When thousands of Belarusians took to the streets on August 9, 2020, they had one simple demand for President Alexander Lukashenko: “Leave.” Lukashenko, entering his 26th year in power, had just been reelected to his sixth consecutive term as president in an election widely considered fraudulent by both ordinary citizens and international observers.[i] Now, more than three months later, protests continue to rage across Belarus, and Lukashenko continues to cling to power.
Since the August 9 election, tens of thousands of people have joined weekly marches in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Workers in several state-run factories, once a bastion of support for Lukashenko, have gone on strike to protest the election results. On city streets and in village squares, all across the country, Belarusians have held rallies, formed human chains of solidarity, and draped buildings in the banned white-red-white protest flag. The protestors include students and retirees, doctors and programmers, lifelong activists and ordinary citizens. For a country long devoid of popular interest and participation in politics, these protests mark a profound shift.
But the protests have not gone unanswered. In the days following the election, Lukashenko moved quickly — and brutally — to crush the first demonstrations that sprung up. Since August, an estimated 25,000 Belarusians have been arrested, and many detainees have been brutally beaten.[ii] At least four people have been killed by government forces.[iii] The protesters continue to demand Lukashenko’s resignation, but now they also want justice for the violence inflicted upon them and their loved ones. Though no physical barricades have gone up, clear battle lines have been drawn between the government and its citizens.
Election fraud is nothing new in Belarus. And while there have been opposition protests before, none have been as widespread or long-lasting as these demonstrations. However, the current protests come at a time of global uncertainty, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic decline. In Belarus, years of persistent authoritarianism have left people hungry for new leadership. Due to a confluence of unexpected circumstances and long-simmering grievances, the political and social climate of Belarus swung toward revolution this summer.
The COVID-19 pandemic played a key role in undermining Lukashenko’s regime. Lukashenko notoriously underplayed the pandemic, refusing to institute a quarantine and declaring that COVID-19 could be cured by drinking vodka and visiting the sauna.[iv] But the virus still spread in Belarus, and people watched friends and family fall sick and die. In the absence of government intervention, citizens took it upon themselves to wear masks, switch to remote work, and coordinate financial support for doctors and patients. Lukashenko’s flippant handling of the pandemic that has killed at least 1,000 Belarusians and infected another 115,000 citizens seriously compromised public trust in his government. People stopped listening to state-run media and instead turned to independent news outlets and social media for information on the virus and to contribute to relief efforts.[v] This remarkable growth in Belarusian civil society helped create the organizational basis for the current protests, which have similarly been coordinated via social media on a local level. After successfully crowdfunding PPE for health care workers, it was no great leap to crowdfund financial relief for striking workers. The foundational institutions of the current protests, in terms of both independent information networks and support for collective action, were laid last spring during Belarus’ COVID-19 outbreak.
Alongside the public health crisis, Belarus has been affected by the global economic decline caused by the pandemic. The Belarusian economy, already in a period of stagnant growth, was seriously impacted by the crash in oil prices over the summer, as it is largely reliant on subsidized oil imports from Russia that are resold in Europe.[vi] Belarusians have long tacitly accepted a repressive political climate in the expectation that Lukashenko would maintain the country’s economic stability — Belarus has a relatively high standard of living compared to other post-Soviet nations. But when the economy started to waver over the summer, political change became more desirable.
Across the country, a political movement was brewing. For years, Lukashenko had faced no serious opposition candidates, but this summer two popular candidates emerged from within the establishment, running on platforms of economic liberalization and modernization. They garnered huge support in the capital, but their campaigns were quickly shut down, with one candidate arrested and the other forced to flee the country. Outside of Minsk, anti-Lukashenko blogger and YouTuber Sergei Tikhanovsky began drawing high levels of support from rural and regional populations, traditionally a demographic loyal to Lukashenko. Tikhanovsky’s passionate videos — in which he famously nicknamed Lukashenko “the cockroach” — brought him national recognition, until he was imprisoned in May. But the movement the blogger had started would not end with his arrest.
