Why the Uprising in Belarus Failed

It's six months since the fraudulent election in Belarus sparked mass protests against Alexander Lukashenko's authoritarian regime. The collapse of his statist model of capitalism has fed mass discontent with his rule — but the liberal opposition's own promises of change also drew skepticism among working-class Belarusians.

Protesters participate in an anti-Lukashenko rally on August 18, 2020, in Minsk, Belarus. (Misha Friedman / Getty)

It’s six months since Belarus held the elections that triggered the gravest political crisis in the country’s post-independence history. When official results claimed that Alexander Lukashenko, the republic’s president since 1994, had received 80 percent support, the opposition immediately sensed fraud. Massive protests broke out, at first focused on the manipulated election result.

Over August and September 2020, hundreds of thousands of citizens participated in demonstrations — and this in a country of just ten million people. The government response was harsh in the extreme: while there are no exact figures, reports speak of thousands of people detained, hundreds charged, dozens wounded, and some even killed. The United Nations accused the government of many incidents of torture. These dramatic events shook Belarus. But they couldn’t change it.

The Belarusian Model

Doubtless, Belarus is a unique case among the states founded upon the ruins of the Soviet Union. After a brief period of political chaos and unpopular market reforms, in 1994, former state farm manager Lukashenko was elected to the presidency. He returned control over the economy to the government and reinstated close economic relations with Russia.

Unlike the governments in neighboring Russia and Ukraine, Lukashenko opted for a mixed economy which retained strong social policies. Manufacturing and agriculture quickly recovered and resumed growth; quality of life and incomes were much higher than in Ukraine and even most Russian regions, hit by social catastrophe following the breakdown of the USSR. Even today, Belarus has one of the lowest levels of social inequality in Europe. Health care and education remain mostly free and effective, and the country is still ahead of its neighbors in the human development index and for life expectancy.

Lukashenko has long been called “Europe’s last dictator.” There can be no doubt as to his regime’s authoritarian character — and yet even in Ukraine and Russia, his personal ratings were often higher than those of these countries’ own politicians amid the post-Soviet chaos. Each time Lukashenko won an election or amended the constitution to let himself run again, the Belarusian opposition — dominated by liberal-nationalist forces — would protest. But there was virtually no left-wing opposition; with his social policy and Soviet symbolism, Lukashenko himself occupied the majority of the left spectrum. But this also owed to his authoritarian rule itself: the few critics that did emerge suffered heavy repercussions.

For two decades, the liberal opposition did not appear as a serious challenge to Lukashenko: the few thousand people participating in street action did not enjoy broad support in society. It seemed Belarusians were scared off by the liberals’ radical market economics and their glaring nationalism. In 2014, neighboring Ukraine saw a liberal-nationalist coalition rise to power, implementing a program similar to the Belarusian opposition’s own. This led to social collapseand a rise in poverty and inequality rates, as well as deindustrialization. The Belarusian opposition’s popularity sunk to an all-time low. It seemed far-fetched to imagine threats to Lukashenko’s rule.

But the economic model built in Belarus was not so stable — this is, after all, still a variant of capitalism, fully integrated into global markets. Russia remained the country’s leading trading partner, but trade, loans, and especially the growing IT sector linked the country to Europe, China, and others. Like many other countries, Belarus fell victim to the global economic crisis of the 2010s. To make its production output more competitive, the government twice carried out a depreciation of the local currency — and real incomes declined.

In a bid to combat unemployment, Lukashenko inflated the public sector, weakening its efficiency. The state budget was running out of money for social programs. Then the government raised the retirement age and carried out controlled privatizations — boosting the private sector, but also raising inequality. As a measure to support the employers’ interests, a short-term contract system was introduced. This reform forced workers to seek new contractseach year — making them demeaningly dependent on their employers. And finally, to fill state coffers and take control of the grey economy, the government passed the unpopular “freeloader” law, where every citizen who isn’t officially employed must pay a fixed-rate fine. Slowly, public services became something you had to pay to use. Lukashenko’s “social state capitalism” ran aground amid the storms of the global crisis.

A decade-long slump in Belarusians’ quality of life drove rising discontent. And in such circumstances, it was unsurprising that the president of twenty-six years’ standing — a man who seemingly wouldn’t let himself be replaced — became the main target of this disaffection.

The 2020 Protests

Sociological research is banned in Belarus, so there are no independent polling companies. The government has never tried to mobilize its supporters, instead betting on passive loyalty, which is why most of those who reverentially call Lukashenko bat’ka (father) did not take part in the online discourse surrounding August’s vote. It almost appeared as if his own electorate didn’t exist.

