A Year Of Protest – Belorussia At A Crossroads

Looking at the evolution of the protests in Belarus, we have seen a particularly violent confrontation between the regime of Lukashenko and the protesters followed by a downward spiral into inaction. This has brought the country to a stalemate. Now everything seems suspended, waiting for a process of constitutional reform. A year after the first manifestations, the measures taken have just led to a continuation of the mobilization. However, this kind of mobilization has no real prospect of achieving a regime change as the protesters have no clear political objective yet.

In similar cases, the breakthrough can come from the military, a politician or an international power so powerful to push the forces facing each other to reach a political agreement. In the Belarusian case, the system is blocked. In this context, the mobilization of an important part of the population is maintained, but has a primarily symbolic value, since it is no longer possible for protesters to achieve their goal of influencing the internal political regime. Lukashenko stays in power because of a convergence of two main factors: the Russian hegemonic protectionist approach towards the country, with Belarus full-covered at the cost of enjoying only some limited sovereignty, and the lack of support structures of any kind for a valid, organized and politically representative extra-systemic form of opposition.

The link with Russia is not necessarily a link in Lukashenko’s favour since Russia’s sphere of influence mutually requires the maintenance of a friendly regime in Minsk. Although before last August’s elections some members close to the Kremlin were expelled or arrested (take Babariko as an example), this did not prevent Lukashenko from seeking Russian support in the most critical phase of the protests. Although Lukashenko is not the best solution for Moscow, Putin does not see a change in the country’s leadership as a possible or favourable eventuality for Russia, aiming more than anything at maintaining the status quo in the area and focus on other domestic and international battlegrounds.

Domestically, the advent of new leadership, although not hostile to the Russian Federation, would heighten the perceived risk of a possible spillover effect, especially now that the case Navalny case has shaken so badly Putin’s image. On the international front, Biden’s affirmation and his aim of containing the ambitions of revisionist Russia have put Moscow under pressure on several fronts, from Ukraine to China, passing through the Stans and India. The combination of these two dimensions makes it extremely dangerous for Russia to balance not being seen as the villain internationally with not indirectly endorsing the claims of more autonomy in its immediate neighbour.

The opposition movement is still expanding, waiting for the right arrangement of events and dynamics to open room for manoeuvre in national politics. Support for Tikanovskaya and the Belarusian opposition movement has started reaching the whole EU, worrying and urging neighbouring European states to action. Poland and the Baltic states, and Lithuania in particular, have been directly involved in the protest in name of cultural affinity, promoting mediation in the most acute phases of the protests and keeping in contact with the leaders of mobilization. They also pushed the EU to take more effective actions against Lukashenko. Therefore, it seems that the movement has achieved quite a goal: creating a large audience internationally that could actually do something. This is a contemporary, “2020s-movement:” civil, democratic, organized, supported in major part by young people, formed online to push action out of the borders of digital networks and create real hope. But without a real prospect of a change of regime to go alongside. 

Not only does Lukashenko maintain a capillary control capacity, but he also enjoys the fulls support of that part of the population living in the state apparatus, in the countryside, on pensions, the elderly and the working class. The digital-made-real divide between generations translates into a stark difference in needs and interests. In search of economic and social security, the old soviet-era man has destined a new Colour Revolution to an indefinite stalemate, a dimension suspended in time in which two ways of living and thinking conflict constantly. The country is at a crossroads; only time will tell which way it will go. The prospect of a prolonged battle of generations opens up for Belorussia and the international community is realizing that Russia, attacked on different sides by both the EU and the US, is no more the same enemy it used to be. However, for how weakened, Putin can be a powerful ally. Used wisely, this situation could allow for the determination of a decisive balance between the three usual enemies, posing a true threat to China’s strategy of bilateral subjugation.

Luca Giulini