The hot summer of 2020 in Belarus: what Belarusian society has achieved
Eight major achievements, five crushed stereotypes and three confirmed
On August 24th, 2020, the weekly analytical monitoring Belarus in Focus in partnership with Press Club Belarus, the Belarusian expert community “Nashe mnenie” and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) held an online Expert-Analytical Club meeting for international audiences to discuss the outcome of the 2020 presidential campaign in Belarus.
Guest speakers included Belarusian analysts, such as
- Anatol Pankouski, Ph.D., political analyst and philosopher, editor-in-chief of Nashe Mnenie and editor of Belarusian Yearbook
- Piotr Rudkouski, Ph.D. in analytical philosophy, Director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS)
- Piotr Kuznetsov, founder of Silnyye Novosti website (Homiel)
Experts and analysts from various think-tanks, international journalists, foreign ministry officials, civic activists, and other specialists following recent developments in Belarus participated in the discussion, including Ekaterina Pierson, Olga Dryndova (editor at Belarus Analysen), Andrei Laurukhin (political scientist), Valery Karbalevich (political scientist), and others.
The discussion was moderated by Valeria Kostyugova (Nashe Mnenie), Vadim Mojeiko (BISS), and Anton Ruliou (Belarus in Focus/Press Club Belarus).
· ‘Are striking workers taking us back to the proletarian revolution?’ (Anatol Pankouski)
· ‘The stereotype about cute Belarusians has been crushed’ (Piotr Rudkouski)
· ‘[The nomenclature] is not particularly motivated to make effort to preserve or advance the regime’ (Piotr Rudkouski)
· ‘It all boils down to the fact that a complete nobody can lead the revolution’ (Anatol Pankouski).
Belarusian society’s achievements in the summer of 2020
The unprecedented political activity of Belarusians
Anatol Pankouski noted that the Belarusian people had “won back” the right to hold public protests where and when they want. Besides, they facilitated the release of political prisoners detained during the protests. Piotr Rudkouski added that Belarusians turned out to be ready to pay an unexpectedly high price for democracy. According to him, BISS highlighted the growing demand for democracy in Belarus a year ago when analyzing international indices such as The Economist Intelligence Unit and V-Dem.
Striking factories and workers joining the protests
Anatol Pankouski pointed out that workers voicing their position and joining the protests was the most important development in post-election Belarus. Piotr Rudkouski said that he did not expect workers’ strikes en masse: “after all, they have something to lose”. Piotr Kuznetsov added that workers put forward political demands not due to economic reasons, but due to the “immoral behavior of the authorities”: a failure to ensure the rule of law, people’s basic rights, and democracy. According to him, “most of the striking enterprises are well-performing ones, with workers having decent wages” (for example, a manufacturer of heavy off-road vehicles MKZT, rather than state-subsidized Gomselmash). Kuznetsov concluded that according to Maslow’s pyramid, “our society has grown to a political protest”.
Consolidation of professional communities, including doctors and theatre workers
Anatol Pankouski: “Belarusians are well-organized people. If previously it appeared as the strong side of the regime, now they are organizing protests as labor collectives”.
Social revolution and self-organization
Anatol Pankouski emphasized that the protests and the political revolution had concluded previous changes in society. According to him, any revolution dismantles hierarchies, and while blocks on the top of the pyramid are easy to remove (ministers can be changed imperceptibly) when it comes to the pyramid’s base, the removal of blocks could collapse the pyramid itself. Pankouski called the developments in Belarus “the rise of civil society”; the latter manifested itself during the COVID-19 outbreak, when it created a solidarity fund and prompted dozens of different initiatives supportive of Belarusians in need, to emerge.
“Emergence of new political groups, new political players”
Anatol Pankouski noted that previously apolitical groups became new political actors, including the business community and civic initiatives. There is a “global reconfiguration” – “many of those who participated in the protests or were incarcerated in Akrescina Street for the first time will remain in politics”.
“The system has broken down and is decaying”
According to Piotr Kuznetsov, the Belarusian system rested on three pillars: propaganda, Lukashenka’s popularity (or willingness to tolerate him), and the penal system (implying not only the actions of security forces but also the labor contract system and other types of penalties for dissent). The propaganda system has cracked up (protests and resignations occurred on the state TV). Due to the authorities’ response to the COVID-19 outbreak, many people have lost the patience making it impossible to penalize most people in the country (targeted repression is still there, but the punishment is no longer inevitable, making protests stronger). Piotr Rudkouski reckons that the nomenklatura’s motivation has been somewhat undermined, including the security forces: they work by inertia, often fearing for the life and health of the loved ones, which is a weak and short-term motive.
Valeria Kostyugova pointed to significant progress in Belarus’ nation-building and the choice of a white-red-white flag as the symbol. Olga Dryndova agreed, adding that doubts about the split in society over a flag became a thing of the past: now everyone uses it, including tractor plant workers who shout ‘Long Live Belarus!’. Vadim Mojeiko drew a parallel between the developments in Belarus and the “Game of Thrones”: the Targaryens were mistaken about ordinary people in Westeros keeping their flags, while Belarusians took out their flags when the time had come. Nevertheless, nation-building is a long-lasting process, and the Belarusian society has only started the journey. Nation-building after protests, Pankouski said, was discussed both in 2010 and in 2006: “this is a long-lasting never-ending process since the nation is living and changing”.
Ekaterina Pierson, observing the Belarusian diaspora in Belgium, noted that previously many “were not interested in politics, being preoccupied with their children or jobs”, and now they were in pain and despair about the developments in Belarus. According to Pierson people feel liberated and dare to take “the fate of Belarus in their hands”.
