Nataliya Gumenyuk:
Why weak points of Belarus state may play in favour of the protests

August 19, 2020

Protests in Belarus are one of the most beautiful and genuine I’ve ever seen. The paradox of Belarus protests is that everything we believe to be the weak point of Belarus society may favor protestors. Intuitively people follow all the rules of non-violent resistance: avoiding confrontation – to strengthen moral authority for mass mobilization so more people join, and authorities defect. And yes, risks are very high, as the regime can be brutal. Incredible is that protests are also going against the authoritarian curve/trend we see globally and avoid traps which usually may weaken the movement.

  1. No identity politics (which is unusual today), vice versa, protestors embraced white-red flag and take ownership over it while the government used and still claims it’s something nationalistic, but it’s become just the sign of freedom. It’s almost impossible to find a division line: neither language, nor social status, nor region. Yes, this homogeneity of the Belarus society was used to keep a monopoly of powers (compare to Ukrainian pluralism which always saved Ukrainian democracy), but now it plays against.
  2. No liberal bubble. Last protests were often originated from the so-called liberal bubble (by this I mean civil society, media, intellectual), and the struggle was to engage more people especially outside the bubble, we all speak about urban-rural divide, etc. And it’s just not. The unfortunate fact that civil society we see it was “cleaned”, destroyed by the regime somehow now plays in favor of protestors as they are representatives of a clear majority
  3. No formal opposition. We used to imagine that formal opposition (parties) is something to help in this case. Again, unfortunately, political life was killed in Belarus for the last decades, and old fashion parties (those form the 1990s, 2000s) indeed were brave but highly unpopular. But today formal political parties are outdated in the West. Now the absence of those parties on the contrary makes more people join, and people are not afraid that any political force will hijack the protests, there are not those who will try to use them in their favor. Sooner or later formal leaders will appear in Belarus, but then they will be judged by what they will do for the protests, so legitimacy will be earned.  Even the fact that Tikhanouskaya is not a political beast plays in favor as it’s clear she is not power-thirsty. (As one of Belarus colleges says she is like Frodo who is carrying the ring, which is a heavy burden for her, but she has a strong will and in the end, is good but also a wise person). So no chances she alienates protestors. 
  4. State ownership of critical industries and strikes. What for Lukashenko was criticizesmight be the biggest blow for him. Since most of the industries are state-owned the state turned to be dependent on the workers who go on strike. And this is the biggest threat from the regime. I wonder how private enterprise employees can do so. So if the industry is private they can’t do the same. First of all, strikes are a risk for the state budget, but also Lukashenko can’t any longer speak about worker-class support. Yet, this is the reason why I can’t imagine anything similar in Russia where most of the companies are private, so strikes there don’t matter. And also I talked to workers who are in their 30s and 60s, there is a new generation and yes, they are professionals who do read telegram channels, who know their rights, the elderly think they have nothing to lose – they had given 20-30 years of their life for their enterprises, the youngsters who work for 5-10 years also think that the perspective of living under the same condition is not really what they want for the next decades. 
  5. Western or outside support. Yes, it might be important, but Lukashenko had managed to created state which is used to isolation and is less dependent on the West, which may mean the West doesn’t have leverage. Still, since the protests are national, and the biggest threat to the regime comes from small towns, from a civil servant who might defect and who do not have any connection to the West, they also do not depend on outside actors. So the fact that Western media do not report enough about Belarus or the EU, the USA won’t do anything big – doesn’t play much. That can be bad, but also protestors do not need to spend time to persuade West or anybody to interfere, which means they’re strong enough. 
  6. What’s also important for those who wait for the fast solution. 7000 were detained, we know about up to 400 injured – these stories are not yet told, since there is no capacity to tell them, but it also prolongs the protests since people will learn about more and more cases. And again somehow Belarus’ obedience and trust to the state make them even more shocked by the brutality of the state. Especially those who didn’t hate Lukashenko, who were loyal to him are the most shocked, and angry compare to the human right defenders who knew the regime better and didn’t expect anything.

What’s critical is self-discipline. Protestors understand they can’t gather when it’s dark. It’s really important. Therefore do not wait for a tent-city or so. It’s impossible to destroy and use something which is not there. Exactly because the physical strength is still on the side of the government and police any confrontation may ruin the cause. Still, I hope this self-discipline will be maintained. 26 years of authoritarianism had taught people to be extremely careful and be cautious of provocateurs. (And yes, they are visible in the crowd, I’ll dare to judge those who’re calling to go to protest in front of the prison at night – that’s incrediblesuspicious).    ( I should add that I strongly believe in the success of non-violent resistance, violence in the Maidam was not what played the role, but the mass mobilization)

And yes, for me the symbol of the protests is a plastic garbage bag which people bring to the protests to collect empty plastic bottles (it was crazy hot till today in Minsk) to demonstrate that protests are not about chaos but order, and discipline. Somehow they’ve become evangelical about the cleanness of the places where people protest. And such discipline (and for a while, some Belorussians told that discipline was the reason why the regime is strong) is the hope for Free Belarus.

What else I want to add – Belarussian do not expect much from the Ukrainian state. I’ve talked to some people from the Co-ordination council. They tried to be diplomatic on camera, but they know that the Ukrainian government is not in the strong position to interfere with being dependent on the Kremlin in the East, and yes, Lukashenko may stay in power.  Some people are maybe a bit disappointed by the lack of solidarity from Ukrainian society… As people read Ukrainian facebook and even I mention that there is a bit of arrogance in the tone, there is a tone of doubt, as if some doubt whether protests are genuine. Unfortunately, there are too few Ukrainian journalists on the ground. (Honestly, I do not know who’s there now). Of course, friends from Vostok-SOS were detained last week, still, at this point, there is already a critical mass of foreign press: dozens of Poles, Russians, Scandinavians, Germans, most of the Moscow correspondents from the Western media. 
I’ll dare to guess it will last for a while. 

Natalia Gumenyuk is an Ukrainian journalist.

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