L’Invité D&B: Belarus – a new “velvet revolution” in the Eastern Partnership?

Post-election protests in Belarus have started a democratic revolution, albeit not yet openly embraced by its participants. Its first success is the mobilization and solidarity between distinct social categories, which have never before exercised their fundamental rights publicly and collectively.

By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN

° Dionis Cenuşa is a political scientist from Moldova who works as Program Director on Energy Security at the Independent Economic Think-tank “Expert-Group”, based in Chisinau.

Post-electoral protests in Belarus have started a democratic revolution, even if not yet openly embraced by its participants…

The concept of “revolution” is missing from the vocabulary of political and civic forces, involved in post-election protests in Belarus. Abstaining from the term “revolution” denotes, on one hand, the caution of protecting the peaceful essence of the protests in Belarus. But, on the other hand, the intention persists in differentiating the Belarusian situation from other political transformations in the Eastern Partnership, in particular, those related to the Ukrainian “Euromaidan”. The Belarusian protesters want to chart their own path, which will ensure not only the democratization of the country but also the preservation of sovereignty and territorial integrity. They are aware of the risk of Russian offensives under a geopolitical pretext, which may inevitably occur, with the indispensable negative implications, if the Belarusian protests are branded as a “velvet revolution”.

The political approach built by the opposition and the Belarusian civic groups, capable of self-mobilization, contains two political objectives: the urgent resignation of Alexander Lukashenko and the peaceful transfer of power following new presidential elections. The political change, conceived by both the opposition and the variety of civic groups within Belarusian society, lies in political dialogue and non-violent protests. The primary sources of resistance against Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime are demonstrations of solidarity and strikes by public sector workers against electoral fraud and arbitrary violence by law enforcement. They crystallized a nationwide democratic political and civic movement for the first time in the post-Soviet history of Belarus. The Belarusian protesters avoid any identification of their manifestations with a “velvet revolution”. Nevertheless, the situation on the ground proves the opposite. The population attached itself to the idea of ​​democratic changes, which would establish functional political rights instead of ossifying them under the weight of autocracy.

It stepped over the psychological barrier of temporary or singular protests, and the protestant spirit acquired a deep emotional substratum. The deliberate and out-of-necessity violent reaction, abundantly applied by special forces, the secret police (KGB) and the administrations of detention institutions, inspired non-electoral motives within the protest movement. Those about 7,000 people that were arbitrarily arrested during the first days of protests, triggered after the fraudulent presidential elections on August 9, also include their families and friends. Theoretically, a minimum of 5 people per protester arrested and mistreated by state law enforcement respectively shows sincere devotion to the protests against Lukashenko. In reality, the protest spirit covers the whole country, not just the capital Minsk (about 2 million people or 1/5 of the country’s population).

The longevity of Lukashenko’s electoral autocracy has always been a nuisance. But, protected from a traumatic post-Soviet transition in the socio-economic sense, most Belarusian citizens have developed a tolerance for the regime that provides a “minimum of material necessity”, which for some time was better than in other corners of the CIS area. That is why tolerance of Lukashenko has lasted for 26 years. However, the extent of electoral fraud has broken previous tolerance, and the generational change in the structure of Belarusian society and the penetration of social networks have created fertile conditions for a “perfect socio-political storm”.

The fourth democratic revolution in the Eastern Partnership?

Peaceful protests in Belarus resemble the manifestations of a democratic revolution. But the trajectory of political change has an uncertain direction, for the time being. The regime is blocking formal ways of changing political policy – new presidential elections by international standards. The hypothetical purpose of these changes would be the peaceful replacement of the autocracy with a democratic system of government. Under these circumstances, the extroverted part of Belarusian society will have to offer emotional solidarity and material help to those at the forefront of anti-government protests. The protests need proportions, national unity, broad representation in the “Coordinating Council” of the opposition and efficient local and external communication strategy.

