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Belarus Primed to Break Free


Young people in Belarus want more than the stability Aleksander Lukashenka has offered for almost three decades. Organized, educated, and tech savvy, they are much better placed than the generation of 1989 to capitalize on the democracy they demand.

© REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Belarus is an example of a country that made one wrong decision, and then for three decades its citizens have had to live with that choice—or in some cases die or languish in prison as a result. In Belarus, the death penalty is carried out with a shot to the back of the head. This is the case with politically motivated verdicts, too, only then the bodies are never found. The KGB is still called the KGB. It is Belarus that is the real heir to the USSR, or Soviet Union, with Russia coming in second. In 1991, when Belarusians voted on whether they wanted independence or preferred to stay in the USSR, 83 percent replied that they did not want independence. They got it against their will. After several years’ experience with democracy, they elected Aleksander Lukashenka in 1994 and allowed him to rule in true Soviet fashion, or at least did not put up too much of a fight. Belarusian society has repeatedly committed the sin of omission. And the opposition committed the sin of disintegration.

When Lukashenka came to power in 1994, he did so completely democratically. But then he seized control of the Constitutional Tribunal, then the public media, and then he subjugated the security services, the police, and the Central Election Commission. He staffed them with loyal underlings and took care of their salaries, and they made sure he was reelected. Maria Kolesnikova, the only one of the three opposition leaders who is still in Belarus (Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya is in Lithuania and Veranika Tsepkalo is in Russia), admitted openly that aside from the most recent election on August 9, Lukashenka would have won all previous presidential elections—democratically. Other opposition figures hold a different view, but do not deny that the president long enjoyed substantial support from the public. But he falsified this year’s electoral results, because a win of 55 percent would mean he is not the only leader, that he has some competition. And that’s out of the question. There was no opposition in the USSR.

History Unfolding

Why would Lukashenka have won? Because although he is a bandit, he is also a very skillful political player. Twenty-six years of dictatorial rule, maintaining independence from Russia and the West, and above all, a pretty good standard of living in Belarus—these are real achievements. Hardly anyone travels to Belarus, so few people know anything about the country, outside of a few specialists. Now that history is unfolding here, there are a handful of foreign journalists. Most did not receive accreditation and therefore did not come, but several journalists from Poland and Ukraine came without accreditation. I stayed in several places in Minsk, touring nearby towns and villages, and I was surprised by the quality of highways all across Belarus (funded by a special tax imposed for this purpose), the cleanliness and orderliness of the cities, the complete absence of traffic jams (they only happen when protesters try hampering the police), and the selection of goods in stores. Even in small towns, you can buy a hundred kinds of fish, and even sushi, despite the fact that Belarus is the largest landlocked country in Europe. These goods are too abundant to be destined for the oligarchs, because the Belarusian model gives the dictator a monopoly on corruption. Lukashenka controls corruption just as he controls election results or television programming. Of course, there is a group of rich people, but this is a society completely unlike Ukraine or Russia.

Four-fifths of GDP is generated by the state. Wherever citizens of other post-communist countries such as Poland buy clothes, food, or equipment produced by Western brands, Belarus has its own brands, factories, and advertisements in every market segment. Of course, they are usually of worse quality, but they work, look decent, and function as respectable “replacements.” At purchasing power parity, GDP per capita amounts to $22,000. For comparison, in Ukraine the figure is $10,000. If the Belarusian people succeed in overthrowing their dictator and opening their country to the world, they will be in a vastly better position than the Czech Republic, Hungary, or Poland in 1989. We won’t see Western capital swooping in and buying up whatever it wants and introducing its own brands. Belarusians won’t be relegated to cheap labor, and enterprises won’t collapse. Belarus not only has its own retail chains, restaurants, cars, and clothes, but also a very strong IT sector that Lukashenka cares deeply about and gives almost complete freedom. Of course, the “Belarusian economic miracle” or “Belarusian autarky” is largely financed by Russia, but it is also the result of independent development, good education, good management, and a strong work ethic.

