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Belarusian spring? Politicisation of the wider society

A gradual politicisation of the society in Belarus has been accelerated by the ongoing pandemic and the ineffective state response, which has led to a rise of solidarity and self-organisation.

July 8, 2020 - Olga Dryndova - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Uladzimir Kalada

A “wind of change” is sweeping through Belarusian society. This seems clear after the events that have taken place in the country in the last couple of months. An unprecedented level of self-organisation and solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have also influenced the presidential election campaign and contributed significantly to the current wave of politicisation. The previous article (Part I) in this series examined self-organisation and solidarity. Let us now have a closer look at the phenomenon of politicisation.

Part II: Politicisation

The presidential election, scheduled for August 9th, was not expected to be interesting in any meaningful way. Before a surprising boost of activity among citizens was observed in May – a record number (55) of initiative groups submitted applications to nominate candidates to the Central Election Commission. This is compared to just 15 in the previous elections in 2015. Ex-head of Belgazprombank, Viktar Babaryka, managed to recruit almost 9,000 volunteers for his group in only one week. President Lukashenka, with his huge administrative resources, was able to register about 11,000. Over 127,000 people were involved in collecting signatures for potential candidates across the country between May 21st and June 19th.

Unexpectedly, these four weeks became somewhat of a political ‘reality show’ for both Belarusians and those watching from abroad. Pictures and footage have circulated showing citizens representing social circles far beyond the classical opposition actively engaging with politics. This was made clear by unprecedented queues of people lining up to voice their support for «anybody but Lukashenka», both in the capital and regions. This was in spite of the ongoing pandemic, with many people making emotional appeals on camera asking the president to leave his post. Following the arrest of Babaryka, supposedly the most popular alternative candidate, “solidarity chains” were formed in many cities. Babaryka was leading online opinion polls carried out by the independent media with up to 56 per cent. However, the state Academy of Sciences quickly banned these unofficial surveys. No alternative polls have been made available so far. 

Grassroots political activities have been gaining more and more attention in Belarus over the past couple of years. In 2017, people protested nationwide against a yearly “social parasite tax” comparable to an average monthly wage, which would apply to citizens who had not worked in the past six months and therefore paid no income tax. However, the state reacted to these protests and the law was modified. In Brest, one of the country’s regional centres, people have been gathering in the city centre every Sunday for two and a half years to protest against a new, ecologically dangerous battery factory near the city. This is a protest of unprecedented length for Belarus. As of writing, this problem still remains an issue. In 2019, these activists even tried to run for parliament. However, they were not officially registered by the electoral authorities. In general, last year’s parliamentary elections saw an unprecedented representation of candidates who did not possess a political background.

This gradual politicisation of the wider population was accelerated by the ongoing pandemic. This was mostly due to to an ineffective state response to the virus, which led directly to a rise of solidarity and self-organisation in society. The reasons behind this current wave of politicisation can be divided into three groups: economic well-being, “state-society” relations and new faces in politics. 

Economic well-being

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected economies across the world and Belarus is no exception. In April the IMF predicted that the country would experience a six per cent GDP decline for the running year, while in 2019 it rose by 1.2 per cent. Online surveys confirm that the perception of well-being among Belarusians deteriorated significantly during the spring. According to SATIO/BEROC, an income decrease was reported by 45 per cent of respondents in March and 52 per cent in April, while almost half of respondents expected a heavy economic decline in the near future. In one month the share of people fearing unemployment doubled from 20 per cent in March to 40 per cent in April. Every 5th Belarusian also knew somebody who had already lost his/her job. Business also did not have positive expectations for the future. Reserves for 65 per cent of companies were expected to be sufficient for less than three months, while 74 per cent of enterprises faced income decline in April.

Belarusian Analytical Workroom showcased the biggest downshift in feeling regarding the current economic situation in the country since the beginning of 2000. The share of Belarusians who saw the situation as bad rose from 38 per cent in December, 2019 to 61 per cent in March, 2020. Nothing comparable ever happened during the previous economic crises in 2008, 2011, 2015 or 2017, when protests against the “social parasite law” swept the country.

Labour migration was another important factor. Due to a lack of job opportunities and low wages in the country, several hundred thousand Belarusians regularly work abroad (mostly in Russia and Poland), often under short-term contracts or even illegally. In 2019, labour migrants transferred 1.4 billion US dollars to Belarus, which amounted to 2.3 per cent of GDP. After the closure of neighbouring borders due to COVID-19 and the introduction of quarantine measures, most labour migrants have lost their jobs and returned to Belarus. This potentially increases the number of people now willing to protest in Belarusian society.

