The Protests – What’s Different?
In recent weeks, elements of society have been expressing their discontent which has been sparked by the government’s response to the rival presidential candidates.
The Belarusian authorities have again implemented their time-honoured formula of dealing with discontent: to come down heavily on the protesters who will then either see the error of their ways or will be cowed into submission.
The response of foreign governments is unequivocal, but also predictable, as the British embassy website sums it up:
Thus do the various actors perform their roles and Belarus slowly ‘normalises’ yet again.
However, there are several reasons why ‘normalisation’ is less likely to happen now than it did in the past.
Firstly, society is changing changing rapidly. The younger urban and educated generation in Belarus, as in many countries, feel that their aspirations are not being filled. Inevitably, the focus of their discontent is now aimed at those who have stayed in power even before some of them were born. The achievements of the authorities over the last quarter of a century are now eclipsed by their failures, at least in the eyes of new generations. Moreover, this is a generation less used to blind acceptance, hopeless resignation or even sullen acquiescence: they want to know why governments do things, they don’t accept ‘because we said so.’ Suppressing these demands is going to be like trying to eliminate a bubble under wallpaper – push it down and it appears somewhere else – and larger. As each year goes by, there may be more bubbles.To force the metaphor even more, Belarus is rapidly becoming like a new, sparkling wine in an old bottle: either the top comes off or the bottle shatters.
There are also changes in the older generation. In the past, the older folk have seen authoritarian rule as the only foundation for peace and stability. In fact, whether or not they really believed it, they somehow had to rationalise their acceptance of authoritarian government. However, not only are they becoming fewer and fewer in number, their outlook seems to be changing as well. They still fear any changes in leadership – they remember the economic difficulties of the last changes in the 1990’s, pre-current-President. However, this fear is not the same as unconditional support for the current structure. If a low risk alternative appears, they might just feel inclined to support it. In addition, they are hardly passive observers of what is going on – they may also have family members who are protesting in the streets. One more grandchild in the paddy wagon causes negative ripples across the extended family. The more brutal the response, the stronger the ripples.
Secondly, a strong police reaction creates implications in Belarus’ internal and external affairs. The authority’s justification for the repression is that they are ‘the result of outside forces constantly trying to stir up trouble to escalate the situation (from both West and East)’. If this were true, such foreign powers will continue to stir up trouble, regardless of how brutal the response. Indeed, a foreign power might actually welcome an escalation and therefore doing its utmost to make it happen. In this case, a tough response can either quell the unrest or exacerbate it. At worst, it could give a foreign power a reason to intervene to ‘save the country from itself.’ Moreover, there may be those in authority in Belarus who are not unsympathetic to the idea. For this reason the current knee-jerk response to the protests is becoming a high-risk strategy.
Thirdly, there may be economic consequences to the response that may confound many of the states measures to improve Belarus’ image. For example, in 2019 the state devoted much time and resource to the European games in order to cultivate a positive representation of Belarus as a modern progressive country. People from all over the globe came to Belarus to discover it was a real country with real people with quite a sophisticated night life. Visitors to the country met ordinary Belarusians and were blown away by their friendliness and hospitality. They left Belarus with an enduring interest in the country and its people. Some of them might have wanted to come back and see more or recommend Belarus to their friends. The relaxation of visas can, in theory, make tourism a golden egg.
It may not happen now. Those visitors to Belarus are probably following events quite closely, certainly more closely than they did before they came here. What they see are flashes of an uneven struggle between heavily clad state security officials and t-shirted protesters. And they will see it. We now live in a world of mobile phones with cameras and the internet where images are flashed around the world in seconds. It is the protesters, not the OMON, that will have their sympathy. All the goodwill created in those few weeks of the games, not to mention the money spent on it, can evaporate faster than a stick hitting a protester. The enduring legacy of the European games becomes a massive own goal by ‘Team Belarus.’
Further economic consequences can follow in the form of western sanctions. In the current global economic downturn, Western companies businesses are looking for low cost countries to source expertise from. However, not only are businesses are less likely to find Belarus as attractive as before, but as the West are compelled to react with punitive measures, there may be structural impediments to doing so. This results in more economic belt tightening and economic discontent, thus breaking the unspoken agreement of the last few decades – ‘you accept our authority and we’ll make you economically better off.’ It also makes Belarus more economically dependent on Russian. This makes the traditional game of playing East against West more difficult.
Everybody needs friends
Who benefits from ‘decisive action’ against the protesters? Not the people who are currently receiving judicial retribution. Not those who have economic aspirations for their children and grandchildren. Possibly not even some of those who are currently wielding power. Even authoritarian governments need some measure of support, both outside the country and especially in it.
This recalls a story that was circulating in Poland just after the imposition of martial law by General Jaruzelski in 1981 – a move that effectively ended the grass roots organisation ‘Solidarity’ in Polish society for much of the 1980’s. A western journalist visiting Poland asked a Pole in the street what he thought of General Jaruzelski, who was, by then, the effective leader of Poland. The Pole looked around nervously but didn’t answer. Instead he beckoned the journalist away from the main street down a side lane, then looked around again furtively and saw a group of people a few metres away. He asked the journalist to follow him through a courtyard away from the people and looked around one more time to make sure they could not be overheard. When he thought it was safe, the man spoke.
‘You ask me what I think of General Jaruzelski? I’ll tell you frankly.
Actually, I quite like him.’
A leader that loses the trust, support and credibility of his major stakeholders faces an increasingly uphill struggle.