PATERNALISM IN DECLINE, BELARUSIAN EUROSCEPTICISM, AND THE INFLUENCE OF RUSSIA
Belarusians are dissatisfied with the results of peaceful protest but have no clear alternative visIon, and most importantly, no one is in a hurry to try a non-Peaceful alternative.
On August 23, 2021, on the anniversary of the march of the New Belarus, the weekly analytical monitoring of Belarus in Focus in partnership with Press Club Belarus, the “Our Opinion” expert community website, and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) held an online meeting to discuss a BISS study of scenarios for political transformations in Belarus.
The main speakers were analysts and researchers:
- Piotr Rudkouski – Doctor of Humanities, Academic Director of BISS, coordinator of the study "Towards a New Belarus: Scenarios of Transformation"
- Pavel Usov – Doctor of Political Sciences, Head of the Centre for Political Analysis and Forecasting (Warsaw).
- Vitali Tsyhankou - political columnist for Radio Liberty.
- Lesia Rudnik - a researcher at the Centre for New Ideas, and a doctoral student at Karlstad University (Sweden).
The meeting was also attended by representatives of international organizations and the diplomatic corps, and analysts and journalists including Yury Drakakhrust, Alan Flowers and others.
The discussion was moderated by Vadim Mojeiko (BISS) and Anton Ruliou (Belarus in Focus/Press Club Belarus).
KEY POINTS ARISING
- "Procedural legitimacy and management culture are the current regime’s most vulnerable aspects" (Piotr Rudkouski)
- "The BISS study is a cold shower for those who think that there will be a quick and easy transition in Belarus" (Pavel Usov))
- The principal goal should not be selecting the "right" people, potentially taking decades, but a change of power that will help to deal with other issues (Vitali Tsyhankou)
- "The regime has a bigger problem with shaky and weak ideology than the protesters " (Lesia Rudnik).
Transformative factors – from the strengthening of the middle class to the growth of Chinese soft power
The main conclusions of the study were presented by its coordinator Piotr Rudkouski. He noted that over the past 70 years, there have been about 480 cases of authoritarian rulers leaving office, as a result of overthrow, death or resignation. In 45% of cases, the departure of an autocrat led to regime change, and in about half of these cases, an authoritarian regime was replaced by a democratic one. These processes were caused by a variety of factors, and there is no combination of them guaranteed to lead to systemic political transformation. Thus, the purpose of the study was to identify factors that are relevant for political transformation in Belarus, either by contributing to the dismantling of autocracy or hindering the process of democratization.
Peter draws attention to the fact that Belarus is a highly personalized autocracy with no political party holding power. This impairs the technocratic quality of management and constitutes an additional risk factor. Lukashenka is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy following the obvious falsifications of the 2020 elections, as well as a decline in both the audience for and confidence in state media (including coronavirus statistics, the Central Election Commission and the authorities as a whole).
The regime has survived by using repression, but this is strategy carries risks: Peter refers to a study by Daniel Treisman who found that in a survey of 316 cases, in 22% of autocracies repression was the trigger for their overthrow. Similarly, in Belarus, it was repression that fuelled the protest movement. The detention of Siarhei Tsikhanouski led to a spike in the readership of his blog ("Country for Life") and mass support for his wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. This, coupled with the violence and torture by the security forces over August 9-11 led to unprecedented protests and cracks at the top of the system. However, for the economic and power elites, Lukashenka remains the arbiter and guarantor of privileges.
Of the positive factors of transformation, Peter singles out the decline in the level of paternalism, the growth of faith in self-reliance, an improving level of education, the strengthening of the middle class, and the example of the pro-democracy mobilization in 2020. Negative factors of transformation are weak and contradictory national identity, Euroscepticism, low levels of economic engagement in the global economy, and Russian influence on Belarusian elites. There are also ambivalent factors of transformation — low social inequality, decentralization of the protest movement, a lack of regional or global momentum toward democracy, and the rise of Chinese authoritarian soft power.
Summing up, Peter noted that procedural legitimacy and management culture are the most vulnerable aspects of the regime, whereas the Euroscepticism of Belarusians and the Russian influence on elites are vulnerabilities for the protest leaders. The global tide of democratization has abated, and this affects the pace of local transformations, however, the demand for change is not going anywhere.
Pavel Usov praised the BISS study, calling it "a cold shower for those who think that there will be a quick and easy transition in Belarus." Vitali Tsyhankou characterised the study as a “Bible of Belarusian political science – Everyone can find something in there for any occasion or interpretation."