Soon after Tikhanovsky was detained, his wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, registered to run for president in his place. A stay-at-home mom and former schoolteacher, Tikhanovskaya was a complete political newcomer, and she was allowed to run in the expectation that her candidacy would fail to muster any real support. That proved to be a gross miscalculation on Lukashenko’s part. The burgeoning opposition movement united around Tikhanovskaya, and two women representing the other prominent opposition campaigns joined her campaign staff. This trio appeared together at rallies that drew massive crowds, spreading a message of hope, unity, and change. Her story — that of an ordinary citizen who had grown frustrated by the current regime and had finally decided to take action — resonated with people across the country in a way that no traditional politician’s story could.
On the night of the election, however, the official results said that Tikhanovskaya had received only 10% of the vote. No Belarusian election since 1995 has been deemed free and fair by international observers, but in the past, Lukashenko had always had the support of a significant portion of the population. This election was much more transparently illegitimate. The combination of frustration stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, anger at the arrest of popular opposition candidates, and Tikhanovskaya’s honest, hopeful campaign had managed to turn many once-apolitical Belarusians political. The election results made a mockery of Tikhanovskaya’s popular movement, and they mobilized people across Belarus to unite in anti-Lukashenko protests.
The protests have an unprecedented level of popular support. A recent poll estimated that roughly 43% of Belarusians actively support the protests, and a further 33% sympathize with the protesters’ demands.[vii] Lukashenko’s regime has lost the legitimacy it once had, both domestically and internationally. But regardless of the spirit of defiant unity that has overtaken the country, the protestors have gained no ground — if anything, they have lost ground, with their strikes crushed and their leaders forced to flee the country. The political role of Belarus’ elites can help explain this deadlock, and it serves an exemplar of how elite power dynamics can prop up post-Soviet dictators like Lukashenko.
One of the early hints that this opposition movement would be unlike any before it came over the summer, when the two establishment candidates — banker Viktor Babariko and former diplomat Valery Tsepkalo — launched insurgent runs for the presidency. Sensing the changing currents in Belarusians’ opinions of the government, Babariko in particular capitalized on what he described as a “management crisis” in the country, using his decades of business experience and liberal economic policies to appeal to the urban middle class.[viii] These two candidates, with their financial and social resources, posed a viable electoral threat to Lukashenko for the first time in years.
Even more significantly, their candidacies provided the first example of discontent among the Belarusian elite spilling into the public sphere. Belarus’ political, economic, and military elites have long been a largely monolithic bloc supporting Lukashenko’s rule. Belarus is a highly centralized state with power concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite — Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, has in many ways preserved the Soviet model of government. Lukashenko’s severe response to Babariko’s candidacy — Babariko and his son were both arrested, and the government seized control of his bank — reveals his fear that this schism within the Belarusian elite would deepen.[ix] Instead of preserving the illusion of an independent race, Lukashenko immediately moved to shut down the opposition movement. Lukashenko sent a clear message to other members of the ruling establishment that dissent would not be tolerated, as discord within the elite could bring down his government.
This message appears to have done its job. The Belarusian military and security services have remained loyal to Lukashenko, and the few politicians and members of the media who voiced dissent early in the protests have since been arrested. Without the fracturing of Lukashenko’s hold on the security services or the political elite, the Belarusian people cannot control any of the country’s levers of power. And since Belarus lacks active opposition political parties or a strong parliament — both of which were crucial to the success of Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution — there is no way for the public to exert pressure on the elites themselves. In Belarus’ entrenched authoritarian system, popular sovereignty and peaceful revolution have little currency without the resources of the elite to back them up. Much as Vladimir Putin has chosen to ignore months of protests in the city of Khabarovsk, Lukashenko knows that peaceful marches do not pose a serious threat to him. While many among the Belarusian elite, like Babariko, are no doubt frustrated with Lukashenko’s running of the country, there has been no crisis of loyalty that could lead to a viable challenge to Lukashenko.
