What is going on in Belarus? Key questions answered
The presidential election campaign in Belarus has caught many in the country and outside by surprise. The authorities, the opposition and policy-makers in other countries are now considering possible strategies, but often without objective information from Belarus that is not driven by a particular political agenda.
This brief post attempts to respond to some common, complex questions, which many observers of Belarus have.
What makes the situation now different compared to the 2010 protests?
Belarus has not seen this scale and reach of protests since the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The large numbers of people protesting in all parts of the capital Minsk, and in all major and even smaller cities of Belarus, make the protests completely different from the protests that followed the 2010 presidential election. Moreover, this time former regime (Valery Tsepkala) and business heavyweights (Viktar Babaryka) ran for the presidency. The poor state of the economy and the authorities’ mishandling of the coronavirus cases also contributed to the current crisis.
Can these protests lead to change?
These protests will certainly lead to change. It is, however, unclear whether Belarus will become even more repressive and tied to Russia or whether the political regime will become more liberal. The protests involve groups far wider than the traditional opposition-minded intellectuals. Initially, the protests were dominated by younger people, many of whom do not remember Belarus being a democracy or led by someone other than President Alexander Lukashenka. Moreover, the recent strikes of workers with political demands at large enterprises is something Belarusians have not seen since the 1990s.
Do these protests look like those which happened in Ukraine in 2013-14?
Yes and no. They certainly resemble the Ukrainian protests, when people rose against falsification of elections by the incumbent pro-Russian president. However, the 2020 Belarusian protests also have unique characteristics. This time, the main opponents of Lukashenka come from outside the traditional opposition and benefited from the support of powerful groups in Russia (logistical and financial).
The main opponent of Lukashenka, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, is a woman completely unknown a few months ago and without any managerial experience. However, many see her as a symbol and voted for her to move beyond Lukashenka. The protesters make no clear anti-Russian or pro-EU declarations and during the most crucial initial period, the protests did not have any leaders. People were united by the urge to get rid of Lukashenka.
From the very beginning, the level of police brutality has been far greater than in Ukraine, and the violence spiralled much more quickly. Two protesters are now confirmed to be dead. Police detained many thousands of protesters in all parts of the country, overcrowding the prisons. Indiscriminate violence against peaceful protesters, torture in prisons, and severe limitations on the internet contributed to people switching to a few channels on the messaging application Telegram (mostly run from abroad) which effectively became the main tool of coordination, exchange of information and in some cases radicalisation. However, the violence has not reached the stage of intentionally killing people with live ammunition, as happened in Ukraine, nor what followed in Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Putin seems to have taken a wait and see attitude. Why is it so?
This is not exactly the case. Putin congratulated Lukashenka on victory even before the announcement of the results, perhaps because of the growing protests. This is a powerful statement of support. Moreover, at the moment of writing this text, Lukashenka is in control of the security apparatus and the government. So there seems to be no plausible reason to intervene. In Ukraine, Russia intervened only when President Viktor Yanukovych lost de facto control over the country and fled. So the critical junction to test Russia’s reaction is what happens if Lukashenka loses de facto control over the situation in Belarus.
If Lukashenka remains in power, will it lead to greater integration with Russia?
If following the brutal crackdown against the protesters the European Union introduces serious sanctions, the Belarusian regime will have no choice but to cooperate more closely with Russia. This is why, many say, Russia would benefit from at least weakening Lukashenka.
The most troubling scenario will be if power does not transition in an orderly way from Lukashenka to someone else. The Belarusian army, law enforcement agencies and security services may be tempted by promises of better social status and greater financial benefits, which they could have as part of Russia. Therefore, their loyalty to the Belarusian state should not be taken for granted. If Ukraine teaches us anything, it is that in the worst-case scenario for the Belarusian regime, facilitating an orderly transition rather than forcing Lukashenka to flee the country should be a priority. However, we are far from this situation at the moment.
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