On August 9, Belarus held a presidential election, which, according to official results, the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko won with over 80% of the vote. His rival, Belarusian opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was supposed to receive only 10% of the votes. These results were not recognized by the opposition nor a number of states and international organizations, including the EU and the European Parliament, whilst the protests engulfed the country. The Warsaw Institute Review talks about the nature of the protests, the attitude of the Belarusian authorities and the geopolitical future of Belarus with Piotr Żochowski, an analyst of internal security in Eastern Europe at the Center for Eastern Studies.
Bogdan Andruszczenko, The Warsaw Institute Review: On September 23, the so-called “swearing-in” of Lukashenko took place. It was conducted in secret – not announced earlier, nor broadcasted live on television. What, in your opinion, did he want to communicate? Why was it such a secret event?
Piotr Żochowski: It came as a surprise to all observers. The people who witnessed the situation in Minsk were confused until the last moment, because the earlier information circulating in the city assumed that Lukashenko would organize this ceremony on Saturday or Sunday. Everyone was expecting that it would be a major event, but to the surprise of all, Lukashenko slipped through Minsk to the Independence Palace in a protected motorcade and took an oath there in the presence of people, many of whom, as it later turned out, did not even know they were invited to this kind of ceremony.
Why did he keep it secret? The first answer is quite obvious – he was afraid that the official announcement of the inauguration would cause mass protests in Minsk and he wanted to avoid them. On the other hand, the lack of a live television broadcast, the mystery surrounding the event, proves that Lukashenko does not feel comfortable in Minsk, and his every move in the city is considered a threat to safety. We are able to examine the mental health of the regime if it considers safety a priority.
In your opinion – is it not a paradox? Lukashenko claims that he is elected by Belarusian citizens and that he has a strong support of the Belarusian society, but he was afraid to take the oath in the traditional way?
I refrain from judging the mental health of politicians, but I would like to remind one more fact – Lukashenko fell into the trap of his own declarations, in which he marginalized the significance of the protests. The demonstrations are continuing and public anger is high. At one point, Lukashenko began to treat Belarus as a “besieged fortress.” He acknowledged that the outside world wanted to destabilize the situation in Belarus, hence this violent anti-Western rhetoric, which lasts for many weeks, a demonstrative call for help from Russia to defend the regime against Western actions. The Minister of Defense of Belarus stated that Western countries started a hybrid war against Belarus. He added that the West initiated a struggle to gain dominance in the information space. Using the argument of the external threat, the regime continues its repression of society, with different degrees of brutality, consistently increasing its scale.
In your view, what will be the reaction of European countries – we already know that most of the countries did not recognize the election results and swearing-in – will sanctions be imposed on Belarus?
Most countries do not recognize Lukashenko’s presidency, considering that the conduct of the election did not guarantee their integrity. Regarding the sanctions – there are two possibilities. Some countries, for instance Lithuania, decided to introduce personal bilateral sanctions and take action to limit political relations with Belarus. The European Union opted for personal sanctions, targeting people who were involved in suppressing social protests and organizing flawed election. It is worth noting that the Belarusian authorities have embarked on a path of self-isolation in their relations with the EU. This is evidenced by the regime’s unilateral decision forcing the reduction of the staff of Polish and Lithuanian diplomatic missions. This step caused a solidarity response – numerous ambassadors representing EU countries in Belarus were recalled for consultations to their home countries.
As far as broader sanctions are concerned – this is a complex matter because we are always faced with a choice – do economic sanctions only affect the regime or society? We want the Belarusians to be able to keep in contact with the outside world, so that despite the restrictions introduced by the regime, the Belarusians will have a chance to freely contact with the societies of the EU countries that are friendly towards them. We have to be cautious about maintaining and shaping economic relations. Any potential sanctions should be severe for the regime’s institutions and not the society.
In one of your comments on the protests in Belarus, you underlined that “the authorities took a wait-and-see attitude.” What do you think is the reason for this?
This is what I concluded by observing the current internal situation in Belarus after August 9. The protests were not suppressed. The level of social irritation, which is directed against Lukashenko, not even against the state system, but against him, is still growing. After the first two days following the election, when the law enforcement dealt with the protesters quite harshly, hoping that they would break the resistance and the will of social opposition, Lukashenko withdrew from far-reaching repression. He changed his tactics. He does not want to move towards a brutal pacification of the protest, because it would not earn him much and most likely lead to the radicalization of social resistance. The regime is trapped – it has a monopoly on the use of force, the law enforcement agencies or the army are still loyal, but the center of presidential power realizes that the escalation of violence, very brutal one, is pointless now, it will not stop nor change the views of Belarusians.