The Belarusian society is patriarchal and sexist, and a woman will not be a president
The participants of the discussion were unanimous about the irrelevance of this stereotype. At the same time, they gave different reasons for this. Ekaterina Pierson noted that “women come to the fore”: this can be applied to both the role of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the appearance of women who have overcome fear on the streets on August 12. Andrei Laurukhin also notes the symbolism of Chaim Soutine’s “Eve” as an image of the feminization of discontent.
According to Valery Karbalevich, patriarchy has always been an erroneous stereotype: “We are not religious, we have passed the stage of industrialization. We are one of the world leaders in the number of divorces, and this is also a sign of women’s independence”.
However, the absence of sexism does not mean that only women protested. Anton Ruliou, who lives near the Riga supermarket, recalled that “the male protest also played a role.” He is supported by Piotr Kuznetsov: “If everybody would be dispersed on the first night and there wouldn’t be any further male component, then there would be no continuation.” He also notes that Lukashenko’s criticisms of the woman president were so wrong that “he even provoked Yarmoshyna to publicly disagree with him.”
A boycott can be an effective tool against an authoritarian regime
Anatol Pankouski notes the groundlessness of this stereotype: “It turned out that the authorities are satisfied that people do not go to the polls.” And vice versa: the political participation caused a lockdown of the electoral system (queues at polling stations, shortage of ballots, protective measures against the observers, etc.).
You need a strong political leader to be successful
Anatol Pankouski recalls the disputes about a single candidate and the ongoing questions of Ukrainians and Russians about the political leader of the Belarusian protest. However, “the potential for self-organization of society is higher than previously assumed,” and everything is developing normally without obvious political leaders. Mr. Pankouski admits: “I used to read about the flow of the protest votes, but I didn’t fully believe it” – and now the votes repeatedly moved to the next leader after the authorities removed the leaders one by one. “Everything points to the idea that a complete nobody can lead the revolution. Earlier Belarusians lived in the era of a sacralized boss”, but now “what will the new “mayor” of Hrodna do with the population, how will he govern it?”.
Belarus is not only an authoritarian but also a paternalistic state. Belarusians live according to the principle “see no evil, hear no evil”
According to Valeria Kostyugova, the Belarusian state is not paternalistic (redistributing benefits) but parasitic. People do everything themselves, and therefore be a refusal to write plans and reports can be an effective form of protest; people may refuse “to feed administrative buildings with their work and initiative”. Vadim Mojeiko notes that this summer Belarus rides the wave of incredible popular solidarity. Record-breaking fundraising during the coronavirus epidemic ($355,000) pales before even more record-breaking fundraising to help the victims of the repressions (more than $5 million).
The protest will be successful when all those dissatisfied gather in one place
It turned out that having a sufficient number of protesters, the classical dramatic trinity of the unity of place, time, and action is completely unnecessary. As Vadim Mojeiko noted, you can protest both in the capital and in agro towns, on avenues, and in the courtyards of the residential areas. However, Andrei Laurukhin points to the overturn of yet another stereotype: “They said that if hundreds of thousands would go out into the streets then the regime will collapse: no, it hasn’t collapsed.”
Belarusians are tolerant and pliable
The experts completely disagreed while assessing this stereotype. Piotr Rudkouski considers it to be confirmed because the protests are going extremely peaceful and cultural, without any excesses. “But at the same time, people are very persistent in demanding the fundamental things”: Belarusians combine the flexibility of their actions with maintaining the core of their demands.
Anatol Pankouski is convinced of the opposite: “It was Lukashenka who presented our society as conflict-free, full of unity and joy – a picture from BT”. Whereas conflict is the basic characteristic of any political field, and street protests are an element of democracy.
Piotr Kuznetsov also thinks that the stereotype about cute Belarusians – “collective potato pancakes” – has been destroyed. He draws attention to the fact that “the siloviki are also Belarusians,” although instead of tolerance they demonstrate cruelty. Anatol Pankouski agrees that the memes about foreign security officials (for example, the Ossetian Yury Karayev) are an attempt not to notice that the Belarusians are cruel and vindictive.
Belarusians are partisans
Ekaterina Pierson drew attention to the fact that the stereotype about Belarusians as a partisan nation has become relevant in a new way. Now it can be applied to long-term protests in various forms (including economic pressure: withdrawal of bank deposits and purchase of foreign currency, envelope wages). Vadim Mojeiko adds that “guerrilla warfare does not imply general battles, but it implies readiness to stubborn resistance.”
We need a single candidate
Valery Karbalevich considers the fate of Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya to be a confirmation of the stereotype about the need for a single opposition candidate. The candidate was not elected at the congress or in the primaries; it is after all the favorites were eliminated by the authorities, the society itself chose Tsikhanouskaya as a single candidate, “while she resisted.”
Lukashenka will go all the way
Piotr Kuznetsov states that the sad stereotype about the old president’s readiness to act with no moral or legal limits to hold power unilaterally is confirmed.
P.S. What should we expect from the future?
Anatol Pankouski: The machine of history can no longer be stopped, there is a dispersion of power which goes down to its low levels: “he runs there with a gun, and the local bosses do not know how to behave in the new reality”.
Piotr Kuznetsov: The corridor for the society is narrow, the threat of a renewed violence exists – Lukashenka shows that he is not capable of other actions. And “the system is bursting at the seams under the psychological pressure of protests.”
Piotr Rudkouski: The success of the democratic forces and the Belarusian people became possible because they moved away from the paradigm of ready-made recipes and a panacea (be it a single candidate, a strike, or 100,000 people on the streets). But “the panacea for maintaining the regime is doing nothing and counting on a magic wand.” It is important to believe in the power and the effectiveness of the small steps: “We do what we can, with no guarantee of success.” And there will be a success – perhaps not immediately, but there will be a transition to real democracy.
Author: Vadim Mojeiko
Originally published in Russian on the website of “Nashe Mneniye”