Before the Eastern Partnership launched in May 2009, the region was shaken by the colored revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine from 2003-2004. As Henry E. Hale explains, the origin of these revolutions is succession struggles more than democratic breakthroughs generated by civic activists and foreign democratizing activity“. In Niklaus Laverty’s view, the “vital” elements of the colored revolutions were organized civil society – Georgia (Khmer – “Enough!”) And Ukraine (Pora – “It’s Time!”). After the colored revolutions, starting with 2009, various uprisings in Moldova (2009), Ukraine (2013-2014) and Armenia (2018) brought back into discussion the issue of democratic revolutions. The protest wave in Belarus is part of the same stream of events, where the existing socio-political system gives it unique features. For this reason, the degree of differentiation is higher than the number of tangents between the anti-Lukashenko protests and the democratic uprisings in the other three Eastern European countries.

Armenia (2018). The Armenian and Belarusian cases have one thing in common – the peaceful way in which the protests take place. Electoral causality is absent from the initial context of the “velvet revolution” in Armenia, but, in any case, the issue of succession persists. As in the case of Lukashenko, after 10 years as president of the country, Serzh Sargsyan tried to retain power. This time, the latter targeted the seat of the prime minister who, thanks to the new constitution, obtained more extensive responsibilities (2015). It was not electoral fraud that aroused the discontent of the Armenian public, but the corruption associated with Sargsyan and his intention to perpetuate power by preserving the old system. The rise of the Armenian opposition, led by Nikol Pashinyan, was due to active communication via Facebook. In Belarus, the Telegram is the platform that facilitates interaction between various groups of protesters. As in Belarus, peaceful protests in Armenia have prioritized the local agenda and focused on maintaining existing geopolitical parameters. This means both the guarantee of good relations with Russia and the unchanged membership of the Eurasian concentric circles – the Eurasian Economic Union and the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty. The domestic policy of the countries that are part of these Eurasian organizations is perceived as a vital area of ​​Russian foreign policy. That is why, after losing Sargsyan in Armenia, Moscow is carefully coordinating the survival of Lukashenko’s regime, with or without him. Moscow’s readiness to “do anything” to “provide assistance in resolving the situation in Belarus” at the request of the Belarusian leadership was announced by Dmitry Peskov, a representative of Vladimir Putin’s administration. Among the gestures of assistance is the deployment of a mission of Russian journalists, who replaced the Belarusian journalists who expressed solidarity with the peaceful protesters. So, the public information space seems to be the first field that Lukashenko voluntarily transfers, at least temporarily, to the management of Russian specialists, controlled and remunerated by the Kremlin.

Ukraine (2013-2014). Similar to Ukraine, Belarus is ruled by a presidential regime led by Alexander Lukashenko. But the latter has become a public enemy not because of the accusations of political corruption, but of blatant election fraud and the use of violence en mass against peaceful protests. At the same time, the language of the Belarusian protests excluded any reference to geopolitics, which was a visible side of the Ukrainian “Euromaidan”. In the case of Ukraine, the protests radicalized in response to the brutal violence used by special forces that resulted in up to 100 deaths (BBC, 2019). Even after numerous scenes of violence, mass torture and murder by the special forces, the protest movement in Belarus remained non-violent. The rising profile of protesting women has accentuated the peaceful connotations of anti-Lukashenko demonstrations. Civic groups, civil society and the Ukrainian opposition have embraced the title of “dignity revolution”, which aimed at freeing the country from political corruption and bringing it closer to Europe. The Belarusian democratic revolution is in full swing, without being officially inserted in the protest language.

