What we (now) know about Belarus – Shadows of the Past

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It’s wrong to compare what’s happening to Kiev’s facts. In Ukraine people fought for independence. The antirussian feeling was the triggering factor of the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the 2014 Majdan revolt. This protest has a totally different appearance, purely material. It is a bread-uprising. The idea of freedom and independence in Belarus is not as strong as it is in Ukraine.

(from an interwiew of Rosalba Castelletti to the Nobel Prize winner Svjatlana Aleksievič, appeared on the italian newspaper “La Repubblica” on March 26th, 2016)

A poster displays the symbols of the united 2020 opposition campaign in Belarus (« we love, we can, we’ll win »). The Word “Вместе” means “Together” Photo Credit : Wikimedia Commons

Welcome back my Friends,

This will be the third and last article concerning Belarus, not that we will stop dealing with it entirely, but here I would like to conclude the historical path that has brought us to the present day and add some reflections perhaps to be developed more extensively in specific articles: as you will have understood, when it comes to the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, nothing is as simple as it appears from the outside.

In the previous article we described Lukashenko’s rise to power and how he governed without too many problems until 2010, the year in which an increasingly strong opposition movement began to manifest itself, but which he always managed to repress, both through dirty (and violent) methods, but also thanks to the consent it continued to enjoy among a certain part of the population.

So what has changed this time?

The answer to this question obviously has multiple facets, but we can easily start with the most immediately evident one: the disastrous management of the SARS-COV2 Pandemic. On March 16, while the virus had spread across half the world, Lukashenko, interviewed by the Moscow Times, downplayed the potential danger represented by the spread of the virus and encouraged the population to “Drive tractors and work in the fields [… ] the tractors take care of everything, the work in the fields takes care of everything “(!), he states that playing Hokey is “better than antiviral therapy” and that the virus can be “poisoned” with Vodka and Saunas.

To date, official estimates give 77,289 infected and 813 deaths, but as we have already said, the Belarusian government is not very accustomed to transparency, indeed, on July 22, the President of the Central Electoral Commission of Belarus, Lidia Yermoshina, announced a strong limitation to the number of election observers due to epidemiological reasons (of an epidemic that, according to her government, does not exist).

The regime had no qualms about using the pandemic as an excuse to increase its control over the population: Sergey Lazar, chief of the Vitbesk Clinical Emergency Hospital was removed on April 30, shortly after publicly criticizing the government for the scarce countermeasures against the pandemic and the lack of adequate protective medical material for doctors. On the previous March 25th, the editor-in-chief of the online newspaper Yezhednevhik was arrested on charges of taking bribes, three days after an article that harshly criticized the Belarusian government and its reaction to the spread of the virus. On 11 May, two young activists from the Youth Bloc (Молодёжный Блок) were sentenced to 13 and 5 days of administrative detention respectively for participating in the protests calling for the cancellation of the Victory Day parade on 9 May, to prevent the contagion spread within the gigantic gathering.

Youth Bloc activists marching with a coffin alongside the military column during the 9 May Victory Day Parade rehearsal.

When the money runs out, Patriotism comes out.

(Anonymous, reported in “Second-Hand Time” by Svjatlana Aleksievič)

“And when Patriotism ends, the anti-riot departments come out”, I might add. As we stated earlier, the Lukashenko regime has survived for 26 years thanks to three factors: the maintenance of a strong “welfare state” network (but in the Soviet version, don’t think of something like social-democracy), the strong link with the Ideology and symbology of the USSR, and finally, a strong, faithful and efficient internal security apparatus.

But if we can learn anything from Belarusian history, it is just that it is impossible, no matter how hard we try, to keep a country “Out of Time” in this way.

The Belarusian welfare state began to collapse already in 2015, when the government was forced to reduce benefits and tax the unemployed – addressed as “social parasites”(!), making the regime much less popular in this respect; Patriotism, in the hard and pure image of the President, began to waver when he himself tried to implement what is called “multivectorialism” in foreign policy (or put your own foot in two shoes): the visit, on February 26, by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo must not have been liked by those who have been educated to believe that the West is constantly conspiring to destroy your country. The same reason is behind Lukashenko’s refusal of almost all economic aid from abroad, which had clauses including lockdown and contagion limitation measures (and which would have forced the government to “back down” on its previous statements). What remains then?

