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A “Second Ukraine in Belarus”? European narratives concerning the Belarusian pro-democracy movement

The Belarus crisis has encouraged various groups and individuals to create metaphors and analogies as a means of understanding ongoing events. However, competition between these differing narratives continues to overshadow the uniqueness of the crisis, which still pervades all of Belarusian society free of any geopolitical aspirations.

October 23, 2020 - Katsiaryna Lozka - Articles and Commentary

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaking to the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs Photo: European Parliament newsroom

The crisis in Belarus came as a surprise to many outside and inside the country, with events suggesting that the state may now be on the road to democracy. The ongoing protests have brought about a major shakeup in Belarusian politics unseen since the country’s independence. Having reached the point of no return, it is now likely that this event will have long-term consequences for European security, as well as the EU’s legitimacy in its Eastern neighbourhood.

These dramatic and shocking events in Belarus have attracted a great deal of novel media attention. The country remains one of the least known in Europe. Authoritarian rule, grave violations of human rights and limited contacts with the West have seen Belarus labelled as the seemingly permanent “last dictatorship” in Europe. Due to this, there remains a limited knowledge of Belarus’ domestic politics and its relationship with current events.

As a result, the anti-government protests have brought to the surface a number of different and sometimes contradictory narratives. While Russia has repeatedly blamed EU countries for fueling protests in Belarus, western narratives have remained rather ambivalent. This reflects continued problems in the West regarding how to approach autocracies and a certain lack of understanding of events unfolding in the country. The continuing search for analogies, however, overshadows the uniqueness of the crisis, which still pervades all of Belarusian society so far free of any geopolitical aspirations.

Narrative 1: Belarusian Female Revolution

The role of women in the protests has captured a great amount of international attention. This understanding of the revolution partly derives from the female face of its leaders (S. Tsikhanouskaya, V. Tsapkala and M. Kalesnikava), who posed a formidable challenge to Lukashenka’s open misogyny. At the same time, this outlook also refers to the powerful role that Belarusian women have acquired overall since they first took to the streets demanding change on August 12th. For a long time, President Lukashenka presented himself as the only guarantor of peace and stability in the country, warning against a Ukraine-style “Maidan” in Belarus. However, the state’s brutal response to marches of women carrying flowers has only increased the divide between the peaceful protests of the Belarusian population, on the one hand, and the violence of Lukashenka’s regime, on the other. As a result, the state has lost its ability to push forward any narrative appealing for peace, as its often violent actions contrast greatly with the non-violent nature of Belarusian protest.

Although issues of gender remain a key part of Belarus’s ongoing political awakening, this unprecedented rise in activism has affected all parts of society. The mobilisation of civil society is growing at different levels. For example, actions have included informal outside gatherings and Telegram chats. Simultaneously, workplaces have witnessed open expressions of solidarity with the protests, strikes and resignations in response to government actions. Through these different and creative forms of social activism, Belarusians appear united in their goal to end regime violence and bring about free and fair elections.

Narrative 2: Belarus’ Velvet Revolution as the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin

In many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the events in Belarus were quickly described as another “Velvet Revolution”. Naturally, this suggests that the protests are closely related to the continuing collapse of the old Soviet order. This was made clear in a symbolic manner during the creation of a massive human chain in Lithuania on August 23rd. Of course, this date is the anniversary of a pivotal moment in the region, when more than two million people in the Baltic states created a 600 kilometre-long human chain demanding independence in 1989. As aforementioned, the anti-government protests in Belarus have also encouraged comparisons with the Czechoslovak 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended the totalitarian regime in the country. There have also been discussions of Poland’s long-standing struggle for independence and democracy in the 1990s.

Despite this, Belarus’s political crisis is occurring within a completely different geopolitical reality. If the initial stages of the protest movement strengthened hopes for a swift regime change, Russia’s intervention to keep Lukashenka in power became a game-changer. Nevertheless, even if the outcome of the crisis is yet to be seen, it has already undermined Lukashenka’s legitimacy and encouraged new societal links that are unlikely to disappear. Given the fact that the geopolitical situation is different, the overall narrative of the revolution is too. There is no “back to Europe” discourse as there was in Central Europe during the 1990s. Although regime change could contribute to a normalisation of relations with the EU, the close institutional ties that bind Belarus to Russia would limit Minsk’s potential geopolitical aspirations. 

Narrative 3: Belarus (not) following the path of Ukraine

Comparisons with neighbouring Ukraine have become one of the most popular analogies surrounding the Belarusian crisis. For a number of Ukrainian scholars in particular, the events in Belarus have been understood as another ‘Orange Revolution’. This pivotal event in Ukrainian history was also triggered by fraudulent elections. Within this narrative, Belarus is now being forced to choose between Russia and the West, with alarmist language used to discuss the prospects of the Belarusian protest movement. The position of both countries between ‘East’ and ‘West’ is seen as the main reason for Belarus and Ukraine’s involvement in an ‘inevitable’ great power rivalry. Due to this, the country’s current protest movement and social developments are understood through the prism of EU-Russia competition.

While there are clearly some similarities between Belarus and Ukraine, the two countries follow very different trajectories. “Belarus is not Ukraine” has almost become a battle cry for many Belarusian experts, who continue to draw attention to the two countries’ contrasting internal landscapes and geopolitical outlooks. Although Belarus is similarly positioned between the EU and Russia, a pro-European agenda has yet to appear in relation to ongoing events.

Narrative 4: Belarus is (not) Europe

The final narrative related to the Belarusian crisis speaks to both the West’s rhetorical distance from events, as well as the EU’s internal divides. While Central European countries have called on the organisation to play a more assertive role in Belarus, a number of politicians from ‘old’ member states have called Belarus’s connection to Europe into question. For instance, the French Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton has stated that “Belarus is not Europe, it is on the border of Europe”.

Although Belarus has until now been a very reluctant neighbour for the EU, the country is of great geopolitical importance for both the EU and Russia. A possible regime change or further integration with Russia would have serious geopolitical and security implications for Europe. Naturally, this would affect the EU’s shared neighbourhood with Russia and undermine an already fragile status quo on the continent.  

Katsiaryna Lozka holds an MA in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies from the College of Europe in Bruges, as well as an MA in European Studies from Comenius University in Bratislava. Her research interests include conflict zones in the European neighbourhood, Eastern Partnership and EU-Russia relations.

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