Despite widespread popular support, the movement against Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko has reached the limits of its judicial means for contesting this month’s fraudulent presidential election. Belarusian writer and scholar Nelly Bekus explains how the political crisis reached this point – and where it is now headed.
One of the unique features of the protest mobilisation against this month’s rigged Belarusian presidential election has been its lack of political leadership. Yet in the absence of formal organisation, the movement faces serious challenges in translating public discontent into concrete steps that could allow change to be implemented in practice.
Alexander Lukahshenko’s major rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who probably won the election but was not recognised in a fraudulent vote count, did not participate in the election to become president. Her plan, which attracted wide support across society, was to restart Belarus’s political life: her two major promises being to release political prisoners and to immediately organise a new free and fair presidential election.
Once the official results of the election had been announced, giving over 80% of the vote to the incumbent president, Tikhanovskaya chose to rely on legal instruments to contest the official results; a move many of her supporters considered unpromising. After visiting the Central Election Committee office on 10 August to file a formal complaint of vote-rigging and begin the legal case for forcing a recount, Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee the country and has until now refused to comment on precisely what happened to her on that day. Considering her husband Sergey Tikhanovsky remains imprisoned and may be used by the authorities as a leverage, Tikhanovskaya herself has proved too vulnerable a figure to lead the political mobilisation against Lukashenko.
A moment of truth.
By forcing Tikhanovskaya out of the country, the authorities have not only removed a person who could have consolidated the opposition from the political scene, but also demonstrated their unwillingness to settle the political crisis by judicial means.
The mass protests that have taken place across the country, including the most spectacular peaceful rallies on 16 and 23 August, which attracted around 200,000 demonstrators to Minsk alone, have created a unique moment in the history of Belarusian political upheavals. Heavily reliant on social media, the protests have been the product of self-organisation rather than a coordination of hierarchical organisations or parties associated with the traditional political opposition and its formal leadership.
This fact has meant there is little doubt the protests represent the genuine desire of the Belarusian people to both demonstrate their distrust of the official election results and to protest against the use of violence by riot police. Indeed, the nonviolent demonstrations have relied on the grassroots mobilisation of ordinary Belarusians who have attended the rallies with a sole intention: to show Lukashenko the scale of disapproval for his politics and the desire for change in Belarusian society.
The ongoing direct communication between the people and their unelected president can be seen as a moment of truth, when for once the authoritarian leader gets feedback from society which is not pre-moderated by his office. Yet the lack of political leadership in such a spontaneous protest mobilisation becomes much more problematic when it comes to finding a practical solution for the political crisis which now engulfs the country.
In an attempt to enable dialogue between the unstructured opposition and Lukashenko, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, currently based in Lithuania, initiated the establishment of the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power, a group comprising civil rights activists, opposition politicians, leaders of workers’ strike committees, and prominent intellectuals. Prominent personalities who have joined the Council include the Nobel prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich, and the former minister of culture and ambassador to France and Poland, Pavel Latushko.
The Council’s first resolution proclaimed itself the unified representative body of the Belarusian people, existing with the aim of organising the process of overcoming the political crisis and ensuring social cohesion, whilst protecting the sovereignty and independence of the Republic of Belarus. The Council has emphasised that it intends to operate under the fundamental principles of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and does not aim to seize power through unconstitutional means, such as through the organisation or preparation of actions that violate public order.
On 20 August, the Coordination Council submitted official appeals to the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Investigative Committee, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the KGB, requesting urgent meetings to discuss what they describe as the demands put forward by the majority of Belarusian citizens, which are set out in the Council’s resolution.
Lukashenko has chosen to ignore the Council’s offer of cooperation, which could have provided a way out of the political crisis.
On 17 August, at a meeting with the striking workers of Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT), a manufacturer of heavy off-road vehicles, Lukashenko had made a statement about his own vision of a potential power transfer. The first public acknowledgement that Lukashenko ever intends to leave the presidential office, his suggested power transfer implied a long transitional period during which a new constitution could be adopted, after which a new presidential election could be organised. Lukashenko’s opponents criticised what they argued was empty speculation, conjured up merely to prolong his stay in power and to postpone a new election indefinitely.
It was a promise that would soon be invalided by Lukashenko himself, as his rhetoric when addressing his political opponents grew increasingly hostile and combative. In line with his latest propaganda strategy, Belarusian state media now portrays the protests as not only aiming to destabilise the situation in the country by ousting an allegedly legitimate president, but also as an attempted coup d’etat managed by foreign powers, with white-and-red flag waving protesters depicted as enemies of the state.
