It is worth considering the revolution’s novelty with regard to heuristics as well as poiesis [sometimes translated into English as poetics]. We entered the New Year having shown the world new possibilities for promoting societal autonomy and having come to appreciate the irreversibility of our own transformation.
The Belarusian Revolution has developed and drawn on new structural possibilities for effecting democratic transformation. It does not follow the well-known model of “colour revolutions” and is not captured entirely by the designation “electoral.” Two structural factors played and continue to play a key role: first, society’s unique political consolidation prior to the elections, and second, the no less unique mobilization of protest afterwards.
The first factor was embodied in the universal political program of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaia and the unified campaign supporting her. This program was made up of a single point: holding new and honest elections. The agenda affirmed the main thing our country needs—the restoration of legality, which is to say a return to the normal functioning of representative democracy as enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus. Tsikhanouskaia’s political program was thus not an electoral program in the traditional sense of the word. The program’s contents were not a package of concrete reforms, which would have quickly become the object of disagreement and contention, but rather creating conditions for a re-launch of the political system on the basis of the rule of law. Such a program would not have come into conflict with any other political platform, except for that of Lukashenka’s political apparatus. Society, including a broad range of political organizations and social groups, united around the necessity of exercising citizens’ voting rights, as provided for in the Constitution. Our protests thus did not have a merely “anti-Lukashenka,” negative orientation. The basic starting point of this “anti” is a united “for” in favor of the restoration of law and justice.
The general acceptability of Tsikhanouskaia’s program made possible the phenomenon of decentralized leadership. The protest movement was made up of and led by numerous leaders at multiple levels and in various sectors of social life. Those who shared the general programmatic demands could initiate political actions in their own area, while taking into account local specificities and corresponding challenges. This inevitably gave rise to problems in coordinating actions; nevertheless, it allowed the nascent revolution to take on a total character, that is, it took place all across the country.
The second factor was the asymmetric response of society to the appalling violence on the part of the authorities. Society responded with peaceful protest, which left no room for legitimizing the actions of the police. Systematic violence without legitimacy transformed state structures into internal occupiers; it turned the ex-president’s regime into an occupation. A complete collapse of legality became an inescapable consequence of the new political reality. This is how terror was established in our country. The Belarusian authoritarian regime reached its historical peak in this state of internal occupation; and the regime’s paranoid nature was revealed. The authorities compulsively promote two fantastical specters—civil war and the possibility of foreign intervention—because only these two scenarios can restore the appearance of legitimacy to the regime. Only such events could balance out its major ontological shortcoming: a lack of internal credibility. The regime’s credibility is escaping: the less of it there is, the more there is terror and absurdity. The tenacity of peaceful protests has lanced the boil of paranoia.
In democratic societies, the credibility (or reality) of power depends on the state fulfilling the representational function. As the authorities represent the interests of the people less and less, their credibility fades in turn; and they become increasingly preoccupied with creating an illusory reality, relying on disinformation and propaganda. The current political crisis has revealed that a serious crisis of representation has been building in Belarus over the last few decades. The workings of the power vertical have become increasingly disconnected from the life of society. They could co-exist for a while, until the authorities encountered the electoral consequences of their isolation. In response, state terror was employed against those people, whose interests the authorities had ceased representing. The authorities, who called themselves “democratically elected,” thus became an occupying force deployed against their own people.
The asymmetrical response of the majority of society originated in the moral shock caused by the unrestrained brutality and lawlessness of the physical violence sanctioned by the authorities. At the core of our civic solidarity lies the experience of shared trauma. For this reason, the Belarusian Revolution is in the first place a moral-ethicalrevolution. Peaceful protest is the resultant assertion of a way of communal life that rejects violence. In this sense, the continuing political struggle has a sharp ethical dimension that focuses attention on the following principle: the political order should reflect a recognition of the absolute value of human life and dignity. Ethics ought to be the unconditional foundation of politics. Such an emphasis allows new possibilities for the transformation of political structures and relationships of power in the New Belarus. It also makes it extraordinarily relevant in the overall European and global context.
The dynamics of the revolutionary process can be described in the well-known words of Ihnat Abdziralovich (Kancheuski) “in creating, we destroy.” The ethical asymmetry noted above is a structural condition allowing for the unique creativity of the people, which turned the Belarusian Revolution into a continuous political performance. The latter was embodied in the most varied of protest actions, in singing and dancing bodies, in new images and symbols, in novel local toponyms and commemorative rituals. Civil society was confirmed in its sensus communis: as an empathetic, creative whole, for which artistic practices are an organic means of symbolically transforming the living world. In this connection, the most colorful symbolic expression of the Revolution’s ethical stance at first were the women’s actions, followed by the pensioners’ marches and the marches of the disabled. These are all social groups that have been traditionally coded as weak and vulnerable (in a physical sense). Their entrance into the vanguard of the political struggle against terror had a subversive effect, in so far as it was aimed at overturning an order founded on violence. Their “weakness” did not elicit condescension but was rather utilized as a weapon in the struggle for a society without violence.
The principled orientation toward peaceful protest also became an impulse for starting and precipitously developing new forms of social life: horizontal, mobilizable networks as well as local “courtyard” societies. It is important to note once again that the main idea here was and remains embodying the concept of civil society: people spiritedly drawing together and cooperating in person, face-to-face, arm-in-arm, one voice joining another. (What this means in the age of COVID, which its imperatives of distancing and isolation is another matter.) “Democracy” ceased to be an empty, purely formal term; it became the “flesh and blood” of vibrant human interactions: trust, mutual assistance, and cooperation in the service of the political transformation of our country. Civil society for the first time became a truly active political subject.
The new political imaginary, generated by the revolution, reaches its peak in the emotionally charged idea of the rebirth of the Belarusian nation. This idea depends on two key factors: first of all, the democratization of political institutions, which is required to restore the Constitutional principle that the people are sovereign in the Republic of Belarus; secondly, the rebirth of the cultural and historical heritage of Belarusians. The way that national consciousness has become mobilized has its own unique aspects. The emphatic (proud) self-identification “We are Belarusians” cannot be understood through the well-known scholarly oppositions between primordialism and constructivism, ethnic and civic nationalisms, or the national and the post-national. The poiesis of the Belarusian Revolution demands new thinking, a new analytical language, and new models of self-description.
We have lived through an extraordinary shock and have joined the struggle against the machinery of power, which spares no one and nothing in order to preserve itself. In recent months we have come to realize that we have earned the right to say “We.” If we use the word “revolution,” it is because we understand that it has already happened on a moral and social level. We and our society have radically transformed. It is exactly for this reason that our main task now is the political transformation of our government. We have come to the end of 2020 as new people and thus we can greet the New Year with joy, as a holiday of renewal and as a gateway to a new era.
First published on CH+.
Tatiana Shchyttsova – philosopher, Professor at the Department of Social Science, Head of the Center for Research of Intersubjectivity and Interpersonal Communication at the European Humanities University (Vilnius, Lithuania), editor-in-chief of the Journal for Philosophy and Cultural Studies TOPOS.
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).