The Global Context
Pavel Usov considers Belarusian authoritarianism a unique example of autocracy. It has persisted in the centre of Europe for 30 years and resisted the systemic crisis that led to the collapse of authoritarianism in other countries. Lesia Rudnik compares this experience to China, where ideological legitimacy is complemented by a network of authoritarianism. Social media and censorship are used not just to suppress dissent, but also for open indoctrination and propaganda. In this way, authoritarian countries with strong ideological legitimacy seek to deter the emigration of the middle class (IT specialists, intellectuals, scientists). If they remain in China, they experience favourable conditions and security, but this is only possible if the depoliticization of society is supported by a favourable economic context.
Belarus has neither. Insecurity and an adverse economic position intensify the “brain drain”, from IT specialists to students. Pavel Usov also sees signs of “sultanization” of the regime. He compares the appointment of Maria Vasilevich as a deputy in 2019 with how a burned out sultan surrounds himself with beautiful women, avoids active participation in the political process, and hopes to ride out any passing turbulence. Lukashenka is now attempting to arrest the erosion of his political legitimacy and restore charisma, but he is doing so belatedly. In addition, Lukashenka is ageing, with an inevitable impact on physical and mental health. It is an open question of how long he will be able to maintain control.
Regarding the external context for political transformation in Belarus, the experts paid close attention to Russia, which Pavel Usov considers a key contributor to the erosion of electoral support for Lukashenka. The pro-Russian electorate mobilized around Viktar Babaryka and Valery Tsepkalo because they saw them as representatives of Russia's desire for regime change in Belarus. On the other hand, Russia remains a key obstacle to a democratic transition, and should Russian military bases be established in Belarus, democratization will be excluded for years. However, Vitali Tsyhankou notes that after Lukashenka departs the scene and an active political life begins, it is to be expected that there will be a pro-Russian faction in a freely elected parliament.
Lesia Rudnik believes it is important to deconstruct and analyse Lukashenka’s system in terms of the theory of resource mobilization. What resources does or can the regime rely on to compensate for its lack of legitimacy?
For example, Lesia notes, technology has had a catalytic effect on protest movements. Facebook and Twitter were vital to the “Arab Spring”, and Telegram and YouTube played a similar role in Belarus in 2020. Unlike China, which successfully uses analogous resources to shore up authoritarianism, the Belarusian regime has no such capabilities.
In addition, the open use of violence and consequent loss of physical security caused many to turn against the regime. Even those who demonstrated their loyalty were caught up in repression, fracturing the social contract.
Vitali Tsyhankou believes that a ruling party could stabilise authoritarianism, but Lukashenka is not prepared to take such a step; partly because he does not understand the benefits, but mostly because he cannot entertain the prospect of sharing power, even in this form.
Stable and sustainable civil society would be integral to a political transformation, but Pavel Usov notes that this sector is also the most thoroughly repressed. Vitali Tsyhankou adds that the failure of peaceful protests has caused discussion of non-peaceful strategies to become more common due to widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. However, there is no consistent vision of the form that a non-peaceful protest would take, and most importantly, no one is in a hurry to try it for themselves.
Vitali also notes that there is a particularly active hope that generational change will contribute to the Europeanization of Belarus. At one time, pro-European sentiments in Belarus were stronger, but then the crisis in Crimea and other aspects of Russian mobilization intervened. Russian propaganda regarding contentious issues such as migrants and gay marriages negatively affected the pro-European views of some Belarusians: "Europe did not collapse, and democracy did not end there, but Belarusians began to turn away from European values."
Another key issue is national identity. Vitali notes that some idealize the issue of language and believe that until the protesters speak the Belarusian language, society does not deserve to change. Meanwhile, at the other extreme, some believe that there will be no change until Belarusians accept liberal values en masse. According to Vitali, the primary goal should not be the formation of the "right" people, which might take decades, but a change of power that will help to deal with other issues.
In view of all these value-based contradictions, Lesia Rudnik notes that the regime suffers from a shaky and weak ideology more than the protestors. The government has no ideas, symbols and leaders, and its remaining supporters are uncertain of their political identity. Supporters of the protests, on the other hand, have very similar ideological views and symbols, regardless of which leader they align behind.
Lesia is concerned about the growing demand amongst some Belarusians for strong, powerful, protest leaders as this is contradictory with demands for justice and democracy. Democratic forces need to convince society of the need for decentralization and explain that a strong leader is not the answer. Yury Drakakhrust interprets the desire for a strong hand as a manifestation of the desire for an effective, capable government (unlike Afghanistan, where democratic power crumbled into dust). Vadim Mojeiko observes that during the localized protest marches of 2020, decentralized, autonomous action was perfectly aligned with strong local leadership, acting as organizers and route planners.
Summing up, Lesia Rudnik notes that time is also a resource and should now be used to strengthen social structures to mitigate the risks of one form of authoritarianism mutating into another.
Author: Vadim Mojeiko