European Waves

The Belarusian protests, ongoing dynamics and success factors

For the sixth time in a row, Alexander Lukashenko was proclaimed to be the President of Belarus. However, during the previous presidential campaigns, the elective process’s fairness and its result were cast into doubt by the local and international community. Even Lukashenko himself admitted that the 2006 presidential election results were “falsified“ by his team, so one could hardly call this doubt unprecedented. At the time, he argued that the Central Electoral Commission simply lowered the voting outcome by around 10% to make it look “European”. Even if his claims were true, an apparent lack of electoral independence would concern any real democracy. With the evident unfairness of the previous elections, only after the 2020 voting falsification did activists demonstrate mass and prolonged opposition. The ongoing protests may have evolved significantly, which allowed them to achieve higher support than ever before.

Proto-protests via social media

Chatham House’s study answers the question of the interim success of the Belarusian protest phenomenon. According to the research, protests engage more followers due to social media, clear communication and diversification of protest instruments, which were achieved this time, comparing with the previous failed campaigns. At first, social media has become influential for civil engagement prior to the campaign. Since the state is considered an autocracy, governmental critics are out of the official media agenda. Therefore, the only source for opposition broadcasting was online mode, especially for outstanding presidential candidates, and some independent mass media succeeded to gather millions of followers.

Mr Tikhanovsky, a former candidature for the presidency, gained popularity via his YouTube channel. In spring 2020, during the electoral campaign, opposition media engaged followers in supporting candidates’ registration. Telegram and YouTube became the primary sources of democratic forces, providing all information to have people in queues put a signature for their nominees. These mass gatherings for the candidatures can be considered a proto-protest, where former atomised society first grasped the scale of like-minded people. Later, after not registering candidates and further falsifications, the independent media and oppositional political figures changed their online activity and started organising people to protest. The new leaders and mass media reached the clarity of communication by simple messages of revealing Belarusians’ problems and showing a solution. They insisted on a non-violent campaign to stand for their rights, which appeared to be one of the most decisive strategy.

Belarusians in a queue to sign a petition for their candidates’ registration. May 2020. Source: Tatyana ZenkovichThe nature of the protest determining its success

Via social media, the opposition could translate the message, calling for protest, stressing its peaceful character. Stephan and Chenoveth (2008) studied the outcomes of similar protests in a self-explanatory work “Why Civil Resistance works“.  They identified non-violence as crucial factors, which enables long-lasting demonstrations resonating with people. The study systematically explored the effectiveness of such strategic non-violent campaigns from 1900 to 2006, and contrary to researchers’ expectations, they discovered that peaceful campaigns tend to be twice more effective than non-peaceful. Since the Belarusian movement is also non-violent, people are more willing to take part in it. According to the study, peaceful methods “enhances its domestic and international legitimacy and encourages more broad-based participation in the resistance, which translates into increased pressure being brought to bear on the target.”

From the ethnographic perspective, the statement of the crucial factor of non-violence applies to the Belarusian society. Demonstrations in Minsk proved to be more than peaceful. As reported on the news, people carefully tend to put off their shoes to stand on the bench for making a speech; also, there organise joint efforts on cleaning the streets after the protest. Non-violent characteristics are highly appreciated by society, which attracts people of different age, sex and social status. Further “specialisation” of the non-violent campaign allowed people to create an informal “timetable” for other groups to participate with a stronger connection to their assemble. For example, on Saturday, women march or link in a chain of solidarity; on Sunday, there are usually mixed mass protests; some days were dedicated to seniors activity, some for students’. They use different means of communication from songs to yard tea drinking, reaching as wide audience as possible.

Violence as a determining factor / Violence in the non-violent protest

Non-violent campaigns do not necessarily mean they do not experience violence. Unfortunately, the government may attack peaceful demonstrations and oppositional media but they remain peaceful by their goals and actions. That was the case of Belarusian movement experiencing external unnecessary force.

There have been many registered, well-documented examples of excessive force applied by the police and military toward activists, including fatalities, while the activists remained peaceful. Sociologists determine external “violence” as a critical explicit trigger for continuing the protest at its later stages. In December, data from Oxford University showed that it was not only the electoral fraud that motivated Belarusians to protest. Almost as important as the original goal, activists demand investigating violent crimes and releasing political prisoners.

