Belarus Is Cracking Down on Worker-Led Pro-Democracy Protest

In Belarus, a populist government that long claimed the support of its people finds itself repressing a historic protest movement — and its demands for a more democratic politics.

Riot police are shown out in force at sundown on August 10, 2020 in central Minsk, Belarus. Misha Friedman / Getty

Over recent days, world news has reported upon public unrest in Belarus on an unseen scale, with thousands of people protesting against the falsification of election results and facing an increasingly violent crackdown by the police force. At first, for president Alexander Lukashenko, this election was just another episode in a sequence of political manipulations that he has deployed to stay in power for twenty-six years. He seemed confident and well prepared for his sixth electoral victory, and he used every occasion to reassure the public that this time would be no different from his previous wins.

In the weeks preceding the election day, however, commentators and political analysts discussed the probability of alternative scenarios — a Belarusian Maidan, a revolutionary overthrow of power that would be followed by the escape of the president (some media even reported that Lukashenko’s plane was prepared for him to flee the country in case of an emergency) or the repeat of an Armenian scenario, with the peaceful transfer of power to the leaders of opposition after nonviolent rallies, as had happened in Yerevan in 2018.

Aware of these deliberations, Lukashenko had taken precautionary measures to ensure that protests would become difficult or even impossible to organize. In previous elections, the alternative candidates had been detained after the vote took place (Aliaksandr Kazulin in 2006, Andrej Sannikau and Uladzimir Neklayeu in 2010), but this time, the major presidential candidates were preemptively removed from the race.

Blogger and activist Sergey Tikhanovsky was jailed in May, Viktor Babariko in June, and Valery Tsepkalo was denied registration on the grounds of an alleged lack of a sufficient number of valid signatures. In this way, the 2020 election campaign appeared to get in line with the familiar scenario, leading smoothly to another “elegant victory,” as Lukashenko himself once called his “electoral successes.” This time, however, too many things went differently.

The Shifting Lukashenko

In place of the political opposition that challenged Lukashenko over the last two and half decades, that was traditionally preoccupied with the issues of national ideology, language, identity policy, or the geopolitical reorientation toward Europe, this year, Lukashenko’s opponents entered the political scene with ideas that called on Belarusians to reflect on deteriorating conditions of their lives and appealed to their understanding of political normality.

Sergey Tikhanovsky is the founder of a popular YouTube channel, in which he revealed the struggles of ordinary Belarusians and the authorities’ incompetence. His reporting contrasted this with the polished propaganda image of a Belarus full of success stories that is constantly channeled by the official media. His reports made clear that the longer Lukashenko stayed in power, the more distant his picture of Belarus became from people’s real-life experience.

Viktor Babariko, the former head of Belgazprombank, one of the largest banks in Belarus, positioned himself as a successful and experienced manager, promising a more efficient way of running the state economy, highlighting the inefficiency of the incumbent ruler. Finally, Valery Tsepkalo had served as an ambassador to the United States and was a founder of Belarus’s Hi-Tech Park, which contributed to the flourishing of Belarus’s information technology industry over the past decade. He presented himself as a technocrat, well equipped to run the country and to face the upcoming challenges of the twenty-first century.

Paradoxically, in their program promises and their overall agenda, Lukashenko’s 2020 rivals encroached upon the ground that has traditionally been reserved for building his own legitimacy and justifying his lengthy stay in office. As a populist politician, Lukashenko has always claimed to know the needs of ordinary people and to keep them close to his heart. But in the mirror of the new candidates’ criticism, he has been found lacking in these skills.

The coronavirus epidemic became one of the catalysts of this exposure. It demonstrated Lukashenko’s ineptitude in handling problems the country had to deal with. He refused to impose any precautionary measures, kept the border open, and even proceeded as normal with the organization of the May 9 victory parade. He chose to ignore the fact that the majority of Belarusians supported more restrictive measures against the pandemic. This disregard on his part led to great disillusionment among many of his former supporters. Civil society groups, by contrast, demonstrated their ability to mobilize and effectively contribute to solving real-life problems.

In the past, Lukashenko demonstrated an exceptional ability for political maneuvering in shaping the ideological contours of the Belarusian political project. At the eve of the country’s independence, he demonstrated a blatant skepticism and even hostility toward the ethno-nationalist ideas that right-wing conservative political parties tried to deploy in order to build independent Belarus on the foundation of anti-communism.

Lukashenko, instead, won his popularity with the idea that a nation-state can become a continuation of Soviet development. Unlike many other former Soviet nations that dismissed their socialist past, Lukashenko’s ideology asserted the active role played by Belarusians in Soviet modernization, presented as an important milestone on their way to becoming a modern and developed nation.

