Protests in Belarus: A Second Ukraine?

by Viktor Seliukov

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska. Photo credit: Daniel Kraft

Since its presidential elections on 9 August 2020, Belarus has entered a period which could be described in future history books as “a period of change.” After Aleksandr Lukashenko—the country’s president for 26 years—“won” the elections with over 80% of votes, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against possible electoral fraud and the authoritarian character of Lukashenko’s regime. Lukashenko, in turn, has reacted ruthlessly so far, suppressing the protests with brutal force and showing the world that he will not back down quietly—all while pretending to behave like Rambo, depicted by Sylvester Stallone in the 1982 movie “Last Blood” (he even brought his automatic rifle with him while chairing one of the government meetings in August 2020).

International organisations have been comparing the ongoing protests with the events in Ukraine in 2013-2014, when the “Revolution of Dignity” took place, followed by the Russian occupation of Crimea and the war between Ukraine and Russia in the Eastern Ukraine. However, these two cases, albeit sharing some common features, cannot be perceived as similar due to the different historical and present-day narratives that distinguish them. Any generalist comparisons between the Belarusian and Ukrainian events, caused by a failure to understand those peculiarities, as well as by a lack of regional knowledge and study, can present multiple dangers for Western policymakers in dealing with the situation in Belarus. So, are any comparisons between Belarus and Ukraine actually viable? 

A historical Belarusian flag, now a popular symbol of the ongoing Belarus protests, that reads “Long Live Belarus” in Kyiv, Ukraine during the events of February 22, 2014. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov

Historically different political systems 

Since gaining independence in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, both Ukraine and Belarus have been undergoing a process of substantial political, economic, and social change inherent to transitional democracies. Though present in both cases, the desire for democratic governance in Ukraine and Belarus has historically been divergent. In Ukraine, massive “selective” privatisation of former Soviet property was looming large in the 1990s, either legally or illegally. The so-called “red directors” (heads of big factories or industrial complexes, the basis of Soviet economic growth) were coming to power in large cities, resulting in the presidency of Leonid Kuchma, himself a “red director.” Crime on the streets, banditry, and the rise of oligarchs—still in power in Ukraine—became the consequences of red directors’ bad management and defective transition towards a new free market society.

However, the Ukrainian historical trait of protesting has been deeply enshrined in the people’s way of living, enabling a divergence of opinions and the existence of at least some sort of freedom of speech and parliamentarianism. Two massive revolutions in Ukraine, which took place in 2004-2005 (“the Orange revolution”) and in 2013-2014 (“the Revolution of Dignity”), became bright examples of the country’s transition towards democratisation and liberalisation. Ukraine is still experiencing significant issues with corruption, but the above instances of democratic discontent exhibited by the Ukrainian population has always played a vital role for the country’s political development.

Protesters covered with improvised shields in Kyiv, Ukraine, January 22, 2014. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov

In contrast, when looking at Belarus’s political system, one can see 26 years of a single semi-authoritarian ruler, as well as the absence of protests en masse, due to the fear of backlash. After a short “parliamentarian” period of uncertainty (1991-1994) following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus elected its first president. Having come to power in 1994 with the slogan of “taking people away from the abyss,” Aleksandr Lukashenko subsequently declared himself a winner in five other presidential elections, including those in 2020. The system took on an even more authoritarian nature after Lukashenko’s victory over the remnants of parliamentary potency in 1996-1997, followed by the Russia-Belarus Union Treaty in 1997 creating tighter integration between the two countries, and the October 2004 referendum, which removed all restrictions on the number of presidential terms of office. At the same time, opposition activists, only a tiny part of the population, had been brutally “dealt with,” either through imprisonment or disappearance. No real protests akin those in Ukraine had been evident on the streets of Belarus up until 2020, and a culture of mass gatherings protesting the regime had been absent in the country.

Pro-Russian Belarus

The historical attitude of the two countries towards their eastern neighbour, Russia, as well as their cultural characteristics, contributed to the fact that Belarus and Ukraine went their separate ways. Rulers of Russia, from the Russian Empire to Vladimir Putin, have always considered Ukraine their “zone of influence,” projecting their interests and values in Ukraine, especially in Crimea and the country’s eastern regions. However, the existence of the Ukrainian language—combined with a lack of a unified view on Russia in different regions of Ukraine due to differing cultural and religious characteristics—played a role in rejecting the values ​​of the “eastern neighbour” in most of the country. Thus, although the coexistence and enmity between a pro-European Western Ukraine and a pro-Russian Eastern Ukraine and Crimea did exist, such coexistence did not allow for the dominance of one particular side, created “checks and balances,” and prevented the country’s transformation into a dictatorship. 