Despite this, economic factors alone would have probably not been enough to cause this new wave of politicisation. Belarusians are used to living under difficult economic conditions. In 2018, almost 60 per cent of the population could afford to buy only basic utilities such as food and/or clothes with their wages. The state’s poor communication with its citizens during the pandemic has obviously become a second important factor in the population’s politicisation.

“State-society” relations

During a pandemic and economic uncertainty, people would ideally expect the following from a state, whether it is an autocracy or democracy: information, protection and empathy. Even though trust in the country’s authorities is generally low, Belarusian society has a long tradition of paternalistic culture. In times of crisis, therefore, a strong state is expected by much of the population.

None of these three aforementioned needs have been addressed adequately by the Belarusian state. Information from the president, the Ministry of Health and the state media was wholly insufficient, especially during the first months of the pandemic. The president’s belief that COVID-19 was simply a “psychosis” resulted in widespread criticism from non-state media, business, NGOs, opposition, experts circles and a considerable part of wider society. As a result, Belarusians initiated a so-called “people’s quarantine”, with much of the population not believing in the state’s capacity to properly combat the epidemic.

According to an international survey from March/April, Belarusians assessed their government’s reaction on COVID-19 as highly insufficient. This was the second worst, after Turkey, of the 58 states that were involved in the survey. A comparison of real government reactions worldwide confirms this perception. Minsk had only taken more measures to combat the virus than one other state – Nicaragua. This lack of quarantine measures was not popular among Belarusians, with 74 per cent of online respondents in April supporting the сancellation of all public events. The population’s level of trust in official information regarding COVID-19 in March-April was also very low in comparison to other states. The situation was even publicly compared to the irresponsible information policy of the Soviet authorities following the 1986 Chernobyl explosion.

Here we do not analyse state measures themselves, but their public perception. Belarus has so far one of the lowest COVID-19 mortality rates in the world. Some researchers even believe these figures could not be that far from reality. Still, information from the Ministry of Health has not been made regularly available to the public, did not always coincide with Lukashenka’s figures, and was often given in a rather arrogant tone. In response to requests for information regarding the number of pandemic victims among medical staff, officials have asked “Why would you need these statistics?”

However, perhaps the greatest divide between the state and the population has been caused by the president himself, who has shown a distinct lack of human empathy and arrogance during the pandemic. His aggressive language left few social groups untouched. For example, with regards to victims of the pandemic, the president asked “How can one live with a weight of 135 kilogrammes?”. At the same time, doctors have been asked as to why they did not manage to avoid infection and the unemployed were told to simply find a new job. Entrepreneurs, women and political opponents were also targets for Lukashenka’s divisive language. A disoriented society has reacted with individual and collective public responses to the president.

Thus, instead of finding protection and support from the state, many people felt helpless, humiliated and cheated. The country’s unwritten social contract, which guarantees relative well-being and security in exchange for passive loyalty and acceptance of the status quo, now appears to be braking down. This has therefore strengthened support for protest in the country. Interestingly, the last nationwide wave of protests in 2017 seems to have been caused by similar problems. Indeed, the unemployed were officially described as “social parasites” by the state, thereby challenging their human dignity and endangering the financial livelihood of many people. Does this combination of factors reveal the existence of a Belarusian “red line” with regards to grassroots protest activity?

New faces in politics

The two aforementioned factors would not necessarily have guaranteed mass politicisation without the rise of new figures in Belarusian politics, who seem to have appeared in the right place at the right time. None of these new faces come from the traditional opposition, which is neither widely known nor popular in Belarus and often associated with strong nationalist ideals. These new figures seem to focus on two very different protest groups.

On the one hand, the former boss of Belgazprombank, Viktar Babaryka, and the former head of the High-Tech Park, Valery Tsapkala, have targeted a rather moderate electorate. This group are presumably often better educated, possess international experience, are not content with current developments and are simply tired of Lukashenka and his inefficient state system. On the other hand, YouTube blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski has supposedly amassed a more radical following. These people live mostly in the regions, are getting poorer and/or cannot find a good job, are tired of the impudence of local authorities and are angry at Lukashenka personally. This is not least due to his rhetoric during the pandemic. These social groups do not necessarily interact a lot with each other in everyday life, but their aspiration for change and opposition to the president has united them under the slogan, “Anybody but one”.