Even Lukashenka’s greatest critics, including those whom he tortured like Ales Mikhalevich (a candidate in the 2010 presidential election), speak approvingly of the standard of living in Belarus. According to Mikhalevich, Belarus belongs to Northern Europe, which is why the country is characterized by cleanliness and a strong work ethic. And you see that everywhere. Lukashenka with all his quirks would not have survived for nearly three decades if Belarusians were starving, if they had nowhere to work and no opportunities to pursue. They emigrate for political rather than economic reasons. The current protests are taking place with slogans demanding freedom, not social improvements, although Belarusians are aware that the economy has for several years been consumed by a crisis.

No Soviet Nostalgia

The Belarusian diaspora has now become as active as its Polish counterpart used to be in the 1980s, and it consists mainly of students, academics, musicians, and corporate employees, not Uber drivers or retail workers. I am working with many emigrés who have come back to help. Others are unable to return to Belarus, but are doing their part from abroad. They are essential for newsgathering—they often have a better idea of what is happening just around the corner because they have the Internet at a time when Lukashenka has been shutting it down within Belarus (the country’s internet service provider is state-owned, although some people use private companies). The emigrés say that they are fed up with Lukashenka because he makes it impossible for them to live in Minsk. Whereas one fourth or one fifth of young people have left countries like Bulgaria and Lithuania, that has not happened in Belarus, and with good reason. Minsk, like any major city, is overflowing with young people and is already as modern as Warsaw or Prague were four or five years ago. In the IT sector the gap is even smaller.

Lukashenka’s problem is that a generation has grown up that no longer remembers the Soviet Union, but knows the West and its values very well. For them, the green and red Soviet flag is a form of treason; they carry the white-red-white flag adopted by the independent Belarusian state in 1918. Like Lukashenka himself, the Soviet flag is only popular among older people who spent their best years in the USSR, want stability, and enjoy regular, decent pensions. For the young generation, the former collective farm director who has ruled the country for 26 years is a freak of nature. They grew up outside the system. That is why nobody has to teach them about democracy or new technologies today.

The authorities have complete control of the official media, so a kind of second media sphere has arisen online. Independent media outlets do exist in Belarus today, mainly as internet portals, and their readership has grown by 300-400 percent in recent weeks, assuming mass scale. The most important of these are Nasha Niva, Radio Svaboda, and TUT.by. Popular channels on YouTube and Telegram (including, for instance, the one run by Siarhei Tsikhanouski, the jailed presidential contender whose wife Sviatlana replaced him on the ballot) also play a role. The most famous video bloggers have as many as several hundred thousand subscribers (Belarus is a country of nine million, with six million eligible voters). Independent media messaging is already reaching a large segment of society, and unofficial media outlets are considered credible. People see them as mainstream news sources where they can get information on issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Bungled Coronavirus Response

Lukashenka is mentally stuck in the 1990s, or even the 1980s. He hasn’t learned anything in terms of his messaging or his worldview, and he is unable to make effective use of the state-run media to counter independent reporting. All he can do is block the internet and cellphone networks at opposition rallies. On Sunday and Monday, the internet was effectively completely shut down. The IT sector and the economy more broadly are suffering as a result, and Belarus has lost some of its credibility with foreign partners. The opposition has ways to get around the internet shutdown using proxy servers and encryption applications. If you use a VPN and Psiphon, sometimes you can manage to connect.

Like some other world leaders, Lukashenka bungled his coronavirus response. When he denied the threat and failed to intervene, it seemed like a moral abdication. That was especially disappointing for the generation who feared for their parents. Belarusians had to deal with the threat of COVID-19 on their own and began to join together to buy masks and equipment, to help the sick and medical personnel. The regime lost ground, and civil society gained it. Bonds of solidarity were formed. People began to get to know each other and communicate with each other. The regime lost its legitimacy because it could no longer guarantee a basic level of security, and the economic crisis was making itself felt. When Lukashenka himself fell ill, instead of evoking sympathy, he merely further discredited himself.

Lukashenka also disregarded the political potential of women, who are propelling the opposition forward. The opposition’s electoral campaign was led by three women, and now it is women who form the backbone of the protests. A president who placed his wife under house arrest, had a son with his personal physician, and is famous for spending money on prostitutes, evokes disgust. The opposition’s women leaders quickly came to an understanding, united the opposition, and organized an exceptionally effective campaign staff. If a German or Polish politician were to visit the opposition’s campaign headquarters, a conversation with their social media specialists, event planners, and sociologists would give them an inferiority complex. I have observed several election campaigns in Poland and Germany, and there is really no comparison. This surplus of modernity is a reaction to the country’s political backwardness. The Polish opposition would do well to learn that it takes unity to overthrow a dictator. In Belarus, the opposition’s success took much more effort than winning an election in an ordinary democratic country. Breaking the government’s monopoly on information required IT specialists, very good social research, and the best social media specialists.

