Lukashenko Mistakes Protesters’ Principles for Weakness
A surreal helicopter flight highlights the besieged Belarusian president’s belief in force.
MINSK, Belarus — Anti-government protesters took to the streets of the Belarusian capital of Minsk on Sunday, marking the 15th day of the Belarusian political crisis in the wake of the blatant falsification of presidential election results in favor of the country’s long-term authoritarian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko. Despite dramatic government threats against protesters, the imposition of travel barriers inside and around the capital, and predictions of rain, the opposition resoundingly disproved fears that the protest movement had begun to lose steam and momentum.
By putting around 200,000 people, perhaps more, on the streets, the opposition ignored the progressively more histrionic threats that had been emanating from Lukashenko and his security forces. Earlier in the weekend, Lukashenko ordered a full mobilization of the Belarusian military and denounced an imminent NATO invasion on the Lithuanian border, even as generals openly discussed the possibility of civil war.
This continues to be the most velvet of revolutions, as I have written elsewhere. The Belarusian protesters are strikingly peaceful, mature, disciplined and civilized. While they demonstrated that they can dominate the streets, they almost universally strived to avoid any confrontations with the security services.
But that may be dangerous. The opposition and Lukashenko are speaking very different languages when it comes to force. Lukashenko has successfully used violence to repress protesters after previous elections. The young people I speak with at the protests have consciously chosen the 1989 Czech model and consistently reject comparisons to the Ukrainian Maidan of 2014. “We are a different sort of people,” they have told me, while remaining aware of the possibility of tanks being deployed against them. While the protesters avoided direct threats, sending out messages to avoid provocations through Telegram channels, Lukashenko saw this not as an invitation to negotiation but as a sign of weakness. For Lukashenko, who has jettisoned the conciliatory tone he had briefly adapted last week, that perception of weakness will likely only encourage the ratcheting-up of ever more repressive violence.
To do that, he may need help from outside. The OMON special riot police, which has been beating and torturing protesters since the first days after the election, have proved themselves to be deeply committed to Lukashenko. Yet security services made no attempt to arrest demonstrators or to assault the protest’s main column, retreating to secure only the presidential palace and the Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum, which commemorates World War II. The Museum had symbolic impact: Throwing a military cordon around it signaled the regime’s embrace of the Moscow narrative of the place of war memory in conferring post-Soviet political legitimacy. Faced with the loss of power, Lukashenko has now abandoned his decadelong dance of playing off Russia against Western interests and thrown in his lot with Moscow’s willingness to rescue him. That may mean a future he has vigorously resisted for years: running Belarus as little more than the governor of a Russian province. But if it’s his only choice, as he sees it, he’ll take it.
The gulf between the protesters’ understanding of confrontation and Lukashenko’s was highlighted during a spontaneous march on the presidential palace, Lukashenko’s working residency. The surreal events that resulted may be some of the defining imagery of the revolution. Lukashenko seems to have panicked at the protests reaching the palace and, upon reinforcing the garrison, took off in his military helicopter to fly over the heads of the protesters. State-controlled media would later publish footage of Lukashenko looking down from the window of the helicopter and referring to protesters as “rats.” Upon touching back down on the grass inside the presidential compound, Lukashenko leapt out of the helicopter with an unloaded AK-47 rifle in his left hand. Lukashenko than proceeded to thank the stolid line of black-clad troops who were manning the barricades outside of the palace. “Thank you, you are all legends!” he bellowed to them, adding, “We will sort them out!” They applauded vigorously, and some can be heard replying, “To the very end!” Belarusian Telegram channels and activists swiftly began to refer to the security services as Lukashenko’s “real constituency.”
Lukashenko’s son Nikolai, who has been used as a prop by his father ever since a PR agency suggested it might humanize his image, was with him. Despite being over 6 feet tall, the boy, still just 15 years old, looked awkward and terrified dressed up as a soldier. But Lukashenko’s personal security was never actually under any sort of threat. The protesters’ own sense of decorum and determination to stick to a peaceful route meant that actions such as actually seizing the palace were just not in the cards.
That may be a problem for resolving the political crisis. As well-meaning and idealistic as the determination to stick to nonviolent methods is, the protesters really did possess the numbers to conclude the stand-off by seizing the palace with Lukashenko inside it. Their failure to do so may embolden Lukashenko, pushing him further toward the use of repressive violence out of the belief that the protesters can be crushed by the use of force against those unwilling or unable to fight back. Two major opposition leaders were arrested on Monday, and the rhetoric from the regime has only intensified. Ratcheting up force to the point where negotiations are no longer possible is very much a possible critical error on Lukashenko’s part. Nonviolent opposition movements can very quickly embrace martial virtues if people are provoked too far. Missing the opportunity for a negotiated outcome may be something that Lukashenko himself comes to regret.