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A terrible nightmare or useful conjuncture: what the Belarusian August means for the Kremlin

In addition to obsolete catchwords such as ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’ or ‘the reserve of the USSR,’ Belarus is often referred to as a mirror image of Russia. Against the backdrop of Lukashenka’s potential ousting, how does the Russian political elite make sense out of the August events?

September 8, 2020 - Filip Rudnik - Analysis

Protest rally against Lukashenko, 16 August. Baranavichy, Belarus Photo: Raviaka Ruslan (cc) wikimedia.org

It still remains unclear whether the current Lukashenka-led regime will soon be toppled entirely or if its erosion has simply been accelerated. The Kremlin, watching it closely, draws particular conclusions from the protests in its western neighbour. The ongoing civil awakening in Belarus was prompted by many factors including, among others, significant economic decline, the authorities’ shortcomings in leading the country and the appearance of alternative candidates. ‘All of those factors coincided with each other and resulted in what we’re witnessing now. I couldn’t have predicted anything of that sort at the beginning of this year,’ says Vasil Navumau, a Belarusian sociologist at the Center for Advanced Internet Studies, when asked about the roots of Belarusian unrest.

Most of all, however, Lukashenka did not avoid making a common dictator’s mistake – he became blatantly detached from reality. Navumau mentions Lukashenka’s solution to the COVID-19 pandemic – or rather the lack thereof – as his first big mistake, revealing the true face of the tyrant. ‘When you compare Lukashenka’s response to the serious measures imposed in foreign countries, one can ask – didn’t he go crazy? What do we, the people of Belarus, mean to him if the economic situation is prioritised over human life?’ On the night of August 9th, shortly after the Belarusian Electoral Commission announced a landslide victory for Lukashenka in the presidential elections, dissent flared up.

A controlled nightmare

The sweeping character of the Belarusian protests surprised many due to its abruptness. ‘In political science we call this a “revolutionary cascade,” as it was coined by Timur Kuran,’ says Sasha de Vogel, an American political scientist at the University of Michigan who researches authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union. ‘It occurs when individuals feel bold enough to go and oppose the regime, even though they’re aware of the risks. Others see them and feel emboldened to do the same. Then it escalates into massive protests.’ 

The Belarusian ‘revolutionary cascade,’ according to de Vogel, is perceived by the Russian elite as a worst-case scenario. Lukashenka, trying to assert his power, initially reacted with unprecedented violence. The footage from Belarusian cities, towns and villages was shocking. Riot police, travelling in disguise, simply imposed a living terror on the streets. As the severity of the employed force transformed dynamics in the protesters’ favour, it is obvious that Lukashenka’s method should not be repeated in its backyard, Russia. ‘Putin knows that violence is a last-ditch effort and it’s very risky,’ claims the scientist. 

The Kremlin’s modus operandi in managing unrest is significantly different. If Belarus is described as ‘the reserve of the USSR,’ often misleadingly, the term is substantially more valid when it comes to the application of repression. Compared to Belarus, the Russian government possesses a vast array of more sophisticated measures, with ‘frustration outlets’ to let off some steam in a controlled manner, which include systemic, state-aligned political parties, various GONGOs and approvals to organise local protests. ‘All these smaller movements give people a chance to express themselves. Look at the protests against landfills both in Shiyes and around Moscow or the campaign to block construction of a church in Yekaterinburg. Due to that strategy, you don’t have that tinderbox situation, when there’s just one big explosion of resentment,’ remarks de Vogel.

Authoritarianism with a human face

Common sense, however, hints that the toppling of any of the post-Soviet dictators forecasts something dreadful for the Putin regime. If the Belarusian people succeed, then why can’t the Russians? Paradoxically, however, the aforementioned differences in ‘crisis management’ might play out well for the Kremlin.