Songs, slogans, and social media
While high-level politics remain unwavering, the protests on the streets have evolved significantly over the past three months. After there was a violent crackdown on the earliest protests, Belarusians organized peaceful women’s marches. When the police began arresting even these women, weekly marches of students and retirees sprung up. Over the past few months, symbols of Belarusian nationality — as opposed to the Sovietized order that Lukashenko represents — have become more and more prevalent. The white-red-white protest flag dates back to Belarus’ pre-Soviet history, and protestors have gathered in public squares and shopping centers to sing Belarusian folk songs that were banned during the Soviet era. One of the most common slogans used at demonstrations is “Long live Belarus!” While seemingly counterintuitive for an anti-government protest, this phrase reflects how the Belarusian people have come to see themselves as distinct from the Belarusian state. The protests combine a newfound sense of nationalism and national unity with a desire for democracy and political freedom, revealing a hunger for self-determination on multiple fronts.
No protest movement is entirely unorganized, but the Belarusian protests notably lack any unified leadership. Tikhanovskaya, forced to flee the country after the election, is no longer organizing or driving protest action, and there are no real opposition political parties. Instead, popular channels on Telegram — a secure messaging app widely used in the post-Soviet space — have been coordinating protest actions. Some channels command massive followings; the most prominent channel, NEXTA (pronounced “nekhta,” meaning “someone” in Belarusian), currently has over 1.7 million subscribers. NEXTA provides news updates, shares videos and photos from protests, and advertises protest actions. But while NEXTA serves as a valuable aggregator of information and a platform for opposition rhetoric, its control over the currents of protest is relatively loose. Instead, most protests are arranged much more locally, via Telegram channels specific to certain neighborhoods, professions, universities, and apartment blocks.
The localization of protest in Belarus has played a key role in enabling the opposition to reach its current strength, and it is a compelling sign that opposition will not end even if the massive protests die out under pressure from the security services. As the police began cracking down on large demonstrations, the heart of the protest movement shifted to neighborhoods and apartment blocks. Since Soviet times, the dvor, or courtyard, has been an important communal gathering place for the residents of nearby apartment blocks. Now, the dvor has in many ways become the center of the Belarusian protests.
Over the summer, people put on small concerts, dances, and parties in their courtyards.[x] With fences adorned in red and white ribbons and tables piled high with cookies and fruit, these small protests had a distinctly celebratory atmosphere. Parents brought their children out to dance and play, fostering a sense of community and freedom far from the batons of the riot police. Groups draped in white-red-white flags went on marches around their neighborhoods and posed for pictures at local landmarks. The dvor protests represent an unprecedented level of communal unity and localized organizing. With their diffused locations and small size, they would be impossible for the regime to stamp out, and it is unlikely that neighbors will simply drift apart from each other even if citywide protests fizzle. These protests in particular are the successors to the communal mobilization that first emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of whether their political goals end up being achieved, the protests have brought national solidarity and localized civil society — completely independent of the government — to Belarus. These communities, friendships, and institutions will endure, and they will leave Belarusians better prepared to push for democratic reform when Lukashenko’s regime next becomes vulnerable.
Given the continued loyalty of Belarus’ elites and security services, it is unlikely that the peaceful protests will manage to force Lukashenko out of office. The protests have not lost their momentum, with a dedicated core of people still turning out for weekly marches, but they are running out of viable options to achieve their goals. Two attempts at a nationwide strike, perhaps the strongest potential weapon for the opposition, have garnered only lukewarm support and were unable to bring the Belarusian economy to a halt. Meanwhile, international support for the protests has remained scattered and indecisive, as EU infighting delayed efforts to pass a sanctions package immediately after the election.[xi]
In a further blow to the protests, Belarus’ COVID-19 case numbers have begun increasing again. Fear of the virus has yet to dissuade the protestors — even the weekly marches of retirees have continued — but more and more people may opt to avoid crowds and public gatherings if the outbreak continues to grow. It is also possible that, this time around, Lukashenko will choose to institute a lockdown, effectively terminating the protests in the name of public health. This may end up being an appropriate decision from a health care perspective, but it is worth noting that opposition activists have previously accused Lukashenko’s regime of fabricating a virus threat to keep political prisoners from being able to meet with their lawyers.[xii]
The mood of the protests has had a marked shift in recent weeks. The videos of joyful evening courtyard concerts have become fewer and fewer, replaced by nighttime photos of activists holding protest flags, their faces blurred.[xiii] The mood has changed from one of idealism, hope, and freedom to one of despair, anger, and grief. Following a massive show of force by riot police at a recent march, NEXTA posted a message detailing its “plan for victory.” But the content of this plan was the same as a “plan for victory” that the Telegram channel had sent out months ago, when the protests were first gaining momentum. These strategies have yet to prove effective, and it seems that the protest organizers are running out of ideas for peaceful resistance. It is possible that some protesters may seek to escalate to violent opposition, but this would likely alienate the majority of Belarusians and draw an overwhelming military response from Lukashenko. For the time being, the current stalemate is likely to continue, with simmering discontent and resistance met by unwavering force.
