk municipal authorities granted a permission to install a memorial plaque on the historical building, where on 25 March 1918 Belarusian independence was proclaimed. On the following day, Belarusians crowdfunded the project, promptly collecting € 2500 in just 3 hours.
Out of those states that gained their independence after the fall of the Russian Empire, Belarus remains the only one that does not officially celebrate this date. In the modern Belarusian history, the Belarusian Democratic Republic (Bielaruskaja Narodnaja Respublika or BNR) anniversaries antagonised society – while the opposition made a specific point on public celebrations, the authorities usually marked 25 March with violent crackdowns.
This year, as the centennial of the Belarusian statehood approaches, authorities and opposition seem to agree on the importance of the date, in a stark contrast to the previous years.
What happened on 25 March 1918?
As Germany and Soviet Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty without Belarusian participation, Belarusian national elites finally realised the need to take responsibility for their homeland. After the proclamation of the Belarusian Democratic Republic on 9 March 1918, the declaration of independence followed on 25 March 1918.
In reality, the BNR lacked many formal attributes of a state and heavily depended on German toleration. Yet, more importantly, it created an important historical precedent. Ten months later, the Bolsheviks appropriated the idea of Belarusian state and (mis)used it for their own political ends, but the BNR established a continuous statehood tradition. It survived throughout the 20th century, serving as a basis for the creation of the independent Belarusian state in 1991.
The BNR did not disappear with the arrival of the Bolsheviks and continued to exist within the Belarusian diaspora abroad. Its government – the BNR Rada – derives its legitimacy from the democratically elected All-Belarusian Congress and is famous for being the oldest government in exile. The BNR Rada considers the current political regime in Belarus undemocratic and refuses to hand over its mandate.
Freedom Day in Lukashenka’s Belarus
Celebrations of 25 March, also known as Freedom Day, resumed in 1989, yet it did not become a public holiday. Instead, the authorities opted for 3 July as the official independence day, marking the date of the liberation of Minsk from the Nazis in 1944. This date does not bear connections to the re-establishment of the statehood or its independence whatsoever.
Under the current political regime, 25 March usually antagonises official authorities, ending in violent clashes and arrests. The Freedom Day represents the very opposite of the regime’s Soviet-based sentiments. In 1996, it coincided with a political crisis, threatening the annexation of Belarus by Russia and bringing 30.000 people to the streets. In 2000, authorities used military equipment and riot police units against the peaceful demonstration.
In 2017, the same trend was still in place: the authorities brutally detained over 700 persons out of a few thousand, who dared to gather in the centre of Minsk for the demonstration. Mass protests over the infamous ‘social parasites‘ decree last spring fuelled the authorities’ repressive reaction.
However, with the exception when Freedom Day celebrations were reinforced with similar political or social crises, the usual scenarios stabilised at two-three thousand participants. Often without a clear plan of action, opposition kept struggling to revive the Freedom Day, while the authorities effectively prevented it from becoming a unifying date.
The BNR centennial and the regime: the limits of passive toleration
By contrast, this year might offer something fresh, as the Minsk municipal authorities permitted a rally and a concert on 25 March in a downtown location, near the Opera Theatre. Moreover, they also promised that the unregistered national white-red-white flags and ‘Pahonia’ coat of arms could be used without restrictions.
Few other concessions include several BNR-themed exhibitions at major Minsk museums and marking BNR-related spots in the urban space. On 13 March, a memorial plaque was unveiled in Janka Kupala Park, memorialising the brothers Ivan and Anton Luckievič, the leading ideologists of the Belarusian national movement. Another plaque should appear on the building at Valadarskaha Str. 9, where the BNR proclaimed its independence.
In regard to the soft Belarusisation trends, the centennial of the BNR might present the regime with an opportunity to abandon the dominant Soviet version of Belarusian history. Yet, according to the political analyst Aliaksandr Klaskouski, Belarusian authorities face two major obstacles – giving up their Soviet-defined identities and a fear that public celebrations might turn unpredictable.
In this context, Belarusian authorities want to appear benevolent on the issue of the BNR centennial, yet distanced themselves from celebrations on the official level.
Divide and rule: the opposition and its dilemmas
Civil society and opposition took over the planning of the BNR anniversary, launching a crowdfunding initiative to fund the concert and coordinating volunteers for the information campaign. However, the authorised concert and small concessions from the regime immediately revealed that there is no common ground within their ranks as to the format of the Freedom Day.
The organisational committee split between those who prefer festive celebrations to the more traditional political protest. United Civic Party, movement For Freedom and Belarusian Popular Front along with civil society activists, including Pavel Bielavus and blogger Eduard Palčys, opted for the concert. They argue that the BNR centennial should become an occasion for a national holiday with the appropriate festivities.
Their adversaries, Mikalaj Statkievič, Viačaslau Siučyk, and Uladzimir Niakliaeu support a traditional demonstration through the streets of Minsk. Statkevič pointed out that festivities might discredit the authority of the opposition, achieved during the social protests last year.
“We face a number of social and political issues […] People always come out to these events with their problems and needs. A demonstration gives them an opportunity to express these, while the guarded concert does not,” commented the uncompromising Statkevič.
Thus, the roads of the opposition activists might part on 25 March 2018, allowing the regime to keep the face with the concert and prosecuting the participants of the unauthorised march.
The opposition’s lack of unity reminds of the similar divisions that tormented national elites in 1918, when they debated independence of the BNR in the early hours of 25 March one hundred years ago.