‘This is not the first time when people have risen up to oust a dictator. And Russians surely know that it is viable,’ says Andrey Makarychev, a professor at the University of Tartu. In comparison to predatory Lukashenka’s regime, the Kremlin’s mouthpieces present Russia as a far more democratic country. ‘Putin and his officials might show a red card to Lukashenka. And, by the same token, they’ll do it for their internal audience. After all, reports do not conceal any atrocious details,’ explains the scholar. ‘The message is the following: “we, unlike these autocratic fools, we do hear the voice of the people.” Blood is pouring in Minsk, while people in Khabarovsk protest calmly. And the count goes on– a dissent in Shiyes was also resolved peacefully. What about Yekaterinburg? The protesters even succeeded and stopped the church construction. “Look how democratic we are.”’

This media spin is amplified by the distinctive character of the Belarusian protests. As Belarusians manifest their dissent without a clear pro-European agenda, there is no need to portray them as perpetrators of a ‘colour revolution.’ Of course, Lukashenka renounces reality by accusing his fellow citizens of being Western puppets, but that does not change the picture. Russian experts and media figures indeed run with the story about Western meddling, but it would certainly be hard to imagine the Kremlin’s repertoire without that melody.

Concurrently, they do not deny Lukashenka’s brutality. According to their narrative, the key point that differs Putin from his Belarusian counterpart is that the former would not dare to grab power by resorting to as extreme of measures as brute violence. Thus, the Belarusian president should learn from the Russian example about how to conduct dialogue with his citizens. The trend of discrediting Lukashenka was even adapted by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a controversial political figure and head of the populist LDPR party. The famous politician, in his official announcement, formulated a robust figure of speech, comparing the Lukashenka-led crackdown of protests to the behaviour of the Nazis in occupied Belarus. Surprisingly, that comparison placed Zhirinovsky in the same company as Russian opposition bloggers, such as Ilya Varlamov and Maxim Katz.

Khabarovsk-Minsk: a common goal

Considering all this, should Putin really be unafraid of the Belarusian protests? One cannot rule out the possibility of aggravation of the unrest in local Russian hot spots if the rallies in Belarus turn out to be a success story.

On the streets of Khabarovsk, where protestors have consistently marched for more than one month, people took to the streets after the arrest of the local governor, Sergei Furgal. The crowd is demanding a fair trial for him, building their agenda upon anti-Muscovite ideas. The interlinkage with Minsk is explicit here. Shortly after the Belarusian authorities announced Lukashenka’s electoral triumph, the Khabarovites raised up banners in solidarity with the people of Belarus. According to Makarychev, this solidarisation is exceptional. ‘Manifestations in Russia were always, to a large extent, about themselves only. Now that transnational nexus is visible. I believe it indicates the fact that the Khabarovsk protest is now mature and able to radicalise.’

In the Russian Far East riot police did not disperse the protest, in sharp contrast to Lukashenka. Allowing people to march on the streets for days, the ‘routinisation’ of protests– letting frustrated participants walk on endlessly– is conducted with hopes that every dissent eventually fizzles. ‘Usually the authorities make some concessions that don’t fix the problem at all but are aimed to interrupt the mobilisation momentum and split the protesters,’ says De Vogel. In her opinion, this tactic might currently be employed in Khabarovsk.

Interestingly, this Russian know-how is being shared with Belarusian law enforcement agencies. The authorities realised that brute force does not separate the protesters. On the contrary, it unites them– thus accounts for the change of tactics. Asked about the ‘routinisation’ of protests, sociologist Navumau answers that ‘… a similar scenario is being employed now. Moreover, I believe it is conducted with active aid from Moscow. The method is different–selective repressions instead of massive beatings. They let people walk on the streets, but only leaders are arrested, such as the heads of striking committees.’ The Belarusian scholar adds that the emergence of alleged bottom-up signs of support for Lukashenka– pro-regime rallies, lorries with megaphones and official flags– indicates a changing approach. In his opinion, it must have been done with the assistance of Russian spin-doctors and advisers. If the Belarusian state channel started to air propaganda only after the Russians sent their propagandists to do it, it is highly likely that the ‘brotherhood’ also manifested itself in other spheres.

