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“Together” or separate? The Belarusian political elite after the elections

The ruling elite in Belarus is no longer the monolith that it portrayed itself as a few months ago. There are more and more splits and cracks in its structure, which in the long run may lead to a serious internal crisis. This group is losing its grip on control and even reality.

September 17, 2020 - Maxim Rust - Hot Topics

Photo by Photographers Resist Telegram Channel

Over the past 20 years, the majority of Belarusian society has not seen a real alternative to the ruling elite led by Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The system of Lukashenka and his elite has never been democratic, but it has provided stability for the majority of society. The government offered to the people a simple ideology, spoke to the nation in an understandable language and guaranteed a minimal means of survival. They also provided the same minimal sense of stability, security and the “certainty of tomorrow”. This was more important for most Belarusians than the incomprehensible and often distracted slogans of the opposition parties. The ruling elite, unlike the counter-elite, was able to adapt to changing conditions, albeit with different results. According to public opinion polls, dissatisfaction with the authorities did not translate into support for the counter-elite. However, 2020 has seen fundamental changes take place within the Belarusian political elite as a whole.

Coronavirus and the presidential campaign has changed the balance of power

The old Belarusian counter-elites (the traditional opposition parties and movements prior to this year’s election) made another attempt to unite their forces before the August  presidential campaign. The democratic movements jointly decided to hold a primary to elect one common presidential candidate from the existing counter-elite. Despite this decision, old divisions and ideological disputes among the opposition became apparent during the primaries. This made it difficult to reach a compromise. Then came the coronavirus epidemic, which made it even more difficult to consolidate the counter-elite. The socio-economic conditions this year seemed to be the most conducive to the consolidation of the counter-elite forces, but this did not take place. Overall, the primaries failed.

Issues with the coronavirus epidemic and the presidential campaign became the main factors that influenced the reconfiguration of the forces within the Belarusian political elite. First of all, it is clear that society has become tired of politics. The irresponsible and arrogant reaction of the Belarusian state to both events resulted in a decline in trust for the ruling elite, which could no longer guarantee a basic sense of security and stability, and in the political institutions as a whole.

Society began to organise itself independently. This wave of mobilisation and social politicisation resulted in the need for a new level of political authenticity among the active part of Belarusian civil society. The emergence of new political actors such as Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Valery Tsapkala, Viktar Babaryka, and later Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, revealed a new trend: new leaders, having real social support, did not want to be identified with either the discredited ruling elite or the ineffective old counter-elites.

The mass protests and rallies following the presidential election on August 9th have now been taking place for over a month. This represents an unprecedented increase in the quality of Belarusian political life. Various scenarios for the development of the situation in Belarus are currently possible. However, the most important issues remain the further dynamics and nature of the protests and the possible reactions of the ruling elite to this social uprising.

The protests have broken all records, but are still largely decentralised. This is both a great advantage and disadvantage. Even the largest protests may not achieve change and reform without concrete political leadership. Contrary to earlier reports and rumours, Tsikhanouskaya, who is still in Lithuania, did not declare herself as president. She simply remains a symbol of the protest. The question now is will she become the face and leader of the new counter-elite?

Dilemmas of the power elite

Regardless of how and when these post-election protests end, the current political crisis will result in a profound reconfiguration of the country’s current political elite. The following challenges can be identified for each elite group.

First, both the ruling elite and the counter-elite will have to deal with the impressive new level of social and political engagement in the country. A previously passive and apolitical Belarusian society has become politicised and mobilised in a very short time and it appears that these changes will be long-lasting. Additionally, Belarusian society has changed in a generational sense and this will pose a great challenge for both groups. The social enthusiasm and mobilisation seen this summer will not simply disappear after the protests have stopped. One of the biggest challenges will involve the institutionalisation of the sentiments driving protests. This is true for the ruling elite, the old counter-elite and the country’s new political leaders and influencers.

The ruling elite is no longer the monolith that it portrayed itself as a few months ago. There are more and more splits and cracks in its structure, which in the long run may lead to a serious internal crisis. This group is losing its grip on control and even reality. While the active part of Belarusian society and the opposition have always been the establishment’s “enemy”, the military, retirees and state administration workers have always been the core of the president’s traditional support. It seems that the president can no longer be sure of the loyalty of the majority of society, his closest circle or electoral base. Even the foundations of his power in the police, army and state media are now under threat.

The best examples of this unexpected “social sabotage” against the authorities include strikes in state-owned plants and public resignations by security force officers and state media employees. Perhaps most importantly, some of these former establishment representatives have now joined the counter-elite. Even at the beginning of the campaign, Lukashenka’s most popular rivals, Babaryka and Tsapkala, came from circles closest to the ruling elite. After the protests started and the demonstrators were brutally pacified, Pavel Latushka, a former Belarusian ambassador and minister of culture, soon joined the protesters after they were met with a brutal response from state security. It is possible that this tendency to “shift the front” of this opposition will only develop and intensify.

As a result, the president’s political network is becoming increasingly nervous. Doubts over the loyalty of the ruling elite recently resulted in changes to the management of the state security departments. For instance, Lukashenka has “reshuffled” the leadership of the Security Council, the KGB and other structures. An additional problem that the ruling elite faces is their lack of any institution that could effectively counterbalance the forces of the new opposition. This is especially true given that there is no “party of power” in Belarus. The organisation “Belaya Rus”, which could have taken on this purpose, remains only a virtual entity.

A new counter-elite?

The question of whether or not the old counter-elite still possesses validity in its current form is becoming more and more relevant. This applies to most of the Belarusian opposition parties and organisations. The old counter-elite plays a marginal role and has seemingly been sidelined during the ongoing protests. The most interesting issue remains how the counter-elite may develop new civil society structures. The recently established Coordination Council is an example of how the dynamics of the Belarusian counter-elite have changed as a whole.

The Coordination Council consists of social authorities and representatives of various professional groups. For now, the group does not aspire to become a new political actor. Instead, its main goal is to overcome the current socio-political crisis, de-escalate violence and ensure a peaceful transfer of power. Support for the organisation and its potential to coordinate political action are clear signs that the social base needed for the emergence of a new counter-elite is already present. The question is whether this structure will take the form of a political institution. We can already see that the ruling authorities are treating the Coordination Council as a threat. Members of its leadership are now kidnapped from the streets, arrested or forced to leave the country.

Another important change in the reconfiguration of the Belarusian counter-elite is the potential appearance of a new political party, “Razam” (“Together”). This party would be formed by Babaryka’s campaign staff; Babaryka was arrested following attempts to run as a presidential candidate. After this announcement, questions arose as to whether this was the right time to create such an organisation, as it could potentially divide the nationwide protest movement. For now, representatives of the Coordination Council and “Razam” have declared that they will not compete with each other since they have a common goal. However, the emergence of various autonomous actors among this growing counter-elite is an inevitable process.

As a result, it remains unclear if social organisations, together with the leaders of the protest movement, will begin the process of political institutionalisation. Will they create groups that will transform over time into a new counter-elite, or will they remain civil society organisations that do not want to be associated with either the ruling elite or the traditional opposition? Perhaps we will find out in the coming months.

Maxim Rust is a political analyst and researcher of political elites in post-Soviet area. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Warsaw. He is also a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe.

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