Why Belarus Is Not Ukraine
Yes, there are surprisingly big protests—like those that rocked Kyiv six years ago—being met with brutal crackdowns. But Belarus is a whole different story.
Scenes in Belarus of protesters erecting crude barricades while fending off the attacks of heavily armored riot police have evoked memories of another uprising in the borderlands between Russia and the European Union: the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that erupted in Kyiv’s Maidan square, an uprising that drove out the country’s kleptocrat president and ushered in a new, if complicated, era in Ukraine.
The similarities certainly have not escaped Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, who claimed a sixth presidential term Sunday in an election nearly universally condemned as a farce. “As I have warned, there will be no Maidan, no matter how much anyone wants one,” he said on Monday, just as the protests began picking up steam.
But despite the similar, gruesome optics, the differences between the two uprisings far outweigh their similarities, though the two countries may both be neighbors and former Soviet Republics. Those differences make it harder to look to Ukraine as a potential road map for how the events in Belarus may unfold.
For starters, Belarus is a lot more authoritarian than Ukraine was or is.
In his quarter-century in power, Lukashenko has built a machine of repression that is a lot bigger, more pervasive, and nastier than anything in post-Soviet Ukraine—making the risks faced by protesters in Minsk and other cities a lot higher than they were six years ago in Ukraine.
In the three days since the presidential elections, deemed neither free nor fair by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the European Union’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, 6,000 people have been arrested, 250 injured, and two deaths have been reported in relation to the crackdown. While the Ukrainian revolution ultimately claimed around 100 lives (not including over 13,000 people who died in years of low-intensity armed conflict in the eastern part of the country), the first deaths in Ukraine didn’t come until after protesters had been on the street for two months. Lukashenko didn’t wait two nights.
That highlights just how determined the Belarus authorities are to crush the incipient protests before they gain momentum—and the courage of protesters who are braving batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and flash grenades. On Wednesday, the police in Belarus confirmed that they had used live ammunition against protesters in the city of Brest and that one person was injured.
“I didn’t expect such resilience from Belarusians, they’re amazing, simply amazing. Going and knowing they’re risking their lives, it’s simply beautiful,” said Andrei Sannikov, who ran against Lukashenko in the presidential election in 2010 and was later imprisoned for 16 months for organizing an anti-government protest following the sham vote. “You watch it with pride and tears in your eyes,” he said.
On Wednesday, protesters gathered outside a detention center in Minsk, where they could hear the screams of detainees being beaten inside. “Hang in there,” the protesters chanted, according to the independent Russian media outlet MediaZona.
During his 26 years in power, Lukashenko has in many ways replicated the brute-force, centralized system of his Soviet predecessors. (Lukashenko was the manager of a collective pig farm in Soviet days). The country’s security services still go by their Soviet-era name, the KGB, whose elite Alpha Unit was deployed on the streets of Minsk amid the unrest.
Despite the risks, independent media outlets and civil society groups do operate in Belarus, but they face routine harassment by the authorities, stifling red tape, and the threat of arbitrary arrest. The main opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, had to flee the country after the vote, following an apparent threat against her children.
For another, Ukraine was actually sort of democratic when the Maidan protests broke out.
In 2014, Ukraine was rated as partly free by Freedom House. It was a problematic, backsliding democracy where corruption was endemic and violence against journalists was on the rise, but dissent was possible—and politics was not a one-man show.
“In 2013 [in Ukraine], you had a relatively vibrant civil society. You had a government which was a very soft authoritarian government,” said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “Belarus does not have a history of such civic resistance.”
Crucially, elections were largely free and fair in a way they have never been in Lukashenko’s Belarus. While the parliament was stacked with supporters of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, there was a lively opposition that quickly threw its support behind the protests. Even the downside of Ukrainian politics offered more space for maneuver. Ukraine’s oligarchs, who have long had an outsized and often troublesome role in the country’s politics, nevertheless served as an alternative base of power as they jockeyed for influence. Belarus’s wealthy business leaders have negligible political clout.
On the other hand, independent Ukraine was built on a ready-made fault line. Belarus isn’t.
The Ukrainian revolution strained historic and linguistic divides, which were only exacerbated by Russian disinformation and military support as the Kremlin helped foment war in eastern Ukraine, dispatching troops in unmarked uniforms as well as tanks and artillery. Western Ukraine, once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, usually looked to the West—as evidenced in the strong support for an association agreement with the European Union in that part of the country, the very agreement that sparked the Maidan protests and crackdown in the first place. In contrast, the eastern part of the country, never gobbled up by the Habsburgs, has almost always been Russian-speaking and oriented toward Moscow. After the uprisings in 2014 that forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia, pro-Russian separatists in eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk staged independence referendums, going on to form proto-states highly dependent on Moscow’s muscle and financial backing.
Belarus, in contrast, has little in the way of linguistic, religious, or ethnic divides for foreign actors like Russia to exploit. “Belarus almost never was split in terms of being part of different countries,” said Artyom Shraibman, a founder of the Minsk-based political consultancy Sense Analytics, save for the period after World War I when the country was split between Poland and the Soviet Union. “Before that, for centuries, Belarus was always part of one single nation,” he said, creating a fairly homogeneous population with a long-shared history.
Ukraine’s protesters had a clear goal. All that Belarusians have right now is anger and outrage.
The Ukrainian protesters had a clear aim: to steer the country in the direction of Europe and, by extension, toward a more democratic and prosperous future. The EU Association Agreement that caused the whole uproar would have made Ukraine, if not an EU member state, a trading partner with Western-style rules and regulations. In consequence, leaders of the protest movement quickly emerged.
A key distinction in Belarus is that the protests have no clear leader, Shraibman said. “This is more a protest of anger, than a conscious attempt at toppling the regime,” he said.
What coordination there is has largely centered around the secure messaging app Telegram, where popular channels share messages that warn protesters of police movements, guide demonstrators to certain neighborhoods, and encourage them to use their cars to deliver supplies and block police vehicles. This diffuse coordination could actually make it harder for the security services to quash, said Katsiaryna Shmatsina, a political analyst with the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.
“If we had one clear leader, especially if this leader was in Belarus, we don’t know how long he or she would have lasted,” Shmatsina said.
For all the differences between the two dramatic upheavals, there are some constants. Should Moscow decide to wade in, it has plenty of points of leverage—many of the same ones it has used against Ukraine—whether cutting off energy supplies, launching cyberattacks, or exploiting Russian-language media in a place where the Russian language still predominates.
“There’s a lot of pressure points there,” said Ben Hodges, who served from 2014 to 2017 as the commanding general of U.S. military forces in Europe.
Update, Aug. 12, 2020: This article has been updated to include news of a second death related to the Belarus anti-government protests.