A protester holds an old Belarusian national flag as he stands in front of police line during a rally after the Belarusian presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. Police and protesters clashed in Belarus’ capital and the major city of Brest on Sunday after the presidential election in which the authoritarian leader who has ruled for a quarter-century sought a sixth term in office. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Correct: the departments of the Security Apparatus (OMON – Отряд Мобильный Особого Назначения, Mobile Special Police Unit), which went into action immediately after the declaration of Lukashenko’s victory (and even before, with the incarceration and intimidation of the members of the opposition, this time decidedly more convinced of a possible victory, or in any case of being able to bring Lukashenko to the negotiating table, without being completely ignored), who have arrested over 3,000 people across the country, and have made us witness the various brutalities they are capable of against unarmed protesters.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at a rally in Vitebsk on 24 July 2020

Unitary opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who took the leadership of the anti-government front after the arrest of her husband, popular youtuber and activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, was forced, after several threats against her and her family, to repair in Lithuania, and then in Poland.

From there, the Belarusian activist asked for, and obtained, that the victory in the elections be recognized by the countries of the European Union, which, under the pressure of the Lithuanian Parliament, responded to Lukashenko’s violence by imposing economic sanctions on Belarus and recognizing Tsikhanouskaya “as elected leader of the people of Belarus” and the recently established “Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power” as the “only legitimate representatives of the Belarusian people”. The resolution also declares that Lukashenko is an “illegitimate leader”.

On the other hand, the presence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia has returned to make itself felt, which, despite not having much sympathy with Lukashenko, must make the best of a bad situation to preserve its strategic interests in the area: the Kremlin is patiently observing the evolution of the situation, and for the moment has limited itself to acknowledging the victory to the outgoing President, with some vague promise of aid in case of “excessive violence”, but nothing more.

So, what should we expect from now on?

Lukashenko is still in his place, despite the protests in the country that have been going on for 7 weeks now and show no signs of stopping. The Coordination Council, from Warsaw, has begun “the procedures for a peaceful transfer of power”, but unlike the Belarusian government in office, it has no means to ensure that this happens (that is, it has no Armed Forces), while in the country the repression continues with an ever-increasing level of violence and abuse against the manifestants.

The situation is in fact stalled: Lukashenko does not seem to be willing to flee like Yanukovych (also because it is not certain that there is anyone willing to welcome him, not even in Moscow), but how long will he be able to withstand this storm? How long will it be before he is no longer able to secure the loyalty of the Security Apparatus?

On the other hand, the “Government in exile” has no one who is able to force the hand and help them in the “institutional transition” with more than words: not the United States, certainly not the European Union. As the Nobel Prize winner for literature Svyatlana Aleksevic rightly stated “this is not Majdan”: Belarus has no interest in looking to the West, on the contrary, even the opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya has reassured about maintaining good relations with Moscow, even after the eventual fall of Lukashenko.

Obviously, even a scenario similar to that of the annexation of Crimea, as hypothesized by some, is unthinkable: the russian enstablishment has no intention of getting involved in a war that would in fact bring them nothing but more “bad reputation” and international isolation.

Vladimir Putin held talks in Sochi with Alexander Lukashenko, who came to Russia on a working visit. February 7, 2020 Photo: kremlin.ru.

However, there is the possibility that “The Feast with the Statue” represented by Russia may be the one to unblock the situation: if Vladimir Putin and his colleagues find a way to appease the protests by saving the most of what remains of the thirty-year Belarusian system, Lukashenko will have to stop with his attempts at “multilateralism” and will become a de facto puppet in the hands of Moscow; if, on the other hand, the Russians decide to give the regime a “little push” and help the Coordination Council, they could take advantage of the economic changes that this one should (theoretically) bring, to enter the new Belarusian market and take those strategic assets firmly, up to now, in the hands of the Lukashenko’s government.

As usual, making predictions is a matter for astrologers. For the moment I hope to have clarified the situation to the best of my ability to those who were interested in knowing it better, and in understanding what is actually happening in a distant country and back in the “Path of History” only recently. For the moment, unfortunately, we just have to pay attention to the movements on the horizon, and try to get an idea with what we have available, but without ever looking away too much.

For any questions and discussions, I am available, find the contacts on the appropriate page.

Nay, come, let’s go together.

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