Main Image Credit Troops at an anti-government protest in Minsk, Belarus, 25 October 2020. Courtesy of Pavel Stasevich/Alamy Stock Photo
The apparent calm which has now descended on Belarus hides a protracted systemic crisis and political transition in the making.
Since the rigged elections in August 2020, Belarus has experienced unprecedented protests and dissent. The response of the regime under Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been nothing but violence. Recently, the situation seems to have calmed down: winter and repression have dampened down the protests. Nonetheless, activism has persisted in local neighbourhoods, further emphasising the decentralised nature of civic activism in Belarus. Meanwhile, important political figures of the protest movement are in prison or in exile. Many Western countries, including the UK, have enacted several rounds of sanctions against Lukashenka himself and against the country’s political and economic elite. Furthermore, Western states are trying to support Belarusian civil society. A stalemate is currently emerging in Belarus, although some sort of a political transition orchestrated by Lukashenka is looming.
A Systemic but Apparently Stable Crisis
Lukashenka’s ability to hold on to power should not obscure the fact that Belarus is experiencing a protracted systemic crisis. The use of excessive violence against unarmed protesters is an expression of the regime’s weakness. And the turmoil serves as an indication that the authoritarian state model and the state-centred economy which operate in Belarus have reached their limits. Lukashenka's police state is resisting the desire of many Belarusians to be responsible citizens. Compromise, dialogue or mediation hardly seem possible in this constellation.
Lukashenka's power rests on three pillars: on parts of the population who still believe in the man who has run the country for decades; on the state-control apparatus; and on Russia. Among the population, it is estimated that about one third supports his actions. But it is likely that a majority is appalled by the violence, and frustration is likely to be high even among officials and state employees. However, many people see no clear alternative to Lukashenka's rule, and fear the consequences of expressing their discontent. The security services have blood on their hands, which ties their fate to the autocrat even further. And Russia, with which Belarus is closely intertwined politically, economically and culturally, assures assistance. In view of the potential for dissent in Russia itself, a protest-led overthrow in Belarus would be the stuff of Vladimir Putin’s nightmares.
The current stalemate plays into Lukashenka's hands. At least in the short term, he appears to the Kremlin as a guarantor of stability. Even though geopolitical questions are not at the forefront, Lukashenka has managed to convince the Kremlin that he is currently Russia’s safest bet to ensure his country’s loyalty and counter a so-called ‘colour revolution’ in Belarus. This has surprised many observers who considered Lukashenka’s days and Russia’s patience with him numbered.
A Drifting Opposition?
Meanwhile, the Belarusian protest movement and the West seem at a loss. European countries are maintaining and expanding sanctions, even though sanctions can hardly force change and may even be counterproductive in cornering the regime. Former Belarusian presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya continues to be received by ministers and heads of state and government across Europe. She and other proponents of the protest movement are calling for rallies and strikes, and appeal for dialogue with elements of the administration.
However, the ranks of these opposition figureheads are increasingly divided. Their demands appear increasingly out of touch with Belarusian realities. At the same time, brave and decentralised forms of civic activism are still upheld. In designing their policies for Belarus, Western states are well advised to take these patterns into account. The fact that proponents of the opposition, particularly the ones in exile, represent only a part of the protest movement and that there are numerous activists at a local level makes support for civil society an all the more complex, while important, task.
Although Lukashenka's opponents claim that their intention is to maintain close ties with Russia, scepticism towards the big neighbour – perceived as bolstering the unpopular leader – is growing. So, while Russia may be content with the current situation, the Kremlin knows that it cannot rely on Lukashenka alone in the long term. Moreover, Lukashenka has repeatedly alienated Russia in the past. Accordingly, the Kremlin is endorsing constitutional changes – which the Belarusian leader has promised repeatedly – hoping to weaken Lukashenka’s power pyramid and to be able to exert influence through new actors and parties. Large parts of the Belarusian political and economic elite may also favour a more pluralist political system, whereas currently siloviki, the security services, are gaining influence. Naturally, the opposition and the protesters also demand constitutional changes, although their demands entail the release of political prisoners, the holding of free and fair elections, and societal participation in the negotiation of a transition.
Thus, curiously, all actors are looking for political change, and that includes Lukashenka, who must arrange his succession in the longer term. However, the Belarusian leader is trying to dominate and delay the procedure. Elites still depend on loyalty to him. Accordingly, the Belarusian leader has initiated a slow and vague process, accompanied by vague and changing promises, and staged consultations. Meanwhile, the economic situation further aggravates the population’s plight. Coupled with the global economic slump, brain drain and the poor investment climate are accelerating Belarus’s economic decline. So, in addition to the state crisis, there is the threat of an economic and monetary crisis.
A look back in history and at other countries, especially in the post-Soviet space, indicates that regimes can often hold on for a long time even under such adversarial conditions – particularly if they have foreign sponsors. Likewise, discontent among the population can erupt again.
Still, the probable long-term scenario remains one of a managed transition which allows for some optimism. A proliferation of political actors and a slightly stronger role for parliament may entail an increased need to incorporate urgent economic reforms and popular demands, particularly of the younger generation – at least as far as an autocratic system and the interference of the Kremlin can tolerate.
Benno Zogg, a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, is a member of Minsk Dialogue’s Council of Experts and focuses on the international politics of Eurasia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.