Amid the growing expressions of discontent with Lukashenko, the lopsided official results — 80 percent for the incumbent — were met with shock. When the protests were already in full swing, people started telling a joke: A man is getting beaten by a police squad in the street, and he cries out in anguish: “But I voted for Lukashenko!” The policemen respond, while working away with their batons: “Stop lying, motherfucker; no one voted for Lukashenko!”

The first organized protests led tens of thousands of opposition supporters from social media to the streets. There they encountered disproportionate police brutality: the government wanted to nip the protests in the bud. But as reports of beatings, torture, and mass detentions spread, the crackdown had the opposite effect. They seemed to prove, to anyone who doubted it, that the election was, indeed, a fraud. This realization led to justified anger — and caused even more people to pour out into the streets.

This was the moment when protests began reaching the industrial working class. A quarter of the adult population works in the industrial sector — the largest single social group — but they are poorly organized. The union movement is mostly absent, and the few independent unions that do exist are more like NGOs linked to the pro-Western opposition. For decades, the working class was considered the backbone of the regime. But in mid-August 2020 (and then, once again, in October), factories across the country saw their own wave of protests. In the overwhelming majority of the cases, these protests and marches did not grow into actual strikes. The workers’ significant demand was to stop police violence and take the army and police out of the cities.

The mere ghost of a national strike tipped the scale. Lukashenko declared that he had “heard the workers’ opinion” and asked the police to step back. Thousands of detainees were released. The president went as far as to apologize for “excesses” by law enforcement. The liberal opposition also rushed to the working class in search of support — but their case wasn’t easy to sell. The opposition economic program published in June 2020 on websites directly linked to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign website offered to cut some slack to businesses, but not workers. It demanded that “inefficient” enterprises be closed, threatening mass unemployment, and spoke of the need for mass privatization. The opposition had to remove those unpopular measures from the program in August 2020, as they drew more and more attention.

The opposition’s coalition included members of two left-wing organizations: the Just World party and the Belarusian Green Party. Yet their influence was minimal. So keen was Just World leader Sergey Kalyakin for unity among the opposition that he called a halt to discussion of resistance to privatization. The Greens, meanwhile, criticized the neoliberal points of the opposition’s socioeconomic program, but these criticisms went unacknowledged. Moreover, their members were never included in the opposition council. The Communist Party of Belarus, meanwhile, remains on Lukashenko’s side.

Given the weight of the industrial working class within Belarusian society, the opposition’s social media platforms did seek to target them. The leaders of the opposition even began calling for a general strike — albeit only in the public sector, not in private businesses. In fact, some workers did go on individual strikes, but they were immediately fired. The liberal opposition created a “national strike committee” — but while it was full of bloggers, entrepreneurs, and artists, it initially didn’t include even a single industrial worker.

Hit by continuing repression and unable to draw on the support of labor, the protests began to wane. In October, numbers subsided considerably. The opposition was demoralized and exhausted and new conflicts and falling-outs started to emerge, including over their various international backers. Only a small core was left from the mass movement by winter, and this core still organizes small, unsanctioned protests. Most often, these demonstrations turn into a game of cat and mouse with the police — indeed, episodic arrests continue to this day.

Two main factors allowed the current regime to persevere, despite the unprecedented protests. First, Lukashenko retained control over the state machine and law enforcement apparatus. High-ranking figures who expressed dissent were removed from their positions, and the government suppressed all signs of revolt among the elites. Unlike in Russia and Ukraine, the Belarusian bureaucracy and the top ranks of government are not millionaires and billionaires with capital in foreign banks — their loyalty is to the regime alone.

Second, Lukashenko went to Russia and sought support from Putin. Parts of the Russian National Guard are based on the border with Belarus, and the Russian president promised that they would restore order in the case of “destructive” events or Western intervention. This also tipped the scales, and it became clear that the opposition would not persevere in the street conflict. But most importantly: the opposition failed to organize a national strike.

The Anatomy of the Belarusian Protests

While there is no reliable polling from within Belarus, Berlins Centre for East European and International Studies (a nonprofit funded by the German Foreign Ministry) has published the results of its December survey about Belarusian citizens’ attitudes towards the mass protests.

The survey was conducted online and only among city dwellers. Hypothetically, roughly half of the population most loyal to Lukashenko consists of the rural population and those who don’t use the internet, so they were excluded. But this study nonetheless provides the first reliable data set that allows for observations to be made.

