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Will protest turn into revolution in Belarus?

Major questions of strategy are being posed in Belarus’s protest movement


by Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Protests in Belarus, Picture: Henning Schlottmann / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode

We are three weeks into a street movement that erupted following Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s ludicrous claim that he won 80 percent of the vote in the election held on 9 August. The size and depth of the protests within a week looked like they would topple the president who has ruled Belarus since 1994.


But this did not happen. Even though discontent reached the depths of Belarus, and workers in the still largely state-owned industries went on strike, the regime clung on.


Thousands were arrested and police brutality played a part in the president’s survival. The movement seemed to recede by the middle of the second week. But it came back in force with yet another mass protest in the capital Minsk by the weekend. This weekend is to see yet another set-piece demonstration, after another week of heavy regime oppression, often targeting worker activists.


The mood among protesters is increasingly focused on removing Lukashenko. Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin has said Russian intervention is possible if the situation gets out of hand. It is a move calculated to instil fear and prevent the protests from radicalising.


Between East and West


Moscow is keen to preserve its influence in Belarus. It has seen its influence wane in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War, as NATO has expanded eastwards. With the Baltic states, formerly in the USSR, joining NATO in 2004, Russia has felt under threat.


Moreover, Moscow is fearful of a pattern that has emerged in its neighbouring areas. This pattern involves authoritarian governments rigging elections, and then facing mass unrest. Very often, the West has taken advantage of such situations to push its own governing elite on a country.


Observing the early instances of these ‘colour revolutions’ in 2006, Dragan Plavšić  argued that there was something qualitatively different about them - in comparison with the revolutions of 1989. The extent of the West’s ability to target, groom and finance opposition networks had grown exponentially.


Despite this, Plavšić noted that the West’s strategy, was to always remain in tension with mass movements. But these could be unpredictable. He argued that the initial examples of the new wave of revolutions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, in Serbia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, differed in the various countries. The extent of popular mobilisation in Serbia in 2000, for instance, was greater than in Ukraine in 2004, but less than in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.


Over a decade on, Serbia is not yet in NATO and Central Asia is still a Russian buffer against the West. But Ukraine had several changes of government, before the ‘Maidan’ revolution saw a decisively pro-Western government catapulted to power. That was followed by Russian annexation of Crimea, in 2014.


Russia is keen to prevent Belarus going the way of Ukraine. It is, as we saw in Syria in 2015, ready to use the military option if it needs to defend a critical ally and there is no other way to do it.


Belarus is not (yet) Ukraine


But Belarus is in fact very different from Ukraine and Syria. Opinion poll after opinion poll shows most Belarusians are not motivated by pro-NATO or pro-EU sentiment. One report in the Washington Post states that around two-thirds dislike what happened in Ukraine in 2014, and three-quarters want their country to be neutral between East and West.


Of course, a wrong move by Russia could change all that, and this is partly why Putin has remained cautious in Belarus. He was, in the early days, at pains not to defend Lukashenko explicitly. Indeed, Russia saw a pro-Russian figure toppled in Armenia in the so-called Velvet Revolution in 2018. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, a former protest leader, is now seen as a close Putin ally.


In other words, Russia is not as keen on Lukashenko, as it is on Belarus. But the situation remains volatile and unpredictable. Much of the opposition would wish to move Belarus more towards the West. Were Lukashenko to catalyse a catastrophic fall of his regime through some miscalculation - like a savage act of repression, there is no telling where Belarus could go.


Thus, Russia and Lukashenko appear to be banking on the judicious use of repression to first demobilise and then decapitate the street movement, before negotiating any exit from the crisis that may or may not involve a change of government.


Fork in the road


This presents a dilemma for the popular movement on the streets. It is clear that the longer the situation goes on, the trickier it becomes to remove the government. Just look at what happened in Hong Kong. What becomes more and more important are a strategy and a set of tactics - which in themselves require organisational expression.


Protesters and strikers are increasingly aware of this, according to many eye-witness accounts and on-the-ground research. Their hope may be that the weekend protests produce cracks in the regime, and this cannot be discounted. Very little is predictable in situations in which the masses move and take destiny into their own hands.


But it is also the case that there seems to be remarkably little coordination coming from the opposition. A council of some kind has been proclaimed, in which middle class political forces are strong. This appears to have been greeted positively on the streets, but there is still a sense of disconnect between the organised forces of the opposition and the masses on the move.


Moreover, an independent working class position also exists. Independent trade unions articulating calls are distinct from the official, pro-state unions. The largest inter-strike committee, ZabastaBEL (Strike Belarus), expresses an anti-privatisation message coupled with a call for workers’ councils. This is still a minority voice in the anti-Lukashenko movement.


The danger is that the longer the stand-off in the country lasts, the more powerful the mainstream, middle class opposition forces could become in the anti-Lukashenko movement. This is because they have political and economic resources that the people in the streets do not have. They also receive overt and covert backing from the West, which could also see its star rise.


Should that occur, Belarus could start to look more and more like Ukraine. That will mean the East-West geopolitical polarisation becoming the main fissure on the country’s political scene.


The need for socialist politics


Such a development would be harmful for ordinary people as neither Russia nor the West represent their interests. The official opposition, should it take power, would be quick to undertake the kind of neoliberal reforms that have ripped into working class communities across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.


Continuing with Lukashenko would, by contrast, continue the slow decay that the country is protesting against. That, too, would merely be a dead end.


By contrast, a strategy relying on the deepening of the popular revolt against Lukashenko that could go beyond the current street movement and convince sections of Lukashenko’s own supporters, fearful of western-style privatisation and welfare erosion, that there is a third path for the country offers the best way forward.


This third way would be one that appealed to the majority’s desire to stay neutral in the struggle between East and West; but also would mobilise a sense that true democracy should not stop at the political level; but also involve economic decision-making on a very deep level.


That kind of politics would need to rely on precisely the kind of independent, working class self-initiative that has grown since the beginning of the crisis in Belarus. It would find powerful allies from below in both the West and in Russia. Distant though that possibility is at the moment, it remains the only way out of the crisis that could satisfy the wishes of the majority in Belarus.


This article first appeaed in Counterfire. Reproduced with the author's permission