THE WARSAW INSTITUTE REVIEW
Date: 29 October 2020
Belarusian protests in the context of transformations in the post-Soviet area
In recent years, Belarus has remained the only country in the region that maintained its stability within the authoritarian political system of Alexander Lukashenko. The leader of Belarus retained power by building a narrative in which the fear of the oligarchization of political life, war, and destabilization in neighboring Ukraine overshadowed the need to build a democratic state. This agreement between the authorities and society came to an end with the rigged presidential election in August this year whilst the protests of the Belarusian society against the regime are a clear sign of a change.
Author: Jakub Lachert
The current events in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the winner in the fight for the office of President after 26 years of authoritarian rule, after the fraudulent presidential election, lead to the analysis of the so-called “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet area. It seems difficult to compare the democratic changes in this area with their sustainability because of the political and economic diversity in the countries that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, there are some common points in the struggle against the existing political regimes.
The first two decades of the 21st century saw multiple changes in the states that had emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Specific apathy of the 1990s, which helped to create more or less authoritarian systems of governance, ended with the “Revolution of Roses” in Georgia in 2003. This social unrest brought to power the pro-Western leader Mikheil Saakashvili, who effectively used certain slogans in his political campaign. They were related to the democratization of the political system, the fight against corruption and rapprochement with the West. Similar slogans were used during the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, which broke out after the second round of the presidential election was rigged. The next stage of transformation in the post-Soviet area was the “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova, which began with speeches against the falsified parliamentary election results in April 2009 and the announcement of the victory of the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova, which has ruled the country continuously since 2001.
What these successful „revolutions” had in common were slogans calling for rapprochement with the European Union (EU), demonstrations with fluttering EU flags, and politicians who declared an intensification of dialogue with Brussels at the expense of relations with the Russian Federation.
Since the “revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, the events in Armenia proceeded differently, leading to the overthrow of President Serzh Sargsyan in 2018. However, this time pro-European and anti-Russian slogans were absent during opposition’s protests. Due to its economic dependence and in particular because of Russian military aid, Armenia cannot free itself from Moscow’s influence as did neighboring Georgia. The Russian troops stationed in Armenia ensure military balance in the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Russian factor, which is a significant element conditioning the course of political transformation, is identical for both Armenia and Belarus, but it is also worth emphasizing the fact that the degree of Belarus’ political dependence on Moscow is much greater than that of Armenia. From the beginning, Belarus has been building the structures of the Eurasian Economic Union (the Russian alternative to the European Union) with Russia, while Armenia joined this organization conditionally, after declining to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. Yerevan, still under Sargsyan’s rule, signed a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with the EU, which, although not as ambitious as the Association Agreement, regulates economic cooperation with the community and enables EU support for some projects, such as the decommissioning of the obsolete Metsamor nuclear power plant. It can be assumed, however, that a new agreement with the EU is only a gesture towards the pro-European part of the Armenian society, and not an attempt to modify the main assumptions in Armenia’s foreign policy, aimed at close cooperation with Moscow.
Azerbaijan is the only country, apart from Belarus, where new political elites did not emerge. Russia would like to include Azerbaijan in its geopolitical projects. Likewise, the EU is trying to influence the democratization of the political system in this country through the Eastern Partnership. However, the authoritarian regime of President Aliyev is independent of financial pressure from both Russia and the EU. This is due to the wealth acquired from oil extraction. In terms of the political system, Azerbaijan and Belarus were similar to each other.
Specific conditions of Belarus
Each of the above-mentioned countries has some characteristics which can be shared with the ones of Belarus. It is a result of common heritage in the USSR and obtaining independence under similar conditions. What seems the core element that shaped these countries was the formation of new political elites with the fall of the Soviet Union. Countries such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine still had active political circles in the 1980s, which, along with the political changes under Gorbachev, began to build their national structures, serving to shape new independent states based on the national language and common identity. Due to the multi-ethnic character of the republics in the Soviet Union, the creation of new national identities was a difficult process that required a great deal of determination from the political elites and societies of these countries.
The issues of national identity and language were a particularly important element in the creation of a new political system. After gaining independence in 1991, Belarus symbolically referred to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, using Pahonia as its national emblem and a white-red-white flag. The Belarusian language, although it had the status of the state language, was not widely used by the political and cultural elites of the country. Alexander Lukashenko’s victory in 1994 halted the process of rebirth of the Belarusian national identity and marked the return to Soviet symbolism. This development also meant that a centrally planned economy and security forces originating from the USSR, such as the KGB as the basic institution of the security apparatus, will remain.
In other states of the former Soviet Union, there were also attempts to rebuild the foundations of the former Soviet system, but such centralization of power as observed in Belarus did not happen there. In Moldova, the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova ruled for almost a decade (2001-2009), but there was strong parliamentary opposition in the country, which enjoyed the strong support of a part of the society. In Ukraine (when Kuchma and Yanukovych were in power) or Russia, the authoritarian system was based on an oligarchic system, while Lukashenko’s 26-year rule in Belarus was a period of full economic and political control over the country. No interest groups that were not controlled by the state came to existence in Belarus. This was due to the frequent change of people who held top positions in state administration and enterprises.
Those against Lukashenko’s regime could not count on business support, as was the case in Ukraine, where, for example, Yulia Tymoshenko – the leader of the events of the “Orange Revolution” in 2004 – represented Ukrainian entrepreneurs demanding changes in the country’s ossified economic system. A similar situation took place in Moldova, where the post-revolutionary European coalition was formed by two leading oligarchs of the country: Vladimir Plahotniuc and Vlad Filat. Although the revolution in Ukraine and Moldova had a grassroots character as well as involved various social groups, the power passed into the hands of the former economic or political elites in these countries.