A Distinctive Identity

Another error by Lukashenka was losing his Russian guarantor. Russia, of course, prefers Lukashenka to the opposition and will not let Belarus out of its sphere of influence, but it no longer intends to make his life easier. Lukashenka can be satisfied that he was able to take advantage of Moscow for so long. He received raw materials at a steeply reduced rate, keeping the economy and the standard of living in Belarus at a much higher level than, for example, in Ukraine, but he was supposed to pay by surrendering independence. Meanwhile, integration with Russia has not taken place at the economic, legal, or political level. Belarus was supposed to adopt the Russian ruble, a common judiciary system, and a common parliament; state-owned enterprises were supposed to be handed over to Russia. Nothing like this ever happened, or if it did, only on a semi-fictitious basis. Even cultural Russification has begun to regress instead of solidifying. The independent media is bilingual, the Belarusian language is slowly recovering. Few dream of joining Russia anymore. Paradoxically, it was Lukashenka who created the Republic of Belarus as a country with a distinctive identity, even if it is linguistically Russified.

How will Russia react if Belarus breaks free of the dictator’s shackles? It will release its closest ally from its sphere of influence. That does not seem up for debate at all, and yet it is not an obvious point. I asked a number of excellent experts on the region, both inside Belarus (Valer Bulhakau) and abroad (Adam Michnik and Timothy Snyder), and all agreed that Russia would not intervene. There will be no Ukrainian scenario, because that has simply not paid off for Russia. It gained the Donbass and Crimea—meaning it gained only problems—and lost Ukraine. Before 2014, Ukrainian society was favorable to Russia and largely spoke Russian. Russia had economic influence and an ally. And now the Russian language is disappearing in Ukraine, the economy is slowly recovering, the military is arming, and Russia is the country’s primary enemy in the eyes of Ukrainians. Anyone who claims otherwise is just ashamed to admit it.

If Russia were preparing something, we would already see the groundwork being laid by the Russian press. There would be propaganda slandering the opposition, Putin would be inventing conspiracy theories and amassing troops at the border. Green men would not have gotten caught like the Wagner Group mercenaries who were mocked and shown half naked on TV. Lukashenka would be waxing poetic about Slavic unity, not shouting at Russia and accusing the mercenaries of attempting to take over his country. Nothing like that is happening. Russia is waiting for Belarus to define itself so that it can deal with whoever is in power. Putin is probably hoping that the Belarusian people will soon start quarreling internally, gas and oil can be sold to them at market prices, and the West will offer Belarusians little more than scholarships. That is better for Russia than seizing Vitebsk and then holding it at an astronomical cost while facing further Western sanctions. Belarusians would turn away from Russia, and in a few years Russian would cease to be their language.

Crackdown Backfires

A better scenario, for both sides, is to pursue something akin to the status of Armenia—a relatively independent, democratic state, generally favorable to Russia, that remains outside NATO and EU structures. This would suit the democratically-minded political elite, which does not want war. That creates a kind of geopolitical window of opportunity for the opposition at a time when the dictator’s authority is collapsing. At a time when the world is being flooded by a wave of authoritarianism, democracy could be spectacularly successful in the place one would least expect, that is, in Belarus, which had been forgotten by everyone.

Both experts and the people on the street estimate support for Lukashenka at no more than 15-20 percent, mainly in the provinces. There I encountered very sharp disputes between Lukashenka’s supporters and his opponents. Everyone talks about politics. You can feel that history is unfolding before our eyes. The situation is changing daily. Election day and the following day saw demonstrations. The opposition formulated a plan long before the election so that everyone would know what to do, even if the internet was shut off. Last Sunday’s protest, on August 9, took place at Minsk’s Victory Square, as planned. Lukashenka sent in the riot police, who managed to take control of the square bit by bit. The next day, people started to organize themselves around metro stations. A barricade was erected at the intersection near the Riga shopping center, but the sharpest confrontation took place at the large intersection by the Pushkinskaya metro station. There, the riot police were not content with taking control of the area. At one point, without warning, they attacked, shooting rubber bullets (photos and recordings were published on Facebook). The authorities moved from defensive to offensive operations. The internal troops armed with shields and clubs disappeared, replaced by riot police armed with rifles and undercover agents tracking down and arresting journalists.

