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.
Hans-Georg Wieck: ‘The country has to get prepared for the days after Lukashenko’
Dr. Hans-Georg Wieck agreed to give an interview to Belarus Digest on July 10, 2011. Wieck is a German diplomat with nearly fifty years of experience. In 1997-2001, Wieck headed the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk, and was denied entry visa upon completion of his term.
Since 2004 Wieck chairs Human Rights in Belarus ("Menschenrechte in Weißrussland e.V."), an NGO involved in the investigation of the "disappearances" of oppositional figures in Belarus in 1999 and 2000. Its aim is "to support people and initiatives who get involved with the implementation of human rights, rule of law and democracy in Belarus". Wieck served as Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Soviet Union in 1977-1980.
BD: How do you evaluate the democratic potential of the recent protests triggered by the economic crisis in Belarus?
WIECK: The country is in deep crisis: The country‘s strong man promised and delivered gradually improving living conditions. Now, he can no longer deliver. Protest erupted already after the massive and brutal repression on Election Day December 19, 2010 and thereafter. Now economically motivated protest is suppressed in equally harsh manners. Living conditions are deteriorating. The “contract social” between Lukashenko and the population has been broken – by Lukashenko. The winds of change have reached Belarus. The country has to get prepared for the days after Lukashenko.
BD: What differences can you see in the approaches to Belarus by different Western states and what explains these differences?
WIECK: There is no difference in attitude between individual members of the EU so far as the preoccupation about the violation of European human rights standards of the Council of Europe and the OSCE is concerned. Neighboring countries to Belarus are more directly involved with their support for genuine democratic transformation in Belarus than countries that live in other neighborhoods. […] During the decade long freedom struggle of the Baltic republics and of central European Soviet “satellite countries” such as Poland against Soviet domination, the USA played a pivotal role. Such memories are kept alive for good reasons. […]
BD: Is Germany’s impact on democratization any different from that of other EU states because the country frequently acts through political foundations?
WIECK: I think the tools available to civil society in Germany for the support of the transformation process in all post-Soviet countries as well as in all new member states of the European Union render valuable service. I speak notably of the Political Foundations such as the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the Hanns Seidel-Stiftung and the Heinrich Boell-Stiftung. These foundations do work in almost all countries of the world, also in the USA, China and Russia. By the way, they play a very important role in Germany in their supporting role for civil engagement of citizens, notably of the upcoming next generation. Their funds are authorized by Parliament. There is no secrecy about their funds and their activities.
The German engagement for transformation in East Europe is a long term commitment. That is important for the civil societies in countries that were dominated by an authoritarian regime for so long and need time to develop strong civil societies, socially rooted market economies and courts that are really independent from state government.
BD: How do the needs of EU relationship with Russia affect its Belarus politics?
WIECK: The EU and Russia maintain manifold relations, however, it has not been possible to reach agreement on a new “Partnership and Cooperation Agreement”, to follow the one that was concluded in 1998. The economic and international outlook of the two sides differs a great deal, although (EU) constitutes the most important trading partner for Russia. Russia’s perception for its relations with former member states of the Soviet Union differ considerably from the perceptions of the European Union with regard to the post-Soviet successor states, notably in Eastern Europe (“Eastern Partnership”).
Belarus has been and will be on the agenda of EU-Russia consultations and on the agenda of bilateral consultations of EU member states and Russia. These contacts have – until now – not yet been very successful. Russia’s democratic transformation has come to a standstill – to say the least. Russia tried – and continues to do so – to reduce the role of the OSCE in the field of democratic transformation, including the dispatch of international election monitors.
BD: To what extent does the lack of prospects for joining the EU hamper progress in Belarus?
WIECK: The European Union is not an “imperial power” that seeks to enlarge its zone of influence and is ready to invest a lot of energy into the accomplishment of its aspirations. The European Union is a voluntary union of states in Europe. Aspirants for membership have to adjust their political, economic and social structure accordingly and have to demonstrate time and again their determination to achieve this goal. At this juncture advice and financial support of the process by European institutions and on a bilateral basis are feasible. This European political culture is openly discarded by the Lukashenko regime and cannot be discussed openly in Belarus because of the authoritarian, if not totalitarian regime Lukashenko.
It can mature only under the conditions if free and fair elections and parliamentary control of the elected government. In order to open the possibility of such development the European Union adopted the principles of “Eastern Partnership” outlining the goal of political approximation of the countries in question to the European Union and their economic integration. The initial and continued impulse has to come from within each of the six countries. This dimension of the European political culture that has to seek democratic legitimation every four to five years constitutes a new experience for the political structures in East Europe. At present the European Union is deeply involved in the political and economic integration of the successor states of former Yugoslavia, including Serbia. It would be worth the while for the political “elites” in East Europe to study these processes on the Balkan. Who would have expected – ten years ago – the approximation of Serbia and Kosovo towards the European Union?
BD: What effects does the policy of isolation and difficult visa procedures have on the situation in Belarus?
WIECK: Border crossing interaction on the governmental and the societal levels is of the essence. Governments find it difficult to commit funds for societal activities in support of self-government, independent election monitoring, independent courts and independent media. Democracy grows, however, from the base line, from the grass roots. If ordered from the top, it will fail!
Free countries have good reasons to keep a distance from authoritarian non democratic governments. Isolation is the product of the undemocratic practices of countries like Belarus under Lukashenko. Isolation is not the product of Western policies. Belarus is part of “Eastern Partnership”, promulgated in May 2009; however Lukashenko decided for himself, not to enter the road towards the European Union. The decline of the financial and economic development of Belarus is not the product of Western sanctions but the result of the unproductive doctrines that govern the economy and the finances of the country.
BD: It seems that the EU has tried many different strategies toward the country. Is there anything that hasn’t been tried yet? Why have the previous approaches failed?
WIECK: We are of the opinion that democratic transformation of Belarus was brought to a standstill in 1996 by way of brutal use of force. Freedom of expression and of assembly has been suspended and suppressed, but the desire for the values of open society is deeply rooted also in the mindset of citizens in Belarus, as I experienced during my four year long stay in the country. It is a question of time that this search and desire for freedom and democracy will prevail in Belarus. The day will come.