In the case of Belarus, both the protests and the leading oppositionists in the country come from outside the establishment, with only a few exceptions, including the would-be presidential candidate of Belarus – Viktar Babaryka, originating from the banking system (he managed Belgazprombank, among others) and Pavel Latushko – a former Belarusian diplomat. The main actors on the political scene on the side of the opposition in Belarus are people who have not been involved in the political life of the country so far – both Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (Lukashenko’s opponent in the presidential election) and Maria Kalesnikava – a member of the presidium of the Coordination Council, formed after the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus in August 2020. It can be stated that the leadership of the opposition in Belarus is dispersed, which distinguishes this situation from the ones that took place in other post-Soviet states. The success of the political changes in the post-Soviet states was to connect them with political leaders: Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia, Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine, and the strong support of the opposition parties in Moldova were the successes of the “color revolutions.” Belarus seems to be following a different path, building strong grassroots structures to have an impact on Lukashenko. These actions are supposed to lead to a re-run of the election, but they are deprived of political slogans. The protesters in Minsk, Grodno, and Brest do not demand rapprochement with the EU or leaving the geopolitical sphere of Russian influence. This is due to two reasons. First, some politicians, even the opposition, insist on maintaining the alliance with Russia, e.g. Viktar Babaryka, who claims that economic organisms of Belarus and Russia should not be separated. Secondly, the Belarusian opposition wants to maintain its unity to remove Lukashenko from power. Building a pro-Russian or pro-European narrative in the current political situation would lead to strong divisions within the opposition. Additionally, the pro-European slogans of the opposition could lead to the intervention of Russia, which is afraid that the scenario from Georgia, Ukraine, or Moldova may also occur in Belarus.
Russia’s stance on the Belarus events
Current events in Belarus are a geopolitical challenge for Moscow. From Russia’s perspective, the loss of influence in Belarus would be connected with the disintegration of the geopolitical project, the Eurasian Economic Union, created as an alternative to the European Union. The buffer zone between the European Union and Russia, Belarus may, in case of political destabilization, constitute a zone of conflict between the two parties.
The fall of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime may also affect the internal political scene in Russia. The actions of the democratic opposition in Belarus may serve as a model for the opponents of Putin’s regime in Russia, for whom the collapse of Lukashenko’s regime could inspire an attempt to overthrow the authoritarian rule in their country. Consequently, further intensification of actions by the Russian forces against the Russian opposition can be expected. The events in Belarus coincided with an attempt to poison the Russian oppositionist Alexey Navalny, a move that can be interpreted as a kind of warning against opposition movements in Russia. The Kremlin, similarly to Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova, wants to prevent a repeat of these scenarios in Russia. In the case of Belarus, which has a similar model of power to that of Russia as well as given the cultural ties between the Belarusian and Russian nations, it can be assumed that the changes that will take place in one of these countries will have an impact on the system of another one.
“The competences and powers of the Russian and Belarusian presidents are broad and there are more political similarities than differences. When Alexander Lukashenko took office, he stated that the constitution grants him ‘tsarist rights’ and in the following years he significantly expanded the scope of presidential power.”
Twenty-six years of Lukashenko’s rule was a period of numerous crises between Minsk and Moscow. While maintaining his alliance with Russia, the Belarusian president tried to declare a revival of contacts with the West, especially at the time of a crisis with Russia. Furthermore, Alexander Lukashenko never took his rapprochement with the West seriously and his participation in various EU initiatives, such as the Eastern Partnership, was merely a façade. From this perspective, should Lukashenko continue to be the president, Belarus will remain in the Russian sphere of influence.
Given the fact that the opposition leaders mostly come from outside the establishment, the possibility for Russia to exert direct influence on them seems limited. However, maintaining political support for Lukashenko may also change moods within Belarusian society, whose members will directly associate the maintenance of the regime with Russian support. The backing for the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych during the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 led to a change of direction in Kyiv’s foreign policy to a pro-Western course.
The scenario of events in Belarus seems difficult to predict both in the short- and the long-term. It seems that there is no room for dialogue between Alexander Lukashenko’s regime and the opposition. Consequently, continuing suppression would be necessary. This will result in considerable expenses on the apparatus of repression. Simultaneously, the opposition’s persistence in its peaceful way of manifesting the opposition to Lukashenko’s regime may lead to some erosion of the apparatus of repression, although, so far, the cases of desertion from the army or dismissal in the militia and security forces are sporadic. The main issue will be the attitude of Russia whose officials are now waiting how the events unfold. From Moscow’s perspective, suppression of the protests by Lukashenko seems to be the most optimal solution – in such case he would be completely dependent on Russia as he would lose credibility in the West and could not blackmail Russia with any “pivots to the West.”
However, if the more pro-European circles in the Belarusian opposition were to be heard, or if the pro-democratic opposition threatened to take full power, a strong Russian reaction can be expected, starting with the hybrid war and ending with a regular conflict, as is the case of eastern Ukraine.
The conflict has escalated significantly and it would be difficult to image a scenario in which Lukashenko and the opposition would come to an agreement. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities believe that the opposition is externally controlled. Such conditions of dispute make it problematic to present any credible negotiation scenario.
The establishment of the “Euromaidan” in Belarus can be ruled out given all these variables Both geopolitical and internal conditions in Belarus eliminate the possibility of a violent political pivot towards rapprochement with the West.
 The territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is an Armenian enclave on the territory of Azerbaijan, is a bone of contention between the two countries for the last three decades.
 E. Kużelewska, Porównanie pozycji ustrojowej prezydenta Federacji Rosyjskiej i Republiki Białoruś, Studia Politologiczne, 2014
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