The regime of Aleksander Lukashenko tried to undermine the protests comparing them to Ukrainian Maidan, but there are significant differences between the two.
Strong aversion towards war and any form of violence is one of the outstanding features of Belarusian mentality that for a long time allowed Lukashenko to stay in power.
Throughout the modern history Belarusians fought only defensive wars. However it was the devastating effect of the World War II that had the biggest impact on the mentality of modern Belarusians. With one third of population gone and 80% of infrastructure vanished, Belarus was considered as one of the most affected countries by the World War II.
Lukashenko often adverts to these historic events and the eldest part of the population that still remembered the post-war period loyally gave their support to the dictator, considering him as a symbol of the new stable and peaceful Belarus. Interestingly, now the president himself is referred by majority as a fascist for his methods of dealing with peaceful protests.
The only election results after 1994 (which were legitimate) that haven’t been contested in massive street protests were the ones in 2015. Having followed the outbreak and outcomes of the revolution in their neighbour Ukraine, Belarusians were extremely reluctant to vote for new candidates or to contest the results, although undoubtedly they had been falsified. A bad peace (with far from ideal economic conditions) is better than war and violence between fellow citizens – was the prevailing reasoning for political inactivity in 2015.
To discredit the opposition candidates, Lukashenko attempted to use the same narrative this year even before the elections. He tried to scare the public with Russian connections of the opposition. However, when some of them had to escape to Poland and Lithuania, he stated that protests had been instigated by the West. Why did the narrative of Russian possible intervention prove ineffective?
Belarusians are well aware of their geopolitical position. Aspiration for neutrality and good friendly relations with all the neighbours is the result of this awareness in addition to the national mentality. Surveys conducted for many years by Professor Andrei Vardomatski, head of the Belarusian Analytical Workshop, show that the absolutely dominating idea (more than 70% of respondents) is that Belarus should be a sovereign and independent state outside of alliances.
In 2020 Belarusian population have reached a point of no-return, aligning people in their wish to change the leader. For the first time, not only Minsk consolidates massive demonstrations, but all the cities, towns and even villages.
The protests are not about changing the political orientation towards EU, like it was in Ukraine. They are neither anti-, nor pro-Russian. 98% of demonstrators joined the protests because of violence and political repressions, social surveys show from an international project Mobilise. The second most popular motivation behind the demonstrations was against Lukashenko, and then against elections falsification.
State terror manifesting itself in brutal arrests, kidnapping, tortures and even murders was aimed at deterring and stopping the protests. However, people still kept the peaceful marches knowing that they may face disproportionate response from the authorities.
The scale of violence shocked Belarusians, but it did not lead to a violent response, as in the Ukrainian Maidan. It is worth noting that Belarusians do not create paramilitary groups to fight the special police forces and military, but try to make their voices heard through the national dialogue.
Several conditions legitimated the protests even in politically inactive layers of society or traditionally Lukashenko’s electorate:
Peaceful character of the protests
During the protests not a single shop window has been smashed, except from the one broken by police. Belarusians decided to show their solidarity with the owners of the café the next day after the event and queued there to get a coffee, increasing the number of coffee sold by nearly 10 times. There is a lot of recorded evidence showing the nature of protests: people take off their shoes before stepping on a bench, segregate the trash, play chess, share drinks and food, walk only at green lights and avoid bike paths.
However, not only participants faced violence. Walking in the park, sitting in a café, coming out from a church – any person could be randomly taken to an unmarked bus or a military car and then to prison. Such a lawlessness was another factor that outraged many. Traditionally pro-regime layers of society – the retirees, sportsmen, including some Olympic medalists, journalists and technicians from state-owned media, diplomats, and workers of the biggest factories – turned their back to Lukashenko.
Striking factories and employees’ voluntary dismissals
An unprecedented wave of disapproval for the government’s actions and dismissals as a way of showing the disagreement took place among various layers of Belarusian society: doctors and medical service witnessing the effects of beatings and tortures, state journalists who were not allowed to broadcast and cover the peaceful marches, military and police who did not want to participate in dishonourable actions. It had become hard for state propaganda to sell Lukashenko’s label of the antagonists as a bunch of bandits.
A widespread wave of strikes in many factories critical to Belarusian economy was an unprecedented event that took authorities by surprise, especially because of relatively high salaries at those workplaces. The local leaders paid visits to the factories, but the most remarkable was the video from MZKT (Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant) where workers shouted for A. Lukashenko to leave.
Besides women who were in the lead of opposition electoral campaign and now lead the Coordination Сouncil, female protesters played a key role in the Belarusian uprising. Due to cultural conditions most of the arrested and affected by violence were protesting men, while women were not particularly attacked during the first days of protests, right after the elections.
It encouraged many of them to come out to the streets the next days and allowed the protests to grow. This collided with strikes at major factories. The government was forced to take a pause and reconsider its strategy. Local authorities started dialogue with the uncontended and promised to stop violence (which indeed happened for a couple of days), but could not agree to some of the demands, like recognising the invalidity of the elections and the loss of Lukashenko.
These factors extremely shook the legitimacy of president Lukashenko and gave power to the Coordination Сouncil that insists on national dialogue and transition of power. Lukashenko however is firm in his decision to stay and to use any necessary resources towards this aim. The leaders of the striking committees were arrested or forced to exile. To get them back from prisons, workers in many factories had to agree to stop strikes. To deal with female protests, it has been decided to use more policewomen when possible.
Belarusians come up with new tools to fight peacefully and they do not want to reach the same methods as in Ukraine. An example is an initiative of blacklisting international companies that use advertisements in state media. At the moment when the international community condemns the actions of the Belarusian government, it is critical to cut its financial sources that support all the law enforcement structures.
Sanctions should hurt the government and not the population. Otherwise, Belarusian efforts to prevent another Ukraine could turn into another Chile under the Pinochet regime.