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Belarusian spring? What we know about Belarusian society

Self-organisation, solidarity and politicisation – these are so far the three key words of the Belarusian Spring of 2020.

June 24, 2020 - Olga Dryndova - Articles and Commentary

Minsk Photo: Uladzimir Kalada

“The wind of change” is sweeping through the Belarusian society – one would definitely have this feeling after following the news of the last couple of months. An unprecedented level of self-organisation and solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have been transferred directly to the presidential electoral campaign. Pictures of people waiting nationwide for hours in queues to sign for “any candidate but Lukashenka” illustrate the rather unexpected and swift politicisation of wide social circles far beyond the classical organised opposition.

Self-organisation, solidarity and politicisation – these are so far the three key words of the Belarusian Spring of 2020. Let us examine these tendencies and see what they reveal about the Belarusian society.

Part 1: Self-organisation and solidarity

A quite unique “dissident” way of dealing with COVID-19, uncoordinated measures nationwide together with inconsequent official information policy during the pandemic initiated a high level of self-organisation on various levels. Business, civil society and many individuals started a “people’s quarantine” despite lacking any official state recommendations. They worked from home, limited social contacts and raised awareness about the virus. Medical staff published self-made informational videos online, universities and local governments were often forced to take responsibility and make their own decisions in combating the virus, which is not typical for the Belarusian reality. Possibly one of the largest charity campaigns in Belarusian history – Bycovid19 – provided hospitals with needed equipment bought thanks to individual and business donations (250,000 US dollars was gathered in 1.5 months). The campaign united individuals, civil society, businesses, the ministries of health and foreign affairs and the Belarusian diaspora – about 1,500 people were involved in its activities in Belarus according to its coordinator Andrey Stryzhak.

This wave of solidarity in a certain sense connected the pandemic with the August presidential election. A doctor, who criticised the state’s COVID-19 measures at a meeting with one of alternative candidates was fired – and within 24 hours people crowdfunded his annual wage (about 5,400 US dollars). Over 100,000 signatures were collected for the spontaneous candidacy of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya after her husband, popular blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was denied registration. This action simultaneously showed civil solidarity and was a protest against Alyaksandr Lukashenka – many people do not even know where she works, but they signed out of support and principle.

After the detention of Viktar Babaryka, the main rival of Lukashenka, people initiated “solidarity chains” that were transformed from queues for gathering signatures. In the regions they seemed to self-organise via social media and through local activists, not necessarily connected to any organised opposition forces.

Humour also became an important part of solidarity and resistance in Belarus. In reaction to the “victim blaming” statements made by the president (“How can one live with a weight of 135 kg”, “Why are you walking down the streets when you will be 80 years old tomorrow?” etc.), Belarusians started a flashmob dubbed “Last word of the president” – they published obituaries for themselves in the president’s name as if they had died from COVID-19.

“Sasha 3%” is now the most known meme about Lukashenka – society and even businesses reacted with humour on the recent ban on any online rating-polls among media readers, which showed between three and six per cent support for the president. Most probably these figures do not reflect reality – according to state sociology, trust levels to the president (not his rating) in Minsk in April was at 24 per cent. Still, the figure of three per cent destroys the aspired legitimacy and mirrors the disrespect, coming from a considerable part of society. Another example is a desacralising and dehumanising slogan of blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski: “Stop Cockroach”, comparing the president to an insect. It was spontaneously overtaken from an emotional speech by an elderly woman depicting the impudence of authorities in Belarus – the video (March 31st) so far has over one million views on YouTube.

The rise of self-organisation and solidarity does not seem surprising in times of a pandemic – also in other post-Soviet autocracies the absence of effective state responses and possibly additional free time have led to the activation of civic groups. In Belarus, however, these tendencies have so far significantly influenced the electoral process and thus need special attention.

Belarusian society is traditionally known for its paternalism with a high expected role of state in the economy and social life. Yet, recent surveys by IPM (2018) and Pact (2019) show that the overall level of state paternalism was low for over 60 per cent of respondents, the majority in all age groups counted on themselves and not on state in wellbeing, education, healthcare and employment, while the share of Belarusians with pro-market values rose in 10 years (from 2008 to 2018) from 12.4 per cent to 27.5 per cent. Declining paternalism is combined in Belarus with a low level of trust to authorities: according to a survey from 2017-2018, only about 40 per cent of people trusted the government; 34 per cent the ministries; and 33 per cent the local authorities – while over 64 per cent did not generally trust politicians and officials. These tendencies could have provided for the rush of self-organisation of individuals in the “people’s quarantine”, when the state self-isolated itself from its citizens in a way, and thus raised the level of people’s distrust even more.

A survey by the Centre for European Transformation showed a doubled rise in the number of Belarusians who identified themselves with the Soviet people from 12.7 per cent in 2007 to 25.6 per cent in 2016. Interestingly, the Soviet past of Belarusians seems to strengthen their readiness for solidarity – those who strongly associate themselves as Soviet people were twice more ready to take part in solidarity actions than those who did not. This, however, does not necessarily provide a reason for the self-organisation. Solidarity actions can be organised by the state or other actors or people.

Another survey by the Centre (2017) confirms this assumption. Only five per cent of Belarusians have experience in informal community actions and initiatives, while humanitarian and crowdfunding campaigns are the most widespread forms of self-organised activities. It was exactly these types of activities that started the wave of solidarity in the Belarusian society this spring – they not only gave people the missing experience of “small victories”, but, in the long run, may even raise the general level of trust in society which is rather low in Belarus – only 52 per cent of respondents declared trust in other people or social institutions in 2018.

It is highly possible that exactly this “trained” solidarity and trust to each other (not to institutions) during the pandemic period, combined with an enormous discontent with the state response and the overall economic decline, have contributed significantly to the current wave of politicisation seen within Belarusian society.

The second part examining the politicisation can be found here

Olga Dryndova is editor of the Belarus-Analysen (Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen), country expert on Belarus in Varieties of Democracy Institute in Sweden (2020) and deputy chairwoman of the German-Belarusian Society in Berlin.

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