The news in Russia this week has been completely dominated by events in neighboring Belarus. Following a rigged election, protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against the 26-year rule of President Alexander Lukashenko. They faced a brutal police crackdown, but continue to defy the authorities. For Russian officials, this is a very alarming precedent.
Elections and protests
Last week we wrote about the dramatic build-up to Sunday’s Belarusian elections. The first official exit polls that evening gave Lukashenko about 80 percent of the vote, with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, his only meaningful challenger, on 10 percent. Tikhanovskaya’s supporters believe the true picture is a mirror image, with 80 percent backing Tikhanovskaya. It’s hard to know the real results, but statisticians have suggested Tikhanovskaya got at least 50 percent.
- Lukashenko has no illusions about his level of support and has been preparing to use force for weeks. As thousands rallied in support of Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko was visiting military regiments and riot police units. Two weeks before the election, he warned mass protests would be quashed by the army and the Belarusian interior minister told officers that they would face “significant psychological and physical challenges” after polling day.
- The protests began the night of the election and have continued every evening since. Just as Lukashenko promised, the demonstrators were met by police officers who deployed stun grenades, tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets. There were rolling internet blackouts as riot police hunted down groups of protestors amid the high rise apartment blocks of Belarusian cities. In just three days, about 6,000 people were detained in the capital Minsk alone — many were treated brutally and there are multiple reports of treatment amounting to torture, for example here, here, and here.
- The most violent clashes occurred on the first two nights after the election and by Wednesday it seemed the opposition’s spirit had been broken. But it became clear that actually the reverse was true — using force has merely increased support for protests. Workers at BelAZ and MAZ, the country’s biggest car manufacturing plants, joined the demonstrators Thursday, and they were backed by other professions, including doctors and musicians. We are now seeing protests in towns and cities across the country.
- The threat of a nationwide strike has forced the authorities to take a step back. The internet began working again Thursday and there were no security forces on the streets of Minsk as protestors marched in their thousands without fear of arrest. In the evening, the interior minister gave an interview to state TV to apologise for the indiscriminate use of force. The speaker of the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament announced Lukashenko had “heard the opinion of the labour collective” and given instructions to release detainees. Thousands of people detained during the Minsk protests were freed early Friday morning.
- Tikhanovskaya, who is currently in Lithuania, released a video Friday calling on city mayors to organise and coordinate protests over the weekend. A few hours later, Lukashenko warned protestors that they were being used as “cannon fodder” by foreign forces who, he said, are organizing the demonstrations.
What makes Belarus different?
It’s traditional to compare mass demonstrations in the former Soviet Union to Ukraine’s Maidan protests of 2013-14, the uprising that led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a war in Eastern Ukraine. But the current Belarusian protests have several key differences.
- An apolitical revolution. In 2013 Ukraine, there was a politically competitive system and a strong parliamentary opposition. Opposition politicians played a key role in organising the Maidan protests and eventually came to power in Kyiv. There is no equivalent in Belarus: this is much purer authoritarianism with no public opposition or freedom of assembly. Lukashenko has either killed or jailed his potential rivals. Tikhanovskaya only became a presidential candidate after her husband, Sergei, a prominent opposition blogger, was imprisoned. If she wins, she says she will not run the country, but simply organise free elections.
- A revolution without organisers. No Belarusian leader has issued a manifesto for the protestors. We still don’t know the names of those most active on the streets. People are organising themselves at a ‘hyper-local’ level, coordinating using messaging apps.
- A Telegram revolution. If we can point to any one ‘official’ organiser, it might well be online messaging app Telegram. The biggest Belarusian channel on Telegram, Nexta Live, has 1.9 million subscribers (for more on Nexta Live see below). Those behind such channels have set the time and place of rallies, and advised on tactics (like sharing entrance codes for apartment blocks to hide from the police). The few independent media outlets in Belarus have been totally overshadowed by Telegram.
What is Moscow thinking?
It appears that Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t have much time for Lukashenko at the moment. Their friendship was badly strained in the build-up to the election when Lukashenko played the ‘Russian interference’ card to mobilize his electorate (the arrest of 32 alleged Russian mercenaries). Russian state media have been actively covering the Minsk protests without much apparent bias, which means they have been instructed to do so by the Kremlin.
It is hard to imagine Moscow playing an active role in overthrowing Lukashenko. Putin’s fear of ‘color revolutions’ in the former Soviet Union is much greater than his distaste for the Belarusian president. Before the vote, experts suggested Russia’s preferred outcome was for Lukashenko to be weakened, but remain in power. Even if we do see a change of leader, Moscow will retain its influence over Belarus – the country’s economy is entirely dependent on Russia.
Similarly, it’s unlikely Russia will act in Belarus as it did in Ukraine six years ago. It’s true Putin dreams of restoring Russia’s former imperial territories, but it’s hard to imagine an intervention in Belarus would reap the same domestic political rewards as the annexation of Crimea, and the current economic crisis makes it unwise to risk new Western sanctions.
Why the world should care
With each passing day, Lukashenko’s future is looking more uncertain — if he is eventually toppled, it will likely mean a prolonged power vacuum and major political change. A Russian intervention is, at present, a remote prospect, but a successful uprising would cause serious soul-searching in the Kremlin about whether such a scenario is possible in Russia.