The political tumult in Belarus, a result of the rigged presidential election last August that sent thousands of democratically minded Belarusians on the streets, is not going to abate in the New Year. The awakening occurred, but both sides – Alexander Lukashenko’s regime and the opposition – are in limbo now. “Although there might seem to be signs of the protest weakening and that Lukashenko is regaining a firmer footing, a second-wave of massive protests awaits in the spring, I believe,” Alyaksandr Klaskouski, an independent political analyst based in Minsk, told The Baltic Times.
As we’re talking in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, do you believe it is now playing into the self-appointed Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko’s hands, who downplayed and ridiculed it last spring?
I think he has significantly damaged his reputation, when last spring he slighted and snubbed the coronavirus situation in the country. Remember, he called it a ubiquitous psychosis and provided utterly unsubstantiated, false tips as to how cure the illness. Drinking vodka and going to the local bathhouse were among the remedies he suggested. He chalked it off to something that only older people are susceptible to. He infuriated many accusing an 80-year-old man who died of COVID-19 of being irresponsible, thence the death. “Look, instead of staying at home he was trudging out on the streets,” Lukashenko said. His reckless and pernicious approach to the illness has fired up many people here. To a point, where even his staunch supporters flip-flopped.
But let’s face it: the democratic forces of Belarus failed to overthrow Lukashenko despite the huge protests in the wake of the rigged presidential election last August. Why?
Over the 26 years in power, Lukashenko has created a very strong authoritarian system on all the levels of power. It appears so far to be too tough a nut to crack. The protests we’ve had already were extremely peaceful. Some say we should have followed in the footsteps of the pro-democracy Ukrainian forces that ousted Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2014. To remind you, they besieged some key buildings in Kiev, set fires, not to mention the vast scale of altercations and even fights with the riot police, all of which is largely missing in Belarus. But the Ukrainian example cannot be applied to Belarus which has a harsher, more authoritarian regime and a different mentality. I believe Lukashenko and his syloviki (law enforcement agencies, mostly riot police – L.J.) were ready – and were getting ready – for developments we’re seeing now. I am convinced that if our protests were more violent, destructive, aiming at some buildings of power or involving guns in the protestors’ hands, Lukashenko’s regime would have long been handed a trump card in its hand to act. They simply would have accused the people of being extremists and swept them up.
Although we’re not seeing massive deflecting from Lukashenko’s ranks yet, the erosion of the authoritarian regime is ongoing and the pace will only rev up, particularly with many syloviki themselves disapproving of Lukashenko.
It seems the 100-thousand-plus street protests have slimmed significantly over the last four and a half months since the elections. Are only the COVID-19 and the winter to be blamed for that? Do you see any fatigue among the protestors? Does it mean a lesser support for the opposition?
I cannot say the support is dwindling. And when it comes to the term “opposition”, it shouldn’t be used when speaking of the political opposition to Lukashenko – most Belarusians are against him now. That is the new reality he perhaps still struggles to grasp. Some of the pollsters I trust believe Lukashenko’s current support is hovering between 15 and 30 percent, no more.
As for the lesser turnout now, the aforementioned factors do play a role, as well as some other factors. Keep in mind that since the protests broke out 30 thousand people have been detained and some of them suffered torture when handcuffed. As we speak, over 900 pre-trial investigations on the grounds of instigating violence and disruption or partaking in the activities have been commenced. That also weighs down upon the people, some of whom, let’s be honest, feel fatigue amid the prolonged peaceful resistance. Also, bear in mind that both the syloviki and the demonstrators had their tactics adjusted over the course: the former now better prepare for the clamping down and the latter dispersed, marching mostly in residential districts. The move makes the task of the syloviki harder. I believe that protests in spring can go back to the size we saw last autumn.
Yet is the limbo that Belarus finds itself currently in playing more in favour of Lukashenko or his opponents?
Both sides maintain it plays into their hands best. It seems that Lukashenko reeled back from the shock he went through following the election (Belarus held the presidential election on August 9, 2020 – L. J.), when a 200-thousand-people crowd turned up at the biggest rally. There was a possibility of a sweeping national strike then, but it didn’t happen – the workers got frightened. Why? The repressive apparatus has over many years properly worked out a slew of repressive and restraining measures against those who go against the grain. What the authorities did prior to the elections or swiftly afterwards had worked successfully in the past. I mean apprehending the leaders, sowing the sense of distrust in them in other cases; many anti-Lukashenko-minded lost their jobs and the benefits they had in the months after August 9, some fled the country being scared for their lives and the lives of their families. All of which resulted in failure of the national strike last year.
Now, Lukashenko sounds more confident – he perhaps decided that the situation is not as combustible as it was last autumn. It seems he wants to discard the promises he has given to everyone, including Moscow, in the autumn, when he was scared stiff. The topic of carrying out the constitutional reform and making a transit of power happen is disappearing from his speeches. Most likely, he will hold a national supreme convention, which to me is analogous to the USSR’s Supreme Soviet, making sure that people allying with him attend it. They will likely be asked to approve constitutional changes, tabled by Lukashenko. In one of the variants, Lukashenko is speculated to seek the post of chairman of the Presidium of Belarus’ National Convention. If that happened, he would become like the USSR’s Leonid Brezhnev, secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Like most here, I do not expect any democratic changes with Lukashenko remaining in power.
What weaknesses of the Belarusian opposition do you see?
The biggest one perhaps is lack of organisation – most protests are quite sporadic, not being, or being little coordinated. It certainly needs a clearly cut strategy – those leaders who were forced to leave Belarus – I am talking about Svetlana Tikhanovskaya first of all – got much too fascinated with the revolutionary slogans, proclamations and the rhetoric, but they seem to me to be missing a clear game plan. The democratic forces lacked determinedness and clear tactics for their actions in autumn. It seems the new leaders themselves were not quite ready for the developments. To remind you, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya always emphasised throughout the election campaign that she is mother and wife first of all, not a revolutionist.
Do you think that Russian president Putin learnt a lesson from the Belarus events? What could it be?
I think Putin understood that he needs to suppress the contagion of democracy harsher not to end up being in Lukashenko’s shoes at the end of the day. But Lukashenko remains a key figure for him, yet the two never were friends. But the solidarity of dictators now matters most. Putin will do whatever he can to avoid in 2024 the kind of problems Lukashenko is embroiled now (Russia holds its next presidential election in 2024 – L. J.)
What awaits Belarus in 2021?
I think the deepening of the conflict between Lukashenko’s regime and the majority of Belarusian society in 2021 is inevitable. As Lukashenko lost bits of his popularity, only by clinging to the repressive apparatus can he be sure that things won’t get out of his control. But the huge shift that occurred in our society is something that will backfire on him – sooner or later. The authorities still mistakenly believe they are in charge of the developments. Lukashenko keeps scolding the people, arguing he has given them all he could, but, unlike in the 1990s, when the people vied for material things, now they want a political change and live like Europeans do – democratically. This is what Lukashenko is seemingly not getting yet. I believe, this spring, we will see a second wave of major events, perhaps tantamount to those last autumn.