Kyiv, Ukraine, February 18, 2014. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov

Belarus, on the other hand, wasn’t known for its established religious, cultural, or linguistic differences with Russia. The Belarusian, mostly Russian-speaking community of Russian Orthodox Church Christians did not see any sense in confronting Russia, united in their values and interests, which in turn laid the foundation for the rise of “Europe’s last dictator” (Lukashenko’s moniker in the West). Homogeneous linguistic (Russian is the de jure second state language, and the de facto first language of Belarus), religious, and cultural peculiarities of the Belarusian population gave Russia the grounded right to consider the country its own “backyard,” while the regime and ordinary Belarusians did not mind having good relations with their “senior partner.”

Economically, Belarus is less diversified in its relations with foreign policy partners than Ukraine is, too. The main foreign trade partner of the Republic of Belarus, the Russian Federation, accounts for more than 40% of Belarus’s exports and injected over $100 billion into the Belarusian economy from 2005 to 2015. At the same time, the structure of Ukraine’s economy allowed for more maneuvering in cooperation with Western countries, as well as with Russia and post-Soviet countries. Thus, in the year 2013, when the Revolution of Dignity began, the EU countries made up about 27% in the export structure of Ukraine, while the Russian Federation accounted for about 24%; in 2018, conversely, the structure of Ukraine’s exports tilted more significantly towards the EU countries, which already occupied about 43%, while the share of Russia decreased to approximately 8%, due to the sanctions regime and the war in Eastern Ukraine.

Protesters on barricades, seen through the lights of fire during the Euromaidan protests, January 21, 2014. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov

As for the foreign policy of both countries, that of Belarus has, so far, been unequivocally pro-Russian. Although the beginning of the 2010s saw a slight deviation from this rule, whereby some signs of the “multi-vector” foreign policy of Belarus became visible, this trend did not last long. Essentially, Lukashenko’s “multi-vector” foreign policy was limited to manipulating the warming relationship with Europe for the sake of striking bigger preferences from the Kremlin, particularly in the field of oil and gas. Ukraine, on the contrary, has seen fierce internal battles regarding the issues of foreign policy directions. Before the 2013-2014 revolution, each presidential candidate had been examined, in most cases, exclusively through the prism of his or her attitude towards Russia and the West. Hence, whilst in Belarus, pro-Russian foreign policy has never been questioned and manipulating the West has only strengthened Lukashenko’s position, such manipulations in Ukraine would be impossible and would only lead to growing public discontent, disappointing either the pro-European or pro-Russian circles.

The varied political and economic structures of Ukraine and Belarus as well as differences in their approaches to Russia led to contrasting perceptions of the two countries in the West. Until recently, Western countries have failed to consider Belarus and Ukraine separately from Russia when elaborating foreign policies in the region. The West has viewed Ukraine as a “key territory of Russia’s zone of influence;” transformation of Ukraine could lead to transformation of the Kremlin regime as well. However, Western politicians and prominent scholars have almost never expressed similar aspirations regarding Belarus. The republic has not been questioned as a reliable “backyard” of Russia, where Western interference has been unwelcome and ​​would bring nothing more than greater Russian anxiety. It may be for that reason that Western public figures and academics have deliberately missed the discussion about the importance of the “Belarus factor” for Russia, which could be due to a lack of serious understanding of Belarus and little study of this country in the West.

2020 protests in Minsk, Belarus. Photo by Aliaksandr Matskevich

What’s happening now

Considering all the historical reasons described above, it is not surprising that the protests in Belarus are neither anti-Russian nor pro-European, but are aimed, as some of the protesters have indicated, at establishing democratic rights and freedoms inherent to every citizen of Belarus—the right to choose freely and the right to a peaceful protest. The demonstrations in Belarus, unlike the events of the two revolutions in Ukraine, are not directed at breaking existing relations with Russia, but at changing the political system and assuring transition towards democratic rule and free elections, which would begin with a transition period, should Lukashenko step down. However, such a situation suits neither Lukashenko, nor President Putin. For the Kremlin, the very fact of democratic changes in neighbouring and historically close countries is akin to political death, because it may create precedent of democratic and peaceful protests in Russia itself.