Taking a wait-and-see attitude proves that the authorities in Minsk are counting on the protests to die down. They assume that the lack of significant concessions from the authorities will cause discouragement and social disappointment. This does not mean that the authorities will not act. The regime uses a tactic of repression reminiscent of a slow but systematic “turning of the screw.” There are no street fights in Belarusian cities, protesters behave peacefully. Detentions most often take place after the end of the demonstration, when the officers of law enforcement arrest several hundred people who are later fined for violating public order.
The fact that the repressions will intensify is confirmed by a recent statement of the General Prosecutor. He announced that the authorities will detain bloggers criticizing the regime. Parents who attend demonstrations with their children will be punished for not taking care of minors. Officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs appear at universities and conduct warning interviews with students to discourage them from manifesting objections. The situation is similar in workplaces where administrative methods are used to break the resistance of workers in large industrial plants who think about a strike. Systematic repression has one goal – those who organize it count on breaking resistance, social discouragement and, of course, arousing fear.
The Coordination Council, formed by the opposition, mainly insists to hold new presidential election, but they only call for peaceful protests. In your opinion, can we predict that the Council will lead to some concrete compromises from the authorities?
The situation of the Coordination Council is complicated. Its members would certainly want to act in Belarus, but they were effectively prevented from doing so. Some people left for fear of their safety, others remain in prison. The regime, supported by Russia, unequivocally rejects the possibility of establishing talks with the representatives of the Council, recognizing them as puppets of the West. In this situation, the actions of the Coordination Council are rational, it focused on obtaining international support and promoting its activity in Belarusian society through independent information channels. We can create various scenarios on how the fate of people who protest and oppose the Lukashenko’s regime while they are abroad will turn out. There is a chance that they will maintain their influence on the Belarusian society, that they will become a significant political center that can be a permanent and alternative political choice.
The specificity of the domestic situation in Belarus is also important. There is no organized, strong anti-regime political background there. Political parties are marginalized, parties that oppose Lukashenko’s regime are not a serious political force. Lukashenko continues to control the state system, announcing unspecified constitutional reforms and increasing political pluralism under pressure from the protests. In this way, he will probably seek to convince the whole world that an allegedly independent social representation is being formed in Belarus.
On the other hand, a strong anger towards Lukashenko will consistently cause the protesters in Belarus to politically organize themselves, which is very dynamic for the time being – we do not have such a counterpoint for Lukashenko’s system that we would start to recognize as a fully-formed political representation of the protesters. This is a phenomenon of current protests in Belarus. Their strength is public anger, not a precise political vision. One can count on fatigue and gradual deconstruction of the regime. Due to Minsk’s self-isolation, anachronistic economic management and poor budget situation, Lukashenko’s power will increasingly weaken, also due to the growing disillusionment of the nomenklatura, which is gradually becoming aware that a lack of economic reforms may lead to a collapse of statehood. Paradoxically, Minsk’s call for Russian support has been observed to have a negative impact on the regime’s future. This allows Moscow to continue its integration policy within the framework of the Union State.
This protest is anger against Lukashenko, but can we talk about a “hidden meaning” – for example, a geopolitical one?
This is also the phenomenon of Belarusian protests. Even before the election, we analyzed the statements of Lukashenko’s opponents, paying attention to how they understand the position of Belarus in Europe. None of them advocated in a decisive way for the West or Russia as the main partner. The majority took the position that Belarus should be a sovereign state, maintaining partner relations with its surroundings. Some said that it would be best if Belarus was Finland or Switzerland – that is, a “neutral” state, balancing the relationship with Russia and the West. However, Russia was described as Belarus’ main partner, especially in terms of economic ties.
A key challenge for Belarus itself, but also for the West, remains the question of limiting Russia’s role in the liberty to influence political situation in Belarus. At this point it is worth noting one more factor, which we often forget about. Belarusian society is completely different than 10 years ago. This is why Lukashenko has so much trouble in controlling the protests. On the streets we see a new generation of Belarusians, who build their worldview basing on contacts with the politically diverse international environment and are indifferent to identity patterns referring to the dominant role of Russia.
An example showing how the Belarusian society has changed is the IT industry, which in Belarus is well developed and represented by open-minded people. They cooperate with partners abroad, with the West, also with Russia, but they look at this kind of cooperation in categories other than just political. They want to live normally, in stable business conditions and for them Lukashenko’s regime is simply anachronistic, archival – the state under his rule cannot be modernized – this also sparks protests. It does not matter whether they are more pro-Western or pro-Russian, because most Belarusians emphasize that they are not anti-Russian unless Russia will occupy Belarus. A large part of Belarusians, observing how business functions in the West, Poland, Lithuania or Ukraine, come to a conclusion, why should we not try this, we should go in the direction of changes that have taken place in our immediate neighborhood.
