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Workers at state-owned enterprises across Belarus have gone on strike in support of the protests against President Alexander Lukashenko. This proves beyond doubt that his regime is no longer one of workers resisting the advance of new capitalist proprietors, as it was when Lukashenko first came to power in the mid-1990s, taking advantage of Soviet nostalgia and fears of privatization.
The social and regional base of the protests that have rocked the country since the contested presidential election on August 9 are much broader than the massive Russian protests of 2011-2012, which were largely made up of white-collar workers from the capital. The siloviki, or security services, are prepared to give young protesters a good beating, but are far less certain when faced with older factory workers who are closer to the siloviki in terms of social strata and worldview. Sooner or later, this could result in a divide among the siloviki, which in most cases precedes the collapse of a personalistic regime like Lukashenko’s.
The scale, duration, and composition of the protests may also cause a schism within the elite, thereby creating an alternative focus of loyalty for the siloviki. We know that this is possible merely from the fact that two of the three candidates barred from running against Lukashenko in the recent election are former members of the establishment.
The protest movement has managed to increase its support base without resorting to that foreign policy metric so common to the post-Soviet space: “Freedom with Europe versus slavery with Russia.” There is no discernible anti-Russian bent to the protests as yet, and this saves Belarusians from having to make a premature and, in many ways, artificial choice. Lukashenko himself helped remove that choice when he arrested dozens of alleged Russian mercenaries ahead of the election.
In Russia, events in Belarus are viewed very differently from those in Ukraine, where street protests led to regime change in 2014. In Ukraine, where there are bitter divides over the status of the Russian language, and anti-Russian sentiment is rife, Russian speakers and ethnic Russians are considered by Russians as “our own people,” who must be helped and protected from hostile forces. A friendly regime in Ukraine—supported by the Russian-speaking section of the local population—is seen by Russia as an ally. In Belarus, the entire population is viewed as friendly, so the loss of an allied ruler is not such a disastrous turn of events. This is why the Belarusian protests against their own authorities—authorities that are formally allied with Russia in a Union State—are not seen in Russia as anti-Russian or hostile.
The Belarusian protests themselves have a different take on Russia than those that led to regime change in Ukraine in 2014. The Belarusians recognize that their dictatorship predates Russian President Vladimir Putin, and do not try to explain it as something imported from Russia. This makes the Belarusian protests much freer of geopolitical meaning.
Most importantly, however, both Ukraine’s 2004-2005 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Maidan Revolution appeared to be strongly anti-colonial, liberating uprisings. That angle would be artificial in Belarus, and would reduce the number of protesters to a minimum that would pose no threat to Lukashenko. This is why not one of Lukashenko’s main electoral rivals resorted to the rhetoric of national liberation, and why no one on the streets is doing so either. For Belarus, just as for Russia at the start of the 1990s, it’s about individual and internal freedom above all, and not about liberation from some hostile foreign oppressor.
The events in Belarus have confounded Russia’s two eternal warring foes: Russian patriots and the pro-Western Russian intelligentsia. The latter naturally supports the protests, though they would have preferred to see more of an anti-Russian component to them, with the Kremlin in its traditional role of the villain.
For the patriots, the arrest of Russian soldiers—even mercenaries—is hard to square with the image of Belarus as a close ally. Lukashenko’s popularity peaked long ago among Russian hardliners nostalgic for the lost empire. As far as they’re concerned, if Lukashenko was a true patriot of this shared great nation, he would have made his country part of Russia long ago. The fact that he has not means that he is a false patriot of the lost shared fatherland of the past, and cares more about his own power in a small domain.
In unequivocally supporting Lukashenko, Putin stands to both gain and lose. In Russia, it’s not Lukashenko who is considered a friend, but the entire Belarusian people. Whoever is attacking the people, therefore, is attacking Russia’s friends.
Putin’s majority may start to have doubts. If Putin supports Lukashenko’s brutality, that means he too is capable of such atrocities. So far, the Russian president has refrained from going as far as Lukashenko, even against his nemesis—the liberal minority—not to mention protests with a broader social and political support base in Yekaterinburg, Shiyes, and Khabarovsk, which have been dealt with more carefully.
Putin finds himself in the position of someone who has to answer for the obstreperous antics and obnoxious manners of a provincial relative whom he would love to disown, but reluctantly maintains relations with to avoid having to divide up their possessions and so as not to damage his authority in the eyes of the children.
There are revolutions that change the geopolitical path of a country, and that are aimed at achieving precisely that, and there are those that don’t. Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution was a clear example of a geographical concept of freedom: less of a quality than a space that should be joined; a Western franchise that should be opened locally as soon as possible. It’s a functioning model that has led more than one Eastern and Central European nation toward the EU.
With the Belarusian protests, the lack of an obvious demand to change the country’s geopolitical orientation makes it less comprehensible and less interesting for Western politicians and journalists. Even if the West had more interest in the Belarusian revolution, it would be hard for it to formulate a suitable proposal for the country. This isn’t a case of a pro-Russian regime oppressing a pro-Western population and stopping it from following the geopolitical path it would like to.
If it went over to the West, Belarus would find itself in the group of young democracies in Central and Eastern Europe that are grateful for their liberation. And it would not sit well in that group, with its pro-Russian proclivities and its shared views with Russia on the history of World War II. Belarus would shatter the unity of a group whose solidarity is particularly vital, given the countries’ proximity to an assertive Russia.
Belarus might fit in with Europe on a multitude of economic, social, and cultural factors, but it would certainly not fit in on some of those same criteria: the same ones that stopped Russia from joining the Western world in the 1990s.
A change of regime in dictatorial Belarus remains largely its own internal affair, rather than a foreign policy operation and act of geopolitical rivalry. For this reason, the impending collapse of the Belarusian regime and whatever comes next reveal a lot more than events in Ukraine did about possible political transformation in Russia, where the end of Putin’s personalistic regime due to public feeling can’t be passed off as a simple change of geopolitical direction either.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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