Protests in Belarus: Why now and what is different this time?

Olga Dryndova,
Editor “Belarus-Analysen”,
Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen,

A wide and rapid pre-election politicisation of Belarusians, followed by the largest political protests in the history of independent Belarus both in Minsk and the regions, came as a surprise for many experts and politicians. The public discontent did not come out of the blue, though: there are a number of long term reasons and short-term triggers that led to a revolution attempt.

The legitimacy of president Lukashenka was based on a so-called “social contract” for many years: the state would provide for a relatively stable well-being and security (i.a. low criminality and the absence of war conflicts), while most Belarusians would stay politically inactive and support the status quo. This unwritten contract has been deteriorating for some time already, while polls show that the share of supporters of Lukashenka among pensioners, rural inhabitants and “normal” citizens dropped from 68 per cent in 2006 to 32 per cent in 2016.

The real well-being of Belarusians was gradually raising for 15 years starting after 1996, which was enabled to a large extent by low prices on crude oil from Russia, combined with the export of refined products to Europe. The decline of well-being in the last 7-8 years was accelerated by the pandemic. Polls showcased the biggest downshift in feeling regarding the current economic situation since the beginning of 2000s: over 60 per cent saw their economic situation as bad in March, 2020.

Economic uncertainty was supplemented by an inconsequent information policy during the pandemic. Firstly, it led to a decline in trust to authorities and personally to Lukashenka. According to polls, Belarusians assessed their government’s reaction on COVID-19 as highly insufficient, they did not feel secure about their health and lives. Secondly, this caused an unprecedented wave of solidarity and self-organisation: business cooperated with civil society to provide hospitals with the needed equipment, while people gathered huge sums for solidary actions though crowd-funding platforms. This solidarity and the newly learned self-organisation skills were directly transmitted into the electoral campaign.

Finally, new faces in politics outside the classical party opposition, which was neither popular nor well-know in Belarus, introduced new political messages. The “new opposition” without any political experience focused on a belief in people and their ability for collective action and changed the narrative from “authorities are bad” to “people are good”. They encouraged people to use all possible legal methods to “fight” the system (gathering signatures, filing complaints, observing elections etc.). As a result, a critical mass of Belarusians, most of whom were not politically active before, was mobilised and faced the malfunction of the judicial system.

Even more people developed protest moods due to a disbelief in the official 80 per cent for Lukashenka. Possibly, for the first time in the Belarusian history he de facto lost elections. After-election violence, unprecedented even for the Belarusian authoritarian reality, crossed the point of no-return for further social groups.

After-election protests during the first month did not have a clear and structured coordination centre, which made them difficult for the state to suppress. People self-organised spontaneously via personal contacts and social networks (especially Telegram), which became popular long before elections. Cases of solidarity became countless: f. ex. IT-companies helped resigned policemen financially and with a job-search. Political humour during the pandemic and the protests became an important solidary tool, while solidarity on various levels contributed to a feeling of an emerging nation among many. Horizontal community contacts (city, city district, courtyard, etc.) were strengthened significantly, which might become a base for a new strong civil society and self-government in Belarus.

New social groups joined the protests in different forms, f. ex. workers of state-owned plants, sportsmen and employees of state-controlled media (all former core electorate of Lukashenka). While peaceful solidarity chains of women with flowers played an important role in reshaping the protest dynamics. They made the non-violent nature of protests obvious both for national and international public, attracted new groups of protesters, who were afraid to participate in night protests before, made protests visible in public space during the day time and gave women a new resisting role.

Protests did not contain any geopolitical element: neither pro-EU nor anti-Russian moods could be identified. Belarusians were rather united under the slogan “Anybody but Lukashenka”, their voting being thus a protest one. According to recent polls, Belarusians prefer to have good relations with all neighbours, while half of population does not see itself either as a part of the Western or the Eastern world. This does not mean, however, that popular moods cannot change. Should Russia further support Lukashenka, or try to obviously intervene with its security or military forces, or push for a deep integration within the Union State, it could rapidly loose a strong support and a potential for its soft-power within the Belarusian society. However, the EU could as well put the advantages of its values-based foreign policy under question in Belarus, should its internal problems further hinder a proper EU-reaction on repressions and an unprecedented violation of human rights in Belarus.

The article was received on 15.9.2020


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