The centennial of the BNR coincides with a period when Belarusian regime shows interest in a stronger national identity. It also does not mind to compromise with the opposition, albeit on specific terms. A sizable part of the opposition, in turn, appears eager to use the warmer attitude of the authorities.
Local elections in Belarus: takeaways
On 18 February 2018, Belarusians elected their representatives to local councils.
This campaign presented the authorities with an opportunity to demonstrate their openness and improve performance on their democratisation and human rights record. Instead they used it as a testing ground for their ability to dominate and manipulate domestic politics.
This choice sends a strong message about the authorities’ assessment of the strategic environment and oncoming challenges.
The campaign: liberal-minded expectations vs. harsh realities
Given the insignificant role of local councils in the Belarusian political system, local elections rarely stir significant public attention. They are usually perceived as “not a big deal” (albeit with traditionally high, but hardly trustworthy, reported turnout).
Accordingly some believed that the authorities would use this relatively insignificant campaign in order to repair their image in respect of liberalization and democratization, which was an important part of the Belarus-West normalization efforts in 2014-2016. Unfortunate developments in 2017 substantially damaged this image, including mass protests over the “anti-parasite decree”, the suppression of those protests, and multiple detainments of independent and opposition activists, politicians and journalists.
The actual campaign scenario upset those expectations. The authorities undertook a major effort to safeguard an unrealistically high level of declared turnout. They claimed that some 77% of eligible voters showed up at the polling stations. This clearly contradicted numerous independent reports of low public interest in the elections.
Independent and opposition observers and candidates claimed numerous discrepancies between the turnout they observed and the one reported by the electoral commissions. The latter often failed to explain those discrepancies or even did not make any effort to do so.
The authorities claimed a massive (over 34%) turnout during early voting. Besides, the observers reported an unusually high level of postal voting. Both are a handy tool for manipulation. The ballots cast early or away from the station cannot be monitored by observers. Accordingly, there are hardly any opportunities to check the authenticity of reported turnout level.
For the first time in many years, the observers claimed to detect the use of the infamous technique called carousel voting (multiple voting by designated voters at different polling stations). An observer even managed to take part in it personally (voting three times at different polling stations) and now demands an investigation into this affair from the Ministry of the Interior and the Investigative Committee.
The vote count was also kept expectedly non-transparent, according to independent observers. At one polling station, the scandal erupted and led to a recount overseen by the public that showed the opposition candidate taking the vast majority of the votes cast on the main election day. However, he eventually lost the race after the early voting ballots were taken into consideration.
The outcomes: authorities’ continued domination
Quite logically the non-transparent electoral process resulted in non-transparent outcomes. Only two opposition candidates, both at the lowest village level, were elected alongside over 18,000 new deputies allegedly authorized by the powers that be. Of those elected almost 56% were incumbent deputies and only 2.5% represented political parties (all of them pro-government).
One of the two successful independent candidates was Roza Strelchanka, elected in a major village in the Kalinkavičy district of the Homiel region. Soon after her victory, unidentified persons called her using the phone number of the regional administration and threatened to put her into a mental health facility. The other successful candidate re-elected in 2018, Valery Bilibukha from the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democrats, also has a long record of dealing with pressure from the authorities.
Alongside the reported poor performance of the opposition, other outcomes merit comment.
The Communist Party’s showing proved quite remarkable. The pro-government Communists managed to bring 309 of their rank to the councils at various levels (including taking 10% of seats on the Minsk City council).
The advance of Russia-advocates represented another interesting feature. Among those elected, 21 were the citizens of the Russian Federation who have the right to run for the local elections because they have permanent residence in Belarus. 127 of the successful candidates were the members of the Republican Party of Labour and Justice that positions itself as an openly pro-Russian actor (its leader Vasily Zadnepryany recently claimed that his party recognizes Crimea as a legitimate part of Russia).
Getting ready for the tough times?
The picture outlined poses a question: why was the Belarusian Government willing to go to such lengths for the delivery of such questionable outcomes?
One thing can be said confidently: the authorities have dropped the idea of restructuring the country’s political system (even if they ever planned to). This contradicts rumours and debates in 2017 regarding the possible transformation of the constitution and electoral law that would favour the development of political parties. The Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus (LDP) even formally came up with some suggestions, such as the introduction of party list voting. But the outcomes of the local elections clearly show that those suggestions are off the table. Quite illustratively, despite running a rather vigorous campaign, LDP ended up with only five delegates elected.
The other thing one can say with confidence is that the authorities made certain decisions on further political developments. Alexander Lukashenka, it seems, will rerun for the presidency when his current term ends and will do so it in the “old school” manner; with heavy reliance on economic incentives, “administrative resources” and similar notorious features.
This roll-back to more manipulative and less democratic policies has everything to do with how the authorities assess the existing strategic situation. The forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections (due to take place no later than in August-September 2020) will most probably run amid persisting economic turmoil, popular unrest, unfriendly Russian media and indifference from the EU and USA. With that in mind, the authorities are preparing to hold those elections the way they perceive as safe. It is therefore quite natural that they reported an unrealistically high level of turnout. Their real potential for mobilizing the constituency and the real level of their electoral support thus remain unclear for the wider public.
The problem, however, is that such way of running elections implies excessive reliance on the security services. As the loyalty of those is not warranted, especially in critical situations, their non-transparency is inevitably ambivalent and might affect not only the public but also the authorities themselves. It is interesting to know in this context whether it was the real intention of Lukashenka to let so many Russian and pro-Russian politicians into the local and regional councils; or whether this result actually reflects the “independent” influence of unidentified actors within the establishment.
Head of Russian studies at Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies (Belarus), Chevening Scholar 2017/2018 at UCL SSEES