Four days after Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s concealed inauguration as president of Belarus, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Minsk and other large cities on September 27 to “inaugurate” an alternative leader, former presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, believed by many to be Belarus' legitimately elected president.
But despite Belarusian protesters’ persistence, both officials and demonstrators alike appear to be approaching a dead end for ways to end Belarus’ political crisis, Belarusian analysts say.
“[T]he stabilized warfare, the trench warfare, between the two opposing sides is continuing, and there’s no prospect for coming out of this situation,” commented Belarusian political scientist Valer Karbalevich.
After nearly two months of protests against Lukashenka’s official sixth reelection as Belarus’ leader, members of the Coordination Council, the opposition group formed for a peaceful transition of power from Lukashenka to Tsikhanouskaya, acknowledge problems with strategy and a slight dip in protest numbers.
The government’s response follows a predictable pattern. Ahead of the Sunday march, mobile Internet access in downtown Minsk vanished, and armored vehicles, water-cannon vehicles, military trucks, and police vans were photographed throughout the city. Seven subway stations were closed before the protest and shopping centers shut down. Several local journalists were detained as the demonstrations began.
Massive violent clashes with police did not appear to occur in the capital, but confrontations broke out in the western city of Hrodna, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Belarusian Service reported. Tear gas and stun grenades were used in the southeastern city of Homel to push back protesters, local police told Russian news agencies, but the Belarusian Interior Ministry later denied such reports.
Nationwide, “not more than 200 people” were detained, the ministry stated. It claimed that the turnout was “significantly less” than at protests on previous Sundays.
Unidentified “eyewitnesses” put the size of the march in Minsk at 100,000 people, Interfax reported, but overhead video footage of the protest did not clearly substantiate that estimate.
Andrei Yegorov, a member of the Coordination Council, conceded that turnout for the protests has gradually declined over the past few weeks. A certain “fatigue with the format” of the unsanctioned demonstrations has set in, he said.
“There’s an indecisiveness in the actions of the political leadership … of the Coordination Council, which remains a relatively weak political force because it or Tsikhanouskaya can’t say, for instance, ‘We’re announcing a national strike,’ and the strike will start,” commented Yegorov, director of Minsk’s Center For European Transformation.
“The ardor has cooled a bit, but the mood hasn’t changed,” commented Syarhey Dylevski, head of the Minsk Tractor Factory Strike Committee. Dylevski, a member of the Coordination Council’s leadership, was recently released after spending 25 days in prison for organizing an unsanctioned public gathering and for disobeying police.
Dylevski and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Svetlana Alexievich, who does not participate actively in the Council, are the only members of the Coordination Council’s seven-member presidium now at liberty within Belarus. All other members have been arrested or, like Tsikhanouskaya, were compelled to leave the country.
On September 27, one of those latter individuals, Paval Latushka, a former Belarusian ambassador and minister of culture, told Russia’s TV Rain that the presidium’s members were prepared to return to Belarus if the Russian Federation and European Union could guarantee their safety. Otherwise, Latushka, a former spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, said that he is ready to set up a shadow Foreign Ministry outside of the country.
Yet while meetings by Tsikhanouskaya, Latushka, and others with the European Union or the United Nations can help reinforce the “legitimacy” of Belarus’ protest movement, “they’re not critical for the democratic revolution in Belarus to be victorious,” commented Yegorov.
"The resolution of the situation within Belarus can only be done within Belarus," he said.
The United States, EU member states, and the United Kingdom have rejected Lukashenka as Belarus’ legitimate president, but, though sanctions have been discussed, Lukashenka currently faces only travel restrictions in the Baltic states. As it has done before, the European Parliament has declared him a persona non grata.
But European Union sanctions, if enacted, will have little impact on the political situation in Belarus, said political scientist Karbalevich, “because they only concern visa restrictions for those who violate human rights.”
“It’s doubtful that such sanctions will scare the Belarusian regime,” he said. “Therefore, for now, I don’t see а strong influence, а serious lever of influence, on Belarus from the West.”
As a sign of that minimal influence, Lukashenka on September 27 scoffed at a statement by President Emmanuel Macron of France, an EU heavyweight, that the Belarusian politician, in power since 1994, “will have to go.” Referring to the 38-year-old Tsikhanouskaya, he retorted that Macron is paying “too much attention to one of the ex-candidates for president of Belarus,” and joked that this could cause him “personal” problems “at home.”
Rather than EU member states like France, the only real source of outside influence on Belarus is Russia, which is unlikely to enter into negotiations with the Coordination Council, given the signal that would send to their own voters about resisting the government, noted Karbalevich.
Moscow pledged $1.5 billion in financial aid to Belarus this month and reportedly has ordered Russian banks in the country to extend credit to the Belarusian government, but still looks askance at Lukashenka’s earlier charges that the Kremlin was attempting to stage unrest in Belarus through Russian mercenaries.
Nonetheless, it backs Lukashenka’s call for constitutional reforms to expand parliament’s powers, followed by repeat presidential elections by 2022.
“The moment when Putin understands that Lukashenka is again deceiving him is precisely the moment when the collapse of the ruling regime in Belarus will begin,” commented former Lukashenka spokesman Alyaksandr Feduta.
But even with Russia’s official support, Lukashenka's unexpected September 23 inauguration, held a over a month before the official end to his fifth presidential term on November 5, suggests that the government knows it cannot stop the protests soon, commented Andrey Kazakevich, director of Minsk's Political Sphere think tank.
It has already used most of the means at its disposal to suppress the demonstrations, Kazakevich noted, and "It will be difficult for them to think up something different."
That appears to be a challenge for the Coordination Council as well.
Yegorov described the Council as currently busy with “questions of its own legitimacy” and facilitating communication between different groups of protesters, while Latushka said the Council is discussing an “anti-crisis program” to ensure “that the country will not be plunged into chaos.” He did not elaborate.
A non-scientific September 25 survey of 530,977 Belarusian voters by the vote-verification app Golos (Vote or Voice) reported that nearly 97 percent of participants support the Coordination Council holding talks with the government. Nothing, however, suggests such an event is imminent.
One protest participant, identified only as Andrey, told Current Time that, given the harsh crackdowns against peaceful rallies, some protesters are ready to adopt a more confrontational approach.
Some IT experts, though, have devised their own forms of protest.
On the evening of September 26, hackers managed to insert footage of police beating and detaining protesters into the broadcast of an interview with Acting Health Minister Dmitry Pinevich on the sites of state-run broadcasters Belarus 1 and ONT, TUT.by reported. Aside from TUT.by, the substitute footage came from pro-protest Telegram channel NEXTA, the independent news site Onliner, and Current Time TV.
A Telegram channel called Kiberpartizany (Cyberpartisans), which earlier had hacked the Interior Ministry and Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s websites, took responsibility for the attack. During its latest hack, the channel warned that “If the Belarusian Television Radio Company does not show people the truth, we’ll show it.”
While not condoning such measures, any display of "self-organization" appears encouraging to opposition supporters. The protests have finally enabled civil society in Belarus to come into its own, said Karbalevich.
In a brief statement posted on the Telegram channel Pul Pervoi (Pool of the First Woman), Tsikhanouskaya, now based in Lithuania, appeared to agree. "[T]he entire nation is stronger than one person," she wrote.
-With additional reporting by BelTA and TUT.by