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Belarus: No Maidan In The Making, Observers Say

Women dressed in white clothes in Minsk, Belarus on August 12, 2020 protest against police violence during recent rallies against suspected election fraud.
Women dressed in white clothes in Minsk, Belarus on August 12, 2020 protest against police violence during recent rallies against suspected election fraud.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka often seems to see them everywhere: potential “Maidan” uprisings that, like the Euromaidan demonstrations that drove Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovcyh from power in 2014, could end his own rule of nearly 26 years.

Throughout Belarus’ presidential campaign, the 65-year-old leader warned voters that he will not tolerate such a scenario.

But is Belarus, now in its fourth day of protests against suspected election fraud, actually headed for such an event?

At this early stage, one former leader of the Euromaidan protests, as well as regional analysts, hesitate to say.

The two sets of demonstrations differ not only by cause – alleged vote rigging versus failure to sign a partnership agreement with the European Union -- but length of time, structure, and access to communication.

Whereas Belarus’ protests are “increasingly” all about President Lukashenka, according to political analyst Alyaksandr Feduta, Ukraine’s 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests went beyond just opposing Ukrainian President Yanukovych, underlined Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a EuroMaidan leader who served as Ukraine’s post-protests prime minister until 2016.

“The country clearly stood up for integration with the European Union, for an [association] agreement with the EU; for NATO,” said Yatseniyuk, then leader of the large opposition party Batkvishchina (Fatherland). “The country clearly stood up for its territorial integrity and independence.”

"That is, the country didn’t just go against [something]; the country went for [something],” he added.

Belarusian protesters, as Yatsenyuk acknowledges, maintain that they are for something: free and fair elections, true democracy, and the departure of Lukashenka.

Based on preliminary data, the Belarusian president walked away with what has been his near-constant percentage of the vote since 1994: around 80 percent. By contrast, popular protest candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya received roughly 10 percent.

But without clear leaders or organization for Belarus’ demonstrations against these results, doing much more than heading out into the streets each night to call for new elections could prove a challenge for Lukashenka’s critics over the long run, some observers say.

Belarus’ protests, unlike Euromaidan in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, have no single point of focus.

“There’re no leaders, nor any kind of organization, in the sense of a structure,” noted Ihar Ilyash, a political commentator for the Poland-based, Belarusian news outlet Belsat. “People are organizing themselves just on the spot.”

Though known for its volunteers, the EuroMaidan movement was led by influential members of the Ukrainian parliament’s opposition, able to call on their parties’ resources and networks.

By contrast, Belarus’ political opposition has no presence in the country’s 110-seat legislature. Several key public figures critical of the government and able to draw a crowd – among them, Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, popular vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski – were jailed or fled the country before the election.

Nonetheless, despite these differences, some Ukrainians who took part in Euromaidan told DW (Deutsche Welle) that Belarus reminds them of their own experiences.

"The events in Belarus, where rubber bullets were fired at people's heads and a prisoner transport van crashed into a crowd, bring back bitter memories," commented Oleksandra Matviychuk, who worked with the non-governmental Euromaidan SOS group to help victims of police violence.

Within just a few days, hundreds in Belarus have been wounded nationwide in clashes with police since polls closed on August 9, and one person has died, according to the Belarusian Interior Ministry. Over 5,000 people have been detained.

The Interior Ministry has acknowledged that police have already used live ammunition -- in the southwestern city of Brest against a group of individuals supposedly threatening the officers with iron bars. One man was wounded.

The use of rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades, and blank cartridges fired to scare crowds has been documented by Human Rights Watch.

To try and change this pattern of violence, scores of mostly young people, some holding flowers, lined Minsk’s sidewalks on August 12 to show silent solidarity with protesters’ demands for honest elections.

But despite such measures, the Belarus protests, commented independent Russian political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, seem to lack one key aspect of Euromaidan: momentum.

In my opinion, right now, that dynamic – that momentum, as it’s called – is not working to the advantage of the protesters, unfortunately,” said Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rather, the “tightening of the screws,” as one Belarusian media activist put it, appears to be continuing.

Lukashenka’s chief challenger, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who played no role in the election protests, abruptly left Belarus for Lithuania on the night of August 10-August 11, apparently fearing for her own or her children’s safety.

The next day, August 12, the state news agency BelTA announced that police had detained the protests’ alleged “organizers,” supposedly managed by a man whom the news outlet Otkrytie (Open) Media identified as a used car dealer.

Public signs of disunity within the government over this crackdown do not appear to exist.

Instances of riot police siding with protesters or polling stations insisting on honest vote counts have been widely rumored, but not, apparently, systematically documented.

Like other protest supporters, Gallyamov believes that a nationwide strike could turn the tide at “this critical moment,” but little suggests that the work stoppages and declarations of support for the protesters organized by employees at a few factories are being widely duplicated.

In one instance, at Minsk’s Kozlov Electrotechnical Plant, riot police intervened, carting off two employees.

A successful strike would require participation by Belarus’ largest state-run companies, commented political analyst Valer Karbalevich.

Yet these companies rely on short-term contracts, which mean they can fire employees without cause, Karbalevich pointed out. Government-provided budget subsidies and discounts for these firms could also play a role.

“The companies’ workers understand this. This dependence on the state is a factor that can neutralize protests; particularly, political ones,” said Karbalevich.

The lack of reliable Internet access since August 9 – a problem some attribute to the government – is another potential factor.

While EuroMaidan demonstrators were able to use social media and other online sites to recruit and coordinate protesters, in Belarus residents often have trouble getting even weather forecasts, much less online updates from demonstrators. The messenger app Telegram has become the main source of information about the protests.

Yet Feduta, a former Lukashenka spokesman, does not think these obstacles will end the protests. Like the grassroots assistance for hospital doctors during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, the “phenomenon” of “self-organization” is starting to appear.

But neither Feduta nor Yatsenyuk echoed a prediction by an ex-Lukashenka ambassador that the Belarusian leader will simply flee the country once the demonstrations spread.

Forecast former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk: “[H]e will fight until the end, and the forces loyal to him will fight until the end, in order to hold onto power.”

“He’s a psychologically tough person in stressful moments like this,” commented Feduta. “He can wait.”