Online media, including YouTube and social media (especially Telegram), are playing a significant role in the current politicisation of Belarus. A survey last year showed that a lack of information was one of the main reasons for the civic passivity of Belarusians. This is in contrast to issues related to fear of the government, as previously thought. Simultaneously, the share of people getting information from alternative, online sources rose from 24 per cent in 2010 to 60 per cent in 2018. Additionally, feelings of belonging to a wider movement could have increased due to an increasing number of online streams showing other people protesting. Hours of live streams by non-state media and interviews with people waiting in queues to sign “against Lukashenka” seem to have played an important role in strengthening this sentiment. Social networks were marked as sources of regular news for almost 28 per cent of respondents in 2019. This figure could be higher now, as various national and local Telegram-Channels now seem to be important platforms for information exchange and political self-organisation.

The use of YouTube by blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski to share the aspirations of “ordinary people” by meeting them personally and filming their complaints has resulted in him enjoying a high level of popularity. Since its creation in March last year, his state-critical channel “Country for life” has so far gathered 243,000 subscribers, while the most popular video has been seen by over one million people. Polls from 2018 show that 80 per cent of people in Belarus did not believe that they had any influence over the decisions and policies of both national and local authorities. With a blogger people felt they had a voice, something that was not really given to them by the state or opposition. To some extent, the electorate of protesters that have been “woken up” by Tsikhanouski is similar to those who voted for Lukashenka in 1994.

According to the aforementioned survey, another important reason for the passive nature of national society was the citizens’ belief that their actions would not result in any change. This “painful point” seems to have been well addressed by Viktar Babaryka. In his speeches he often focused on his belief in the Belarusian people and their ability for collective action: “We do not believe in a society, in its capability to help. We should change this story”; “The problem is that we think – we are alone”; “We have to start believing in ourselves … and understand, that we are a people, not plebs”. The word “plebs” (“народец” in Russian) was used by Lukashenka in relation to the Belarusian population.

Babaryka managed to change the popular narrative from “authorities are bad” to “people are good”. This is a very attractive message for Belarusians, especially in light of Lukashenka’s humiliating rhetoric during the pandemic. The symbol of his campaign is a heart – a strong sign of empathy and support. His campaign to encourage Belarusians to become members of electoral commissions and observers, which is named “Honest people”, gathered over 2000 people in three weeks. Similar campaigns in the past normally did not focus on the role of people in their names (f. ex. “free elections” or “fair elections”). Interestingly, he also tries to visualise a better Belarus, including its political system: “We live in a rather (even if seemingly undemocratic) good… country”; “The will of the people cannot be falsified”. By stressing the importance of the rule of law, as well as self-awareness and the responsibility of citizens in an autocratic state, he is attempting to change the “rules of the game”. This message is different from that of the traditional opposition, which always places stress on the lack of free and fair elections in Belarus as a whole. Once again, Babaryka does not discuss the idea that “authorities falsify elections” but rather the belief that “Belarusians are smart enough not to let it happen”.

However, it is not clear how this positive and encouraging rhetoric will affect the broader electorate in the upcoming weeks. A considerable part of the newly politicised public seems to have been apolitical beforehand. These people do not necessarily understand the full nature of autocracy and have possibly never been repressed themselves. Thus, they are not afraid and have a strong hope for change. But it is questionble whether these people will be prepared for potentially dangerous mass protest actions if they realise that the system is indeed undemocratic and elections are not free and fair. Signature gathering is a legal procedure in Belarus; non-authorised protests before or after the elections are not. A values poll in 2017 showed that respect for the law was one of the most important values for Belarusians. Recent repressions, such as the arrest of two out of three potential candidates, the brutal detention of peaceful activists on the streets, the persecution of popular bloggers and the dismissal of people who publicly express their political views have already caused shockwaves in Belarusian society. This shock can lead to further politicisation and radicalisation, but could also discourage the current mood of protest.

Interestingly, the above mentioned survey also showed that respect for human rights, human life and individual freedom was judged by respondents to be two times higher for themselves than for society as a whole. That is, they believed these values were not that important for other people as they were for them. The current rise of solidarity and politicisation could blur these dividing lines between the individual and wider society.

“Belarusians have woken up, and now I like them a lot”, says a young woman volunteering for Babaryka. Following the outcome of elections in August, it will be interesting to observe whether this “woken-up” protest community will be able to transform itself into new civic and opposition movements in the coming years.

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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