Stun grenades, flash bangs, and water cannons were only a prelude to rubber bullets (including some produced in Poland, something the Polish Ministry of National Defense has failed to explain, even though is obligated to monitor sales by third countries), beatings, and combing the area for dispersed demonstrators. Thousands of people were arrested and then tortured in jail. Some 40-50 people were locked up in an eight-person cell. In Gomel, people were kept in police vehicles due to a lack of space at the detention center. As a result, one young man died. The independent press also documented the first instances of live ammunition being used.

Opposition Rebounds

Lukashenka’s security services moved on to a new phase the next night. They no longer waited for the demonstrators to show up, but began to demonstratively punish anyone who came out onto the streets. Cars were beaten with truncheons, and their drivers were pulled out and beaten. I drove past several such situations, and I saw one victim being resuscitated. On two separate nights, I saw 60-80 armored vehicles driving along Minsk’s main street, Independence Avenue. The sadistic violence had an effect. The demonstrations stopped. After 7,000 people were arrested, it seemed that Lukashenka would survive.

And then a miracle happened. On Wednesday, August 12, women and girls took to the streets en masse, wearing white, holding flowers, and showing the V sign. They lined the streets and demonstrated against violence. They demonstrated all day. It brought tears to one’s eyes. The car horns howled again. In the afternoon, the doctors who tended to the victims of police beatings joined in, saying they had never experienced anything like this before. The next day, Thursday, workers began to go on strike. One factory after another joined the strike. It began with the country’s largest and most prestigious industrial enterprises: the BelAZ truck factory, the nitrogen plant in Grodno, and tractor manufacturing plants in Minsk. Then the railroad joined, followed on Friday by the Minsk Metro. The workers stood with the women.

The security services were at their wits’ end. They had not foreseen something like this. How could they shoot and beat women, doctors, and workers armed with heavy machinery? The opposition regained the streets, restoring control of the situation and regaining political effectiveness. Social media was flooded with photos and videos of police officers throwing their uniforms into the trash and their torn-off epaulets into the toilet. Paradoxically, the lack of leaders strengthened the protest, because Lukashenka did not know whom to arrest. The protesting women were not afraid of anything. They stood in front of KGB buildings, they seized every street. Fifty soldiers were stationed in front of the National Assembly, and they symbolically lowered their shields. Women started adorning them with flowers and embracing the soldiers. This further discredited the Lukashenka regime, and served as a disarming example for other members of the security services.

Regime Teetering?

On Saturday, August 15, the staff of Belarusian state television (primarily technical staff, but also some presenters) began to show solidarity with the protestors. On Sunday, state television reported on the protests for the first time. This was yet another breakthrough. Natalya Kachanova, chairwoman of the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament, showed up, but she was not able to mollify the crowd. She was joined by Natalya Eismont, Lukashenka’s press secretary and wife of Ivan Eismont, head of the state television company. The next breakthrough came when Belarusian diplomats began to oppose Lukashenka, beginning with the ambassador to Slovakia.

Lukashenka responded with a rally on Independence Square on August 17, with some 5,000-7,000 supporters who had been bussed in. Two hours later, the opposition showed that it was able to mobilize between 200,000 and 500,000 people. Lukashenka ordered paratroopers from Vitebsk to the western border. Officially, this was a reaction to actions by Lithuania and Poland. Lukashenka stated that the army had the strength and the means to quell peaceful protests. He also added that he had reached an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding Russian assistance in pacifying the demonstrations. According to Lukashenka, Russia would respond as soon as it received a request from authorities in Minsk. He announced that the opposition would not come to power even after his death.

Speculating about the possible collapse of the regime in Belarus, we can rule out all scenarios that involve an agreement between Lukashenka and the opposition. The so-called the Spanish road to democracy or a round table scenario is out of the question. Lukashenka can end up either like Yanukovych or like Ceausescu—in exile (living off the fortune he stole) or shot in the same manner in which he killed his political opponents. His closest allies will face either the same fate, that, or international justice.