On August 20, prosecutor-general Alexander Koniuk initiated a criminal case against the Coordination Council, incriminating its members for establishing a political body to organise the transition of power away from the current head of state. In the following days, two members of the Council, Olga Kovalkova, an assistant of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and the leader of MTZ strike committee, Sergei Dylevsky, were arrested and were sentenced for ten days in prison for allegedly disobeying an order made by the authorities and for the organisation of unauthorised actions.
These latest steps have effectively criminalised the activities of Lukashenko’s political opponents and seemingly destroyed the possibility of a dialogue about the peaceful transfer of power. The image of Lukashenko arriving at the presidential palace by helicopter wearing a flak jacket and carrying a rifle became a manifestation of his intention not to concede control. While his supporters were offered proof that their president remains ready to face all threats to his power, for demonstrators carrying flowers and singing songs in front of military and police units, the image was a testament to Lukashenko’s complete loss of touch with the reality in his country.
The new reality.
There is no obvious strategy to overcoming the current political impasse. The Belarusian opposition has limited means at its disposal to force Lukashenko to enter into a dialogue about the transfer of power even remotely. Yet, while playing the role of strongman, the current situation has its limitations for the president too.
Over 26 years, his system of rule has been sustained less by the repression of the political opponents – which, although it has happened sporadically, has never played a leading role in maintaining the status quo – but rather a combination of populist rhetoric and the maintenance of a social contract with society. While the former appealed to the ideas of strong leadership and protective state, the latter promised economic stability and social security in return.
Before the election, elements of this contract showed signs of deterioration, particularly the way in which the coronavirus pandemic was handled, which made evident the inadequacy and inefficiency of the protection offered by the state. But even earlier, in 2017, Belarusians went to the streets to protest against the so-called ‘social parasite tax’ on the unemployed, which Lukashenko introduced as a method of cutting spending on welfare. At the time, Lukashenko said the tax was designed to “stimulate citizens to engage in labour activity and fulfil their constitutional obligation to participate in financing state expenditures.” But the law was ultimately suspended and redrafted, and the episode revealed critical tensions over the state’s inability to deliver on its promises and citizens’ dissatisfaction with its performance.
In the new reality that has been taking shape over the course of the ongoing confrontation between Lukashenko and Belarusian society this month, Lukashenko has arisen as a different type of ruler to the one he had long professed to be – one who relies on military and police control rather than populist credentials and significant electoral support. His claims of a so-called ‘external threat’ that would justify his deployment of violence against his own people provide an unconvincing disguise for his illegitimate but unrestrained desire to stay in power.
Throughout Belarus’s protests this month, the absence of EU flags from demonstrations has been noticeable, particularly compared with Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan protests. The protests have not been about forcing a change of geopolitical orientation in the country’s development, which remains closely integrated with Russia by multiple economic and cultural ties. Indeed, the Coordination Council from the start emphasised its intention to maintain friendly and mutually beneficial relations with both Russia and the EU.
The intention for a balanced navigation of geopolitical tensions between the East and West becomes less and less viable, however, with the Kremlin’s growing involvement in assisting Lukashenko in remaining in power and suppressing the movement against him. Recently the Belarusian state broadcaster hired Russian reporters after some of its own employees joined the protests, and the Russian news agency has confirmed the Kremlin is ready to provide Lukashenko with assistance in “solving problems based on the treaty on creating the Union State and in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization”.
Meanwhile, facing persecution and the violation of their civil and human rights, members of the Coordination Council and many ordinary protesters are now turning to EU countries in the hope of help and protection. On 25 August, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya addressed the members of the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee, asking European countries to support the efforts of her countrymen and women, and to “respect the sovereignty of Belarus”. In the meantime, neighbouring countries Poland and Lithuania have allowed Belarusians seeking to escape persecution to enter their countries despite borders officially being closed due to Covid-19.
Indeed, the role of external players, which Lukashenko presents as a major threat to the sovereignty of Belarus, is for many protesters now becoming their only hope of forcing him into a dialogue with the country’s political opposition. And, paradoxically, it is another external force – Russia – which he himself is now relying upon to maintain control over the country.
Nelly Bekus is the author of Struggle Over Identity: The Official and the Alternative ‘Belarusianness’ and a co-editor of Orthodoxy Versus Post-Communism? Belarus, Serbia, Ukraine and the Russkiy Mir. She teaches at the University of Exeter.