Moldova (2009). Some similarities can be seen between the current situation in Belarus and Moldova in 2009. The protests broke out in an electoral context, which in Moldova favored the victory of the Communist Party. In the Belarusian presidential election, the opposition has accumulated multiple pieces of evidence regarding the falsification of the voting. This move was backed by internationally by the EU, which refused to acknowledge the result of the Belarusian election, including Lukashenko’s victory. The allegations of the Moldovan opposition about the mass fraud of the parliamentary elections were not confirmed in the final report of the OSCE. The latter found, however, various deviations that could have helped the Communists to obtain a majority (60 out of 101 seats). In terms of duration, the Moldovan protests were short (only 2 days). But in just one day, radical groups detached from peaceful protesters, incited by provocateurs, devastated the buildings of the Presidency and Parliament. In the more than two weeks of protests, no significant material damage was reported in Belarus. On the contrary, the Belarusian protesters act in a tidy fashion. The crackdowns during and after the Moldovan protests left more than a hundred people physically and psychologically tortured in police stations in the Chisinau capital (Amnesty International, December 2009). The numerous episodes of torture in Belarus significantly exceed the proportions of the Moldovan ones, given that the number of detainees has risen to about 7,000 people. Slogans about re-unification with Romania and the country’s pro-European vocation dominated the geopolitical discourse of Moldovan protesters. In Belarus, there was a visible disinterest in geopolitics, even though state propaganda categorized the protesters as Russophobic, pro-NATO and Polish-backed. Namely, in Moldova, for the first time, social networks are used for mobilization purposes (Twitter), in the same way as the “Telegram” channels effectively connect Belarusian protesters in 2020.

Despite contextual and causal differences, the events in Belarus embody the nuances of a democratic revolution, as in other Eastern European states (See Table below). Once the power sabotages the democratic mechanism of renewing contractual relations with the citizens – by falsifying the elections – the deceived citizens feel free to demand the restoration of the democratic balance by exerting public pressure peacefully. This kind of pro-democracy feelings and goals has equipped the protesting public in Belarus in their struggle against the illegitimate regime led by Lukashenko.
 

Table. Democratic revolutions in the Eastern Partnership. Comparative analysis.

 Belarus (2020)Armenia (2018)Ukraine (2013-14)Moldova (2009)
Governance systemPresidentialParliamentarian  (since 2015)PresidentialParliamentarian
The context of the protestsOrchestration of the presidential election for the re-election of Alexander LukashenkoAppointment of Serzh Sargsyan as Prime MinisterRefusal to sign the Association Agreement with the EUParliamentary elections won by the Communist Party
The cause of the protestsElectoral falsification / violence by law enforcement bodiesPolitical corruptionPolitical corruption / violence by law enforcement bodiesAccusation of electoral falsification
The coordination of the protestsMixed (opposition and civic groups)OppositionMixed (opposition and civic groups)Mixed (opposition and civic groups)
Duration of the protestsOver 2 weeksAround o monthAround 3 months2 days
The main social networks involvedTelegramFacebookFacebook/ TwitterTwitter
Violence by the authoritiesYESNOYESYES
Violent actions between authorities and protestersNONOYESYES
Geopolitical rhetoric during protestsNONOYESYES

Source: Author’s compilation


In lieu of conclusion…

The most desirable model of democratic revolution would be the Armenian one, but the perpetrators of the Belarusian protests do not have the minimum formal instruments – starting with the extended rights to protest unhindered. At the same time, the protesting voices in Belarus are reluctant towards the Ukrainian scenario, which associates with violence and geopolitical dichotomy, the annexation of Crimea and the military intervention of Russian forces in Donbas. Also, the situation in Belarus differs considerably from the democratic uprising in Moldova, in which there were episodes of violence and excessive geopolitical rhetoric.

Post-election protests in Belarus have started a democratic revolution, albeit not yet openly embraced by its participants. Its first success is the mobilization and solidarity between distinct social categories, which have never before exercised their fundamental rights publicly and collectively.

The continuation and the purposefulness of the Belarusian democratic revolution depend on several key players – the functionality of the newly created Belarusian political and civic platform (Coordination Council), the survival tactics of the Lukashenko regime, the implications of Russian interventions and the use of political, technical, financial and sanctioning levers available in the West.


This analysis is signed for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN Press Agency.

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