The real proportions of the split in the Belarus society differ from the estimates that both the government and the opposition make when claiming they have the majority’s support. A little less than half of those surveyed (45 percent) support the protestors (29 percent fully and 16 percent in part), while close to a third disagree (20 percent fully, 12 percent in part). The others are undecided. If we consider the citizens outside the remit of this study, it is likely that across Belarus “rebels” and loyalists are of more or less equal numbers.

The support for the protests is higher among the more affluent, better educated, and younger citizens, and those working in the private sector and the nonindustrial segments of the public sector. Even though there are opponents of the government in all social groups, an affinity for protest is more widespread within the middle and upper classes of the society, not the working class and the masses — hence why the attempt by the opposition to lead a national strike choked.

The reasons for insufficient involvement among the poor are straightforward: just 12.5 percent of those surveyed think that the protestors were striving to improve quality of life or social standards. Straightforwardly political aims (the calls for free elections, for Lukashenko’s resignation, for an inquiry into anti-protestor violence) turned out to be insufficient to mobilize the masses. Around 20 percent of those surveyed said that they did not join in on the protests because they suspected that the opposition hid their actual goals from society.

The spread of the protest mobilization is impressive: 14 percent of those surveyed said they had taken part in protests after the elections (and only a quarter of this group had ever done so previously). This equals to seven hundred thousand protestors out of five million Belarusians represented by the survey. Almost 80 percent of those who had protested said it was the political violence that brought them to the streets — not political sympathies or social issues. 

The data presented by the German sociologists indicate that the opposition couldn’t or didn’t want to offer a popular social program to the population. This weakened the democratic movement by splitting it away from the industrial working class. Therefore, the protests were fueled not by the credibility of the opposition’s alternative but by the government’s own behavior, not least its police brutality and repression. But even this crude authoritarianism was not enough.

Lessons for Russia

Lukashenko called the protests in Belarus a prologue to a political crisis in Russia. In late January 2021, his prognosis started to come true. Mass demonstrations began spreading across the world’s biggest country. Russian society is not as split as Belarus, yet according to a recent survey conducted by the Levada Center (a Russia-based NGO funded by various governmental and private institutions in United States, UK, and Germany), just 22 percent view the protests positively and 39 percent negatively. The rest remain undecided. Of those surveyed, 43 percent (as opposed to 18 percent in 2017) say that protesters’ main reason to take to the streets was an “accumulated disaffection with the situation in the country.” The worsening crisis will widen the divide, while poverty and inequality (much higher in Russia than in Belarus) will push people into the streets.

But what could a protest coalition look like?

The liberal leader Alexei Navalny and his team want to build an alliance around his own charisma. But the liberal pro-Western opposition is unable to mobilize the democratic majority around itself and its social program — not least as its leaders and prominent activists are linked to the wealthy minority and the interests of national and transnational capital. That’s why it tries to compensate for its lack of popular roots by trying to channel the justified indignation over police brutality and harsh government-ordered repression. In this sense, an escalation of violence is advantageous for both sides of the conflict. That is the main lesson that we can draw from the Belarusian experience.

At the same time, Navalny’s control over the protest movement could lead part of the ruling class to back away from Putin. Such a turn of events would seem to be the only way for the opposition to emerge victorious from the current protests. Oligarchs could hope that a political upheaval could drive an acceleration of market reforms, this time with full support from the West (as is the case in Ukraine right now).

The risk of market “reforms” — with all their consequences in terms of rising inequality and further rounds of repression — is no reason for leftists to look sympathetically on the established governments in countries like Russia and Belarus. They are responsible for the socioeconomic dead end that our countries have ended up in, for the poverty, the absence of civil rights, inequality, and the police state, which are getting harder and harder to live with. As the masses find the status quo increasingly intolerable, the crisis and the contradictions it reveals grow more critical.

The only alternative to the country’s split between an authoritarian government incapable of change and the liberal pro-Western opposition is a protest movement that isn’t headed by liberal leaders. A coalition of the majority can only be created around an agenda centered on social and democratic demands, and which serves the interests of the working class and the poorest members of the society.

Such a strategy is impossible without political mobilization — something which has, at least, risen amid the current turmoil. Crucially, this should be pursued not just online, but also in labor and social struggles, and in the most decisive space where this crisis is unfolding — in the streets. The Left must offer to the disaffected millions their own platform, their own movement, their own protest campaign. However weak we may be feeling at the moment, our historical responsibility is to take this bold step — and raise the red flag of the alternative.