Why people are protesting in Belarus. Source: ZOiS/Oxford University.

Later, in February of this year, a study conducted by R. Astapenia (Chatham House) found that violence against protestors also played a significant role in the general population’s attitudes. According to the survey, 67% of Belarusians think that the government has used unnecessary force against protesters – and more than 60% consider the events that took place at the Okrestina police office to be torture. Other demands of the protesters, however – such as negotiations between the authority and people, or the current president’s resignation, are not shared as widely. Thus, the governmental extraordinary brutal response to the 2020 campaign resonated with people and may have resulted in strengthening the protest, increasing its internal solidarity, which is demonstrated in the following study.

The core of the protest (37%) Sympathetic (20%) Sceptics (9%) Indifferent (16%) Lukashenka supporters (18%)
Attitude to the protest Fully support 50/50, either support or neutral Neutral Neutral Against
Voted for Tsikhanovskaya Against everybody or did not respond Against everybody or did not respond Against everybody or did not respond Lukashenko
Attitude toward governmental violence Excessive force was applied. There were unjustified tortures at Oksestina. Governmental actions are unjustified Excessive force was used. There were tortures at Oksestina. Governmental actions are unjustified Excessive force was applied. Often find it difficult to answer about tortures. Governmental actions are unjustified Generally find it challenging to answer questions about violence The activities of the police are justified. The force applied was not excessive. There were no tortures or difficult to answer

Source: R. Astapenia. Chatham House. The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

The previously mentioned Stephan and Chenoveth’s (2008) idea of violence supports sociological results, explaining repressions to be the factor of uprising civil engagement. They concluded that activists perceive non-violent resistance significantly in contrast with the unnecessary force applied, what provokes people to actively stand for their views. For the authority, repressing peaceful demonstration is more likely to backfire with high internal costs. Besides, in the Belarusian case, we can also see the breakdown of obedience in regime supporters. There have been reported cases of shifted loyalty. Police officers and official media personnel, who do not share Lukashenko’s methods or afraid of the future consequences of the illegal orders, publically resign and become supporters of the protest.

Moreover, in the Astapenia’s (Chatham House, 2021) research, there was also mentioned that Belarusians feel guilty for acting late, only after tragic events during the protest. The acquired responsibility remains a momentum for being involved in politics. Besides, participants of the non-violent campaigns are more likely to enjoy international support, which increase their confidence in their position, as stated in Stephan and Chenoveth’s study. And movements that receive external state support are more than three times more potential to succeed against a repressive opponent. Some European states already show support for the civil resistance and the OHCHR adopted a resolution 45/1 to call upon the Belarusian authorities to enter into a dialogue with the political opposition.

An evolving protest

It has been almost a year since the non-violent campaign has started in Minsk and other Belarusian cities. Scepticism toward the protest has never been that high. As for April 2021, street activity has decreased. The recent March protest was supposed to be mass, but eventually did not happen; one point out the demoralisation due to the repressions, others explain societal fatigue. However, the 3.5% rule explains why around 300 thousands of protest activists are capable of serious political changes (according to recent sociology, the core of the movement was estimated even 10 times larger). Therefore, the drop in participant’s numbers may not affect it to the great extent.

In addition, current temporary street action suspension can be easily mistaken from the campaign’s transformation; the latter position agrees with the studied protest changes. The campaign has been famous for its strategic approach with non-violence, “specialisation”, and fluid demands to the government, according to the dynamic of social polls, now the campaign is adapting to the new circumstances. Even though the street activity is less visible, there is still significant online activity and film releases, discussing not previously known shreds of evidence of corruption in governmental circles. The new factors, which may influence the activity, are evolving these days.

Besides, one of the leaders, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, announced online a “second wave of the protests” with words that it is impossible for people to love a dictator with guns. Even though the future of the protest is unpredictable, its dynamics for many months showed a peaceful rise of discontent in politics, electoral results, social media attacks, then repressions, with a media coverage, causing the campaign’s internal and external solidarity, making it last for a year so far. Overall, the Belarusian campaign has become one of the greatest example of a non-violent mass campaigns, while throughout the history such ones kept succeeding.

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