Nonetheless, the foundation for Belarus’ political future has been laid. The localized civil society institutions that first developed during the COVID-19 pandemic have since been solidified through the protests, and they will prove nearly impossible to destroy. Even if this protest movement fails, after 26 years in power, Lukashenko’s regime is in its twilight. In a message shared by NEXTA, an opposition leader described how the protests have fundamentally altered Belarusian society. He wrote, “A feeling of ‘we’ appeared. Three months ago, this feeling did not exist. And now it does.”[xiv] Belarusians have joined together for massive marches and neighborhood parties; they have helped strangers hide from riot police and stared down military vehicles together. Political change may still be a few years out. But a societal transformation is already underway.
[i] Rikard Jozwiak, “OSCE Report To Show ‘Massive’ Human Rights Violations in Belarus,” RFE/RL, Nov. 2, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/osce-report-to-show-massive-human-rights-violations-in-belarus/30925702.html.
[ii] Lisa Schlein, “UN: Widespread Human Rights Violations Continue Unchecked in Belarus,” Voice of America, Nov. 15, 2020, https://www.voanews.com/europe/un-widespread-human-rights-violations-continue-unchecked-belarus.
[iii] Vladimir Tsybulsky, “В Минске умер 31-летний сторонник оппозиции Роман Бондаренко, которого избили на «Площади перемен». На акцию его памяти пришли тысячи людей” [“In Minsk, 31-year-old opposition supporter Roman Bondarenko, who was beaten on the ‘Square of Changes,’ died. Thousands of people came to a rally in his memory.”] Meduza, Nov. 12, 2020, https://meduza.io/feature/2020/11/13/v-minske-umer-31-letniy-storonnik-oppozitsii-roman-bondarenko-kotorogo-izbili-na-ploschadi-peremen-na-aktsiyu-ego-pamyati-prishli-tysyachi-lyudey.
[iv] Vitali Shkliarov, “In Belarus, Covid-19 is a Modern-Day Chernobyl,” CNN, April 12, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/12/opinions/vitali-shkliarov-belarus-covid-19-chernobyl/index.html.
[v] Helene Bienvenu, “In Belarus, Lukashenko Bets on No Lockdown,” Foreign Policy, May 8, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/08/belarus-lukashenko-coronavirus-pandemic-lockdown-containment-economy-russia/.
[vi] Artyom Shraibman, “Does Belarus Election Mark Start of New Era?”, Carnegie Moscow Center, June 2, 2020, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/81958; Vitaly Shkliarov, “Political Upheaval in Belarus? Lukashenko Scrambles to Keep Power,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, June 25, 2020, https://www.fpri.org/article/2020/06/political-upheaval-in-belarus-lukashenko-scrambles-to-keep-power/.
[vii] Astapenia Ryhor, “What Belarusians Think About Their Country’s Crisis,” Chatam House, Oct. 21, 2020, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2020/10/what-belarusians-think-about-their-countrys-crisis.
[xi] Anders Aslund, “The West Finally Imposes Sanctions on Belarus,” Atlantic Council, Oct. 6, 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/the-west-finally-imposes-sanctions-on-belarus/.
[xii] Elena Tolhacheva, “‘Расцениваю как намеренную изоляцию Колесниковой от внешнего мира.’ Адвокат не видела Марию 20 дней” [“‘I regard it as a deliberate isolation of Kolesnikova from the outside world.’ Her lawyer has not seen Maria for 20 days”], Tut.by, Nov. 11, 2020, https://news.tut.by/economics/707500.html.