Lukashenko Unleashed Changes in Belarus That Are Out of His Control

Whatever happens in the ongoing protests, the country’s society is increasingly less governable for a dictator.

People take part in an anti-government rally in the rain in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 30.
People take part in an anti-government rally in the rain in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 30. Misha Friedman/Getty Images

The waves of protests that have swept Belarus since its disputed Aug. 9 election that pitted longtime ruler Alexander Lukashenko against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, took many by surprise—even in Belarus. But the seeds of the uprising were planted years ago.

Over the past decade, Belarusian society has changed immeasurably. Although the country’s economy has generally stagnated, a middle class based on information-technology specialists and minor entrepreneurs emerged, more people had the money to travel all around Europe, and social media revealed beyond dispute that the world outside Belarus looks pretty different from the picture presented by the official state propaganda.

For a time, according to Zmicier Mickiewicz, a journalist at independent Belsat TV, Lukashenko was able to navigate those changes, building “up his support amongst broad masses of Belarusians on the two main pillars: economic stability and the sense of social security,” he said. But more recently, those foundations had started to crumble. “The first was erased by the developing economic crisis and the second by neglecting the COVID pandemic,” he said. Going into this summer’s election, Belarusians were already increasingly skeptical of Lukashenko’s stewardship. So when the official results handed him 80 percent of vote, few believed him. They sided with Tikhanovskaya, who announced that, according to independent estimates, she had won.

Ever since, Belarusians have been out in protest. On a recent Sunday in Independence Square in Minsk, it seemed that they wouldn’t stop until real change had come. As many as 250,000 people gathered that day, calling on Lukashenko to resign immediately. One young girl lifted a handmade drawing of the president depicting him as a vampire with razor-sharp teeth and a caption in English announcing: “We are not your slaves.”

Whatever the outcome of the protests, the structural changes in society that started years ago have been sped up, and that is something no future leader will be able to undo.

Aleksei, who asked to be identified only by his first name, is more bookworm than battle-hardened street fighter ready to confront the police forces on the barricades. This year marks his second year of university. His girlfriend, Maria, is studying in the United States, but she returned home for a summer break. In the past few weeks, bruises and swelling have slowly taken over Aleksei’s legs, back, arms, and head. The young man sat on an armchair holding Maria’s hand with his good one. The other was in a cast and hung in a sling. Aleksei had spent the previous several days in the hospital, returning home only the day before we met. His head was marked with one patch of short tufts of hair.

“Mom found my ponytail in my trousers’ pocket. I must have compulsively hid it before I partially passed out. They cut it off with a knife and firstly ordered [me] to eat it, but finally, they concentrated on beating me.” Aleksei had been detained by a special paramilitary police squad, OMON, on the night of Aug. 12 to 13.  The policeman who beat him had asked many times who his commander was and how much he was paid for participating in the demonstrations. He was thrown back out on the street at some point after losing consciousness.

According to Anaïs Marin, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, around 7,000 people were arrested in the first four days of protests. Most of them were beaten and tortured in police trucks and in a few prisons, particularly the Okrestina jail, which served as a central detention center. Some detainees were forced to kneel with their heads on the ground and hands behind their backs for hours. Others were kept in extremely crowded cells where they had to take turns to sit down. “I saw men kneeling on the floor covered with blood. The woman that was detained with me suffered from diabetes but she was denied any food or medical help. We were beaten by the female staff in the spine if we did not bow low enough, and I was punched a few times in the stomach. Thirty of us was put into the cell with only four beds,” said Belsat TV journalist Alyona Shcherbinskaya, who spent three days in Okrestina and another week in the hospital.

According to Nascia Maschava and Artur Finkevich, volunteers working with the detainees, many of them had not even participated in the protests. OMON officers were seen dragging drivers from passing cars or detaining people coming back from cafes or heading to supermarkets. “The aim of this action was not to quell the protests but to intimidate society. To show that no one is safe,” said Vitalii Tsyhankou, a political analyst and journalist for Radio Free Europe. Tyshankou was threatened with a handgun and pulled from his car with his wife before being detained and battered.

