Anger in Belarus: Cross perspectives on an unexpected unrest

International Seminar/Webinar, Prague, 16th of September
A report by Gabrielle Franck

Last September, CEFRES welcomed four specialists on Belarus for a two hours round-table discussion – an opportunity to debate current events. Anger in Belarus: Cross perspectives on an unexpected unrest brought together Ronan Hervouet, associate professor at the University of Bordeaux, Anaïs Marin, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus and researcher in international relations, Alena Marková, researcher on national processes in Central and Eastern Europe and Daniela Kolenovská, director of the Department of Russian and East European Studies at Charles University (Faculty of Social Sciences). The intention of this roundtable, moderated by Jérôme Heurtaux, director of CEFRES, was to shed light on the possible contribution of social sciences to the intelligibility of the current situation in Belarus. Here is a report on this enriching event.

A new kind of protest?

The elections contested by the announcement of a seventh mandate for Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, paved the way for a wave of national demonstrations – the last of which took place three days before the seminar. Official statistics revealed 80% of the votes for the current president. The main opposition candidate, however, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, received only 10% of the votes. Alena Marková pointed out here the opposite results estimated by independent organizations, establishing Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the winner of the contest. Daniela Kolenovská summed up the situation, speaking of an absence of real elections, as evidenced by the pre-election arrests of potential candidates.

So far, Alena Marková noted that every Belarusian election has been accompanied by social challenges. A seemingly old historical trend, however, compensated by several specificities, peculiar to the present day. The massive nature of these protests, including a variety of social motives, from teachers and their students to doctors, miners and IT workers, is one of them. Gathering the regions and the capital under one united voice, these protests differ from previous ones, concentrated around Minsk (e.g. 2006, 2010). They can be compared to the mass movements of the 1990s in Belarus and the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution. The diversity of strikes is another characteristic of these surprising movements. They led to a small economic crisis and disturbed the already unstable economic balance of Belarus. Added to this is the impressive self-discipline of these non-violent voices, the unprecedented female participation and the longevity of the demonstrations (more than a month and a half). Following this idea, Daniela Kolenovská replaced Belarusian women in their usual context. Contrary to their common demands (more food, opportunities and health care for their children), here they are taking a stand to condemn the political power in place. This change can be seen as a consequence of long-standing trends in society, which have led women to demand a greater role.

Ronan Hervouet reminded us of the silent opposition in 2011, centralized and organized through the use of social media. He also cited those of 2017, against the anti-parasite taxes imposed by the state on the unemployed for having no occupation. Regarding these events, analogies can be made with current events, as they illustrate the newly adopted forms of organization, which embrace a decentralization of power and a discourse of autonomy from any centralizing leader. Anaïs Marin added the causal increase of gasoline taxes to the 2011 events. She then described its local character, placing car drivers and their repression by the police at the center of the events. Those of 2017, she recalled, were mainly aimed at human rights defenders and illegal NGO workers. Indeed, as the process of legal registration of organizations remains difficult in Belarus, many of their members act, in some respects, in clandestinity. In both cases the government had to withdraw the law or reformulate it.

Women’s Participation, the Internet, and Intimidation: Turning Points

On August 12 this summer, the women went to the streets hanging white flowers and flags. This day marked the first in a list of turning points for the movement, as no arrests were made by the police for the first time since the beginning. The pre-existing traditional view of women as illegitimate targets of police repression played as the main reason for this surprising respect. A second breaking point was the almost complete closure of the Internet (August 9-12). It created a number of difficulties for the population, as families could not be reunited with their loved ones, and had an additional impact on the economy. Its return led to the shocking discovery, spread through social media, of the extent of the violence that had occurred over the last three days. As Anaïs Marin postulated, « the whole country is now in a state of collective post-traumatic shock ». According to Ronan Hervouet, this traumatic violence is the exact cause of the politicization of a majority of the population. Indeed, if the economic crisis and low wages are certainly a factor of protest in cities, their influence on the politicization of the countryside remains uncertain.