While conducting talks with European partners, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya stresses that Russia will also be a partner of Belarus.
This is rational thinking, which is represented by the majority of Belarusian society, i.e. society that does not like conflict. This is also interesting because there have never been any anti-Russian slogans, and if they appear, they are very marginal. There is no coordinated anti-Russian movement that opposes Russian imperialism. It is gone. Belarusians look at the world practically – politics is politics, but they want to live normally. Therefore, this protest is not against the system, but against an authoritarian leader who is not able to change Belarus.
Do we observe any similarities between the situation in Belarus now and the protests in Ukraine in 2013?
I am against these comparisons. They are very appealing, but it is difficult to compare Ukraine with Belarus for many reasons. The background of the protests in Ukraine was completely different. The second thing is the attitude towards Russia in Ukraine – the Russian state is treated as an enemy. In fact, Russia started a war to defend its interests. Years later, it is difficult to consider this a Russian success, because Russia did not achieve its strategic goal, did not break up Ukraine, seized the Crimea, destabilized the east of Ukraine, but did not overthrow the authorities in Kiev. Attempts to destabilize Ukraine continue to this day. Ukraine had a large political base of the opposition, an extensive party system and strong organizations representing civil society. At one point, Euromaidan started to organize itself politically, and its leaders, to a large extent, constituted the new authorities in Kiev. An example that does not fit into the dynamics of the Belarusian protests. When Yanukovych sent an airborne unit from Dnipropetrovsk (now – Dnipro) to Kiev, people went out on the tracks, and stopped the train with soldiers, who returned to the barracks under social pressure.
The Belarusian opposition is creating new forms of fighting the regime. At one point, the Telegram channels initiated the creation of “self-defense” in Belarus. This caused concern among observers who feared a violent radicalization of the protests. This did not happen – “Belarusian self-defense” pulls people out of the hands of the OMON officers, identifying their faces. The websites of state authorities (including the Ministry of Internal Affairs) are being blocked. This is done by the so-called cyber partisans whose actions evidence the involvement of people connected with the IT sector in the fight against the regime.
Is it possible that the “finale” of these protests, such as in Ukraine, will be Lukashenko’s escape to Russia?
Such an option was considered at the very beginning of the demonstrations, when they were the largest. And this is not even about Minsk, but about all of them, even the small towns, where people started to take to the streets. However, the regime managed to control the crisis, the protests did not lead to paralysis of the state apparatus. I have to remind that the main factor which has an impact on the inhibition of reforms in Belarus is its role in the Russian security system. I cannot imagine that Russia, which is nevertheless a stable state and has an intensive military policy, will give up Belarus as a potential operational area. This is evidenced by the numerous Belarusian-Russian training projects within the framework of periodic exercises such as the “Zapad 2021” planned for next year or the “Slavic Brotherhood” ended in September. As far as military cooperation between Belarus and Russia is concerned, it has been sustained and has not been disrupted during the political crisis in Belarus, which lasts since the beginning of August.
Lukashenko regards himself as the leader of a state that is attacked by the West whilst Russia must defend it. “I am the first guardian of your security,” he says. He has played the anti-Western, anti-NATO card and is trying to convince Belarusians to himself. However, in 2020 we see how big is the change of mentality in the Belarusian society. The attitude to the regime is so strongly marked by aversion and resistance that even potential silencing of the protests does not mean that Lukashenko can restore the pre-election status and rule the country as earlier.
In your opinion, will these protests “geopolitically bring” Belarus closer to Russia or to the European Union?
In the Kremlin, most of the mass social protests are considered to be the result of foreign inspiration, even international conspiracy. Every protest against the status quo is a special operation of the West and an inspiration for the planned “color revolution.” For Russia a change of power as a result of protests is a risky scenario. It is a bad situation for the Kremlin itself – I want to remind that Russia has its problems in efficiently managing its regions – I am talking about the Far East. There is a local but a considerable protest against the governing style that ignores the needs and aspirations of society. Lukashenko does not want to and cannot surrender. The concession is treated as an unacceptable sign of weakness. The regime hopes that by imitating the readiness for changes it will hold all the aces. Apart from the military security matter mentioned before, the economic issue is also crucial. Belarus remains a country between and even closer to Russia, because most of the producers work for the Russian market. There are so many strong ties with Russia that they are difficult to break. However, this does not predetermine the failure, although it may take a long time, of the scenario of political change in Belarus and undermining the existing authoritarianism.