A big absence

Another commonality is striking between Belarus and Khabarovsk- the lack of dialogue with the people until it is too late. From a dictator’s perspective, bargaining with its subjects is a weakness. Lukashenka proposed negotiations using a police baton, while Putin offered none. The Russian leader, after the arrest of governor Sergei Furgal, simply appointed another Muscovite ‘paratrooper,’ the controversial Duma deputy Mikhail Degtyarev, as acting regional head with the task of calming down the Khabarovites. Needless to say, the appointee failed to do so and wasn’t very willing to talk to the protesters.

Putin’s absence in the Far East is symptomatic and fuels anti-Muscovite resentment, underlining the negligence of outer regions. ‘The governmental methods of managing the unrest works perfectly if the situation is under control, when, for instance, they have to rig elections. But when the people rise up, however pompously it sounds, the authorities seem to be hopeless because they never anticipated any negotiations with the citizens. If they try to talk to them– and this concerns both Belarus and Russia– these attempts look ludicrous, just like the leaders themselves,’ admits Makarychev. Moreover, as Putin limited his public appearances in order to blame his officials for doing a bad job while hiding in a bunker amid the first wave of COVID-19, his public withdrawal is even more apparent now. At the same time, the Russian president recently admitted that one of the main qualities of a leader is the ability to ‘hear people,’ which sounds rather ironic given the circumstances.

A leader, however, needs to listen to the people in order to avoid potential turmoil. This is especially true if the protests are not only about local events. In the cases of Belarus and Khabarovsk, the rallies are not driven by a formalised opposition, which creates an obstacle in discrediting them by making accusations of foreign instigation. In fact, it is quite plausible to assume that the protestors are former supporters of the incumbent– both Lukashenka and Putin. While the crackdown of the protests across Belarus immediately radicalised the anti-regime slogans, the ‘routinisation’ of the Khabarovsk marches did not stop their participants from articulating a clear message in favour of ousting Putin and his cronies. The creeping transformation of the agenda into an overtly anti-Putin one might possibly reformulate the protest’s essence, modifying it into local dissent with federal implications. And the latter element is usually not ignored by the Kremlin.

Top-down disdain

Lukashenka’s regime might prove to be resilient enough to survive the current turmoil. Whatever the potential outcome, anti-Putinist slogans are already present in Khabarovsk due to the mishandling of the protests and neglecting the voice of the people. What resembles the situation in Belarus is the fact that people took to the streets, driven by a feeling that the presidential center does not take their opinion into account as it can simply dismiss the elected governor without the say of the region’s inhabitants. The protests in Belarus were triggered by a similar disdain. Why should one even be bothered to cast a ballot if the authorities have the power to announce simply ridiculous electoral results anyway?

The Belarussian rallies shifted the Russian media spotlight away from internal problems, of which there are plenty. The dramatic hospitalisation of Alexey Navalny brought the public’s attention back to Russia. Amidst all-time low levels of support for Putin, a high-profile opposition figure ended up in the hospital with symptoms of poisoning, while the Russian authorities equivocated the matter. Although we cannot clearly proclaim that the Kremlin is the culprit, the constant tracking of Navalny by the Russian secret service apparatus raises a serious question about who stands behind the ‘operation’ and how it is possible to get away with it.

At the same time, the message is clear– no matter how popular you are, opposing the Kremlin in any dimension might be a death sentence. The timing of the assassination attempt, coinciding with the Belarusian and Khabarovsk protests, is also illustrative. Furthermore, making a martyr out of Navalny has the potential to galvanise social unrest and facilitate the anti-Putinist radicalisation in the long run. In these circumstances, a successful Belarusian protest might extend beyond the reach of the Kremlin. Lukashenka can count on Russian guidance in times of trouble. But the Putin regime, although possessing a broad range of deterrence tools, is left on its own – there’s no one else to ask for help.

Filip Rudnik – currently pursuing his Master’s degree in the CEERES programme at the University of Glasgow. Contributor at Kultura Liberalna

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