A question of national identity 

For Alena Marková, this situation raises the matter of new national identity. The reappropriation of symbols, such as the white rose or the Belarusian flag, would in fact create new discursive tensions. These were adopted before Lukashenko came to power and the 1995 national referendum, as an alternative narrative to the Belarusian-Soviet Republic. However, « in this particular case, national identity is not based on the national language ». Indeed, a large majority of the population still speaks Russian and there is no demand for a single official Belarusian state language. Anais Marin contributed to this idea by introducing the usual view of the Belarusian language as an object of study rather than as a means of communication. She spoke of an obvious discrimination against the Belarusian language. For Daniela Kolenovská, however, the existence of a certain sentimentality of the language remains certain. The recognition of this history and of the Belarusian language would therefore increase as it is promoted by intellectuals. Lukashenko’s account, on the other hand, describes Belarus as a buffer state between Poland and Russia, two long-standing opponents. This allows the image of a calm and peaceful Belarus to continue to spread within society. « This calm character (…) seems to be more important than the national language, » she continues. After the disasters of the First World War, the Belarusian people began to discover a local solidarity, slowly transforming itself into a local identity. Around the same period a national anti-Soviet movement emerged. This local identity was unfortunately crushed by German and Soviet armies. Indeed, during the Second World War, a third of the territory suffered.

Violations of human rights

Anaïs Marin described the restrictive legal system of the country. The legal vision and the possible qualification by the State of a single person demonstrating, even peacefully, as a mass event is an example of this. This qualification can then be used to legitimize the use of fines or detentions up to 15 days. Presenting the socio-psychological aspects of state repression, she recalled the 6,700 peaceful demonstrators detained in the three days following the 9th of August vote, reaching more than 10,000 today. Violating the right to peaceful assembly, and thus international human rights law, she also explained the 450 allegations based on evidence of torture and illegal human treatment in detention, received by the speaker within two weeks. At least five people lost their lives, whose responsibility is denied by state forces. She described these actions as planned, premeditated and systematic, allowing her to name crimes against humanity. International investigative mechanisms are now in place, in spaces such as the Human Rights Council. One of the major problems, however, seems to be the lack of public support from the Belarusian judiciary and health system (no ban on torture, police intimidation, cooperation of hospitals with the police force, etc.).

The Covid factor 

According to Daniela Kolenovská, Alexander Lukashenko’s order to continue living as usual in spite of the pandemic, triggered the impulse for that would later lead the population to consider the need for a new leader. This awareness, accompanied by the comparison with Russia – the neighbor that organizes its own health measures – represents a real breaking point. Lukashenko’s blaming attitude towards the citizens declared positive to Covid-19, as Ronan Hervouet pointed out, added to the widespread view of the president as an « incapable leader ». The lack of state protection remains for the main trigger for the politicization of a large part of the population, whether urban or rural.

Belarus in the international system

Serving as a transit country for transporting oil to Europe and owning a few mines, Belarus is described by Daniela Kolenovská as lacking many other economic opportunities. Unfortunately, she added, this economic perspective tends to be predominant in current international relations. Anaïs Marin recalled the disunity of the EU on the subject of Belarus and the war of disinformation initiated by Russia. Presenting the idea of a threatening West, supporting the protests, Russia described the European Union as intending to derail the project of Eurasian integration. The Russian discrediting of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, presented as an illegitimate candidate, further accentuated the impossibility of engaging in dialogue within society. 

Is the movement losing power?

The absence of a clear representation of the opposition, as there is no emerging figure uniting the country, and the problems of coordination, are for Daniela Kolenovská a sign of the loss of power of the protests. Taking the examples of Poland in its struggle against communism, and Tunisia in its opposition to Ben Ali, Jérôme Heurtaux wondered about the importance of having a large common figure in the success of social protests. In the first case, in fact, it took ten years for the leaders of Polish independent trade-union Solidarity to succeed, while in the second, it took only a month for Ben Ali to loose power, without any unifying figure within the protesters. For Anaïs Marin, the idea of the state using force as a tool of intimidation had opposite consequences. However, Lukashenko’s strong hold, which remains in the hands of the security forces, seems to benefit from a stable relationship with the army and police forces. As a result, Alena Marková described the situation as « not very optimistic ».