But as an intimidation tactic, such abuse is not working. “We are not afraid anymore,” chanted women standing in a chain stretching out for hundreds of meters outside Minsk’s largest marketplace, Kamarouski Rynak.

According to the World Bank, Belarusian gross domestic product per capita amounts to about $6,700. In Europe, only North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, Kosovo, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine are poorer. At the same time, since 2015, those other countries have mostly grown faster than Belarus. That has made it clearer than ever that the governing regime is doing something wrong and change is needed.

That shift in perspective has spread beyond the protestors in the big cities. Pedestrians, drivers, and shopkeepers repeat that the spirit of solidarity is uniting them as a nation. But notably, workers who traditionally support Lukashenko at huge industrial plants such as Minsk Automobile Plant, salt mines in the city of Soligorsk, and some collective farms have also decided to speak against him. At the start of the protests, the economic conditions and pandemic may have been key, but the real breaking point was the government’s harsh repression of the protesters.

Meanwhile, news feeds on the popular messaging program Telegram have been providing a steady flow of independent information. That is part of the reason, opponents say, Lukashenko could not understand at the beginning how to cope with demonstrations. He was on the lookout for one leader to decapitate him, but he was confronted with a million-headed hydra instead.

Still, what had been a major factor in the opposition’s success in the first stage of the protest might also be its biggest flaw. The lack of charismatic political leadership or a clear strategy for further protests might result in the gradual withering away of today’s revolutionary fervor. For now, Tikhanovskaya serves as a symbol of change, but it is doubtful that she is experienced enough or has the political allies to confront Lukashenko. Until recently, she was working as English teacher and interpreter and had not been engaged in politics. Moreover, after the recent election she was forced to flee Belarus and is currently in exile in Lithuania.

“Since August 9, Lukashenko has been struggling for survival,” argued Piotr Rudkouski, director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies. “He has been fighting not only for keeping the power but for his freedom because if revolution prevailed, he would be prosecuted.” But Rudkouski believes that the chances that the current protests will force him to resign are scant, especially since the so-called siloviki, higher-ups in the armed forces, are still backing his regime. In his opinion, he said, the process of transition of power has already commenced, but it will presumably take not days or weeks, but instead months or even years.

The bottom line is that, given the changes in society in recent years, the Belarusian population is no longer governable by Lukashenko’s political apparatus. The only way for him to keep the control is to restore order using the police, the secret services, and potentially also the army. Russian President Vladimir Putin has even warned that Russian is ready to back Lukashenko in the even of a crisis. Both Minsk and Moscow have realized, in other words, that only force can keep Lukashenko in office. That may work in the short term, but it isn’t a long-term recipe for success.

“For the first time in the post-Soviet history of Belarus,” Pit Paulau, a rock musician from the legendary anti-establishment band Niezaleznaja Respublika Mroja told me on Aug. 23. “I am no longer an outsider, but a completely ordinary person like millions of my fellow countrymen,” he continued, hinting at the way in which Belarusian society has swung toward his point of view. He pulled out his guitar, and as he plucked the strings, those gathered immediately picked chimed in with the words of the protest-song “Three Turtles,” the chorus of which goes: “Don’t wait, there will be no other surprises!”

“We have already surprised ourselves that we are ready to unite against the regime,” one of the protesters told me. “However, maybe it our last chance to overthrow it, and so we must persevere in our resistance.” On that Sunday, a crowd of many thousands of protesters set off from Independence Square, marched across the streets of Minsk, and reached the monument dedicated to the Great Patriotic War, a term used in Russia and some other post-Soviet states to describe World War II. The mighty spire was surrounded by metal barriers, barbed wire entanglements, and hundreds of soldiers.

Young men stood in a row with Kalashnikovs on their backs and their faces hidden under balaclavas. A protester stopped in front of them, raised his hands, and spread the flag of a free Belarus over his head, shouting: “We are Belarusians! Join us.” None of the soldiers moved, but some of their eyes flickered with uncertainty. The stalemate continues, and two Belaruses remain separated by barbed wire.

Tomasz Grzywaczewski is a journalist in Poland.

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