Protest rally against Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus, October 18, 2020. Wikimedia Commons

In addition, unlike in the case of Ukraine, Belarusian protests are the ones with no clear leaders on the street, where the leaders of the main opposition forces either vocalise their slogans from abroad or serve as moral inspiration for the protesters, being imprisoned in the regime’s jails. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has been the main opposition candidate in the 2020 presidential elections because of her husband and prominent opposition leader’s incarceration, was forced to flee to Lithuania on 11 August 2020, where she has since been recording video messages and interviews calling on Belarusians not to give up. Viktor Babariko and Maria Kolesnikova, who are also prominent leaders of the opposition movement and opponents of Lukashenko, have also been arrested and are serving politically motivated sentences. On the streets, meanwhile, there are no real charismatic leaders, unlike in the events that unfolded in Ukraine during both its revolutions.

Another interesting fact is that interaction with the Lukashenko regime and Russia binds most opposition leaders in Belarus, if one is to look at their biographies. Viktor Babariko, for example, used to manage Belgazprombank, almost 100% of which belongs to Gazprom and affiliated structures, before his arrest in the summer of 2020, after the registration authorities had refused to register him as a presidential candidate. Moreover, Maria Kolesnikova—first detained one day before the elections on 8 August, then released under the ridiculous pretext that she was “confused” with another person, and later eventually arrested and kidnapped by the authorities in early September—is a professional musician, as well as the head of Babariko’s campaign. As for the rest of the opposition, they had devoted most of their lives to working and making benefits in Lukashenko’s Belarus, by engaging in either the entertainment business (like the Tikhanovsky couple) or the IT sphere. Valery Tsepkalo, one of the opposition leaders and presidential candidates, used to assist the then-young presidential candidate Aleksandr Lukashenko during his 1994 campaign. Valery also held the positions of Lukashenko’s advisor on science and technology and Belarus’s ambassador to the United States and Mexico in the early 2000s.

What lies ahead

The historical peculiarities of Belarus and the current features of its protests are both serious factors that could facilitate the return of Belarus to the Kremlin’s zone of influence after the establishment of peace in the country. After the victory of the pro-European Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine in 2014, and the escape of President Yanukovych to Russia, it became obvious that Russia would not be able to control Ukraine in a peaceful way, so it occupied Crimea and supported the separatists in Eastern Ukraine both materially and morally. In Belarus, however, the Kremlin will benefit from whatever the outcome of the political situation might be—either a gradual departure of Lukashenko, or “Europe’s last dictator” remaining in power. Both situations would make a full-scale or partial intrusion of the Russian army into Belarus unnecessary. In fact, it would be in the best interests of Vladimir Putin if Aleksandr Lukashenko gradually transferred power either to someone from his inner circle, or to the representatives of the opposition, which would lead to less tension in Belarusian society and prevent the radicalisation of its population. Such radicalisation may flip the so far pro-Russian sentiments of the population into entrenched pro-Western ones, which already happened in Ukraine and which will inevitably break all the historical features of Belarus. That is why a full-scale invasion by Russia—requested by President Lukashenko with the pretext of “security guarantees” as a result of multiple bilateral and multilateral treaties between the countries—is unlikely in the current circumstances.

Protest rally against Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus, August 30, 2020. Wikimedia Commons

At this stage, Western countries should be careful with their open support of protesters in Belarus. It is undoubtedly clear that the EU and the United States cannot and should not stand aside when fundamental human rights and freedoms are so coarsely violated in a 21st century European country, but it is important to note that a policy of decisive action on the part of the West is unlikely to help the cause of the protesters in Belarus. Moreover, some Western policymakers overtly consider the case of Ukraine a failure, because Western aid has only led to the absence of significant reforms against corruption, failed to resolve the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia, and did not foresee a worsened economic situation.

It would be better for Western countries to look for other mechanisms to support Eastern European countries striving to free themselves from the chains of authoritarianism. Given the likelihood of a pro-Russian orientation of a new Belarus, an unostentatious approach of gradual steps could lead to tangible results in the near future, enabling piecemeal transformation of Belarus into a truly democratic country. On the other hand, an “ardent support approach,” caused by rash comparisons with Ukraine, would not end with rapprochement, but rather with even greater alienation and enmity in Belarus’s relations with Europe and the United States, as well as to a greater closeness between Belarus and Russia.

Viktor Seliukov is an international affairs, corporate intelligence, compliance, and political risk analysis specialist. He graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science with an MSc in Theory and History of International Relations.

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