The course of events after the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, however, prompted him to rethink his handling of ethnonationalism and the importance of a clear boundary between Belarusians and Russians. Official policy thus turned toward what was called “soft Belarusianization,” with many symbolic markers of ethnic identity, formerly claimed by the opposition — from the Belarusian language and the historical legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to traditional national embroidery — were redeployed to strengthen the image of Lukashenko as a protector of Belarusian sovereignty.

The ability to adapt to new circumstances and to stretch the boundaries of official ideology allowed Lukashenko to stay in power almost unchallenged until recently. In all previous elections, even if manipulated, he remained the probable winner, with a level of electoral support that was sufficient to beat his rivals.

This time, however, Lukashenko’s own strategy of building political legitimacy was reappropriated by his political competitors. They addressed the voters not with abstract concepts and ideological slogans, but with genuine concerns about the conditions of life in the country, showing the real disregard for the interests of Belarusians behind the facade of Lukashenko’s increasingly hypocritical “politics of care.”

The new political runners raised the question of the accountability of governing elites for their decisions and failures, and discussed the lack of transparency in decision-making and the amount of misinformation routinely deployed by state. Not only has the system of rule created by Lukashenko prevented such accountability, it was founded on the assumption of his ultimate infallibility, which, in turn, guaranteed his right to govern the country as long as he wills.

Lukashenko’s removal of major candidates not only failed to restore the pre-2020 political status quo but produced a boomerang effect. In place of three different men with rather dissimilar ideas and programs who were barred from election, his main rival became Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who registered as a stand-in candidate for her imprisoned husband, Sergey Tikhanovsky.

Supported by the campaigners of both Victor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo, represented by Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya emerged as a symbol of the Lukashenko era’s potential end. The main political promise at the core of her campaign became the release of political prisoners and the organization of a free and fair presidential election that would return to Belarusians their right to have their voices and votes counted.

One of the recurring motifs in Tikhanovskaya’s campaign became the idea of installing in Belarus the idea of political normality, which was blocked by Lukashenko’s inability to separate the presidential office and the protection of the people’s interests from his own person.

Long queues were reported at polling stations on election day, along with mass protests against the falsification of the results in the following days. This revealed how important the moment has become among Belarusians, many of whom have never taken elections seriously before.

Democratic Demands

For two decades, the legitimacy of the system built by Lukashenko was based on promises of economic development and prosperity; his political discourse has been preoccupied with shaping an image of Belarus as a modern, active, and dynamic society.

Under his rule, Belarus experienced several economic crises but recovered and continued to grow thanks to a combination of Russian support, Western loans, and Chinese investment. It has developed the assets inherited from the Soviet era, including the machinery, chemical, and agriculture sectors, with its dairy industry ranking fifth in the global milk trade.

The IT industry has also flourished over the past decade. Having created the Hi-Tech Park in 2006, the country currently ranks thirteenth in the world in the sphere of IT outsourcing. In 2017, Belarus liberalized its IT sector, becoming one of the world’s most favorable places to trade cryptocurrencies. Many of these efforts were due to the necessity to overcome the country’s economic dependency on Russia, but it can also be seen as a part of larger project of becoming a modern technologically advanced nation.

New, Belarusian-made electric buses launched in Minsk just before it hosted the European Games in June 2019. These were intended to demonstrate both to domestic society and to the outside world that the country has not only developed effectively under authoritarian rule, but that it has done so by relying on its own technological potential.

On August 10, when the official results of the election were announced, claiming more than 80 percent of support for Lukashenko, he was reportedly visiting the construction of the plants of the Belarusian National Biotechnology Corporation, a joint venture with China. Consistent with his old strategy of justifying authoritarian rule by bringing forward images of its successes, he misread the processes taking place in the country over the last several months and ignored the demand for a new type of politics.

The nature of the Belarusian protests is indeed different from those that have taken place in other post-Soviet states. The country has neither extreme poverty, nor aggravated social inequality, nor radical anti-Russian nationalism. The driving force of the protests, instead, derived from the fact that in this modern, developed, and technologically advanced society, people do not want to be governed by overt autocratic means and to have their voices ignored and their opinions suppressed.

The escalating violence unleashed by the regime against peaceful protesters over the following days not only exposed Lukashenko’s unwillingness (or inability) to accept this fact, but also stripped his stay in office of the remaining appearance of legitimacy. The use of stun grenades, water cannons, and rubber bullets, along with the rocketing number of people arrested — many of whom have been detained for no obvious reason except being on the street — further exposed the political system that Lukashenko has to offer.

While Lukashenko continues to claim that the protests are the product of foreign creation and dismisses the protesters as criminals, multiple groups in society — from striking factory workers to doctors and theater groups — have come to openly express in public their disagreement with the brutal violence used by riot police against their own people. In this way, “the people,” whose interests Lukashenko has long claimed to represent in his pursuit of power, have now emerged as something more than the creation of his ideological imaginary.