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Belarus 2020: achievements, disappointments and new hopes

With the regime still clinging to power and society increasingly strained, it is time to reflect on the extraordinary year in Belarus.

February 5, 2021 - Maxim Rust - Articles and Commentary

Protest in Minsk, August 2020 Photo: Jimmy Tudeschi/ Shutterstock

Almost half a year after the start of mass protests in Belarus, it is time to reflect and make some kind of a summary of Belarus 2020 as a phenomenon. This topic — against the backdrop of events in other countries in the region (the Navalny case, etc.) — is slowly beginning to fade from the agenda of the world media. The catchy clickbait and clichéd headlines used to describe the Belarusian social uprising have also failed. Let’s take a look at Belarus in terms of both the successes and achievements of its society, as well as the disappointments and (unfulfilled) hopes.

Achievements and successes

Speaking of the main achievement of Belarusian society in 2020, I would single out the protest itself in the first place. The activity of citizens, although it may be less visible now, is not decreasing or going away. The protest is continuous — both the cyclical and permanent street demonstrations and online activity of Belarusians. The great value of the protest remains the fact that it is still widespread, grassroots and very creative. Above all, it is not pro or anti somebody or something, but pro-Belarusian.

The second achievement of the Belarusians is that they have realised the basic fact that, under Belarusian conditions, solidarity and self-organisation are stronger than repression. This is a new, qualitative and, I hope, irreversible change. I mean solidarity in the broadest sense — from civic solidarity, both through marches and solidarity actions, to online solidarity and self-help projects. The solidarity campaigns have turned out to be not just a symbolic movement, as they have been for the last 20 years, but a very real mechanism for self-help and self-defence. It was also significant that with such massive online activity, Belarusian society not only overcame its fear, but openly started to laugh at the politicians in the ruling elite, including the former president and his clumsy advisors.

We must not forget that the “old Belarusian politics” are no longer. There are the politics which existed before 2020 and the one which is happening now. And now is the time for a new politics, a new political culture and civil society — which are emerging before our eyes. Above all, new political actors are emerging — not only social and political activists, but also online actors whose influence may be greater than that of politicians themselves. The Belarusian homo-sovieticus has become a case of the past, and Belarusians from a collective of apolitical individuals have very quickly become a community as in a modern society.

And fourthly, the importance of online activity needs to be highlighted. The development of this activity and the influence of IT has shown, both to the authorities and to Belarusian society as a whole, that the internet is not just a work tool or a source of entertainment, but a real and effective political mechanism and instrument. If it were not for the internet, there would be no Belarusian revolution such as we are witnessing now. There are not only political happenings on the internet, but, above all, solidarity and self-help campaigns (such as #BYHelp or #BySol), thanks to which hundreds of thousands of Belarusians are not afraid to protest. The issue of Belarusian cyber-guerrillas, thanks to whom the internet has become a real defence mechanism against the repressive regime, remains a very interesting case and requires further research.

Disappointments and threats

Not everything has been as beautiful and enthusiastic as anticipated last August. The biggest disappointment I hear about most often is that there was no instant change. With the perspective of a few months, I think maybe that is a good thing. Instant change isn’t always the best path in our region, as it doesn’t always have a long-lasting effect. I also do not entirely agree that there has been no rapid change. The change in Belarus that has already taken place may be slow, but it is still very fast for Belarusian political standards, compared to the recent political history of the last 30 years. The most important thing is that this change is fundamental and permanent.

The second disappointment is that the Belarusian authorities have not collapsed. The ruling elite seems to remain in control of the situation, is on constant alert and may be becoming increasingly brutal. But the brutalisation of internal politics will only further contribute to the crisis of the ruling elite and to an even greater mobilisation of civil society. Let us remember that desperate power, while brutal, is also unpredictable and increasingly unstable. This is reflected in the “departure” from work of more and more officials, as well as security service officers. Plus, it’s winter now, and a new wave of offline activism should come closer to spring. But this also gives the authorities more time to think.

The third disappointment, which you often hear about, is the nature and scale of the international response and reaction. This is primarily about the response of the West. The West is simply doing what it can afford to do. The initial effects are already there — e.g., actions like the Belarusian authorities not being recognised as legitimate and the cancellation of the world hockey championships in Minsk. The list of Belarusian officials covered by Western sanctions remains highly questionable. A real threat, however, is the continuous flight of Belarusians from the country and the growing brain drain.

But relative to the condition of the collective West, I don’t think its response has been bad or inadequate. It could always be worse. From my perspective, the reaction of the West, which was perceived by many as insufficient or weak, had its advantages. Namely, there is no longer this feeling that “foreign forces will help us.” It influenced Belarusians’ self-confidence — the belief that if you want change, you should act on your own, here and now, and not wait for help from the outside.

The fourth threat I see as a huge risk to Belarusian society in the future is the sin of an uncritical approach. When it comes to Belarus, we should also be critical. If only on the issue of general data protection (disclosure by cyber-guerrillas of the personal data of special forces officers) or the huge wave of hate-speech and incitement of violence in pro-democratic chat rooms on various communication platforms. I am not saying that such an emotional response was unreasonable — all those who broke the law should be held accountable, but in accordance with applicable law.

New hopes

Apart from both successes and achievements, as well as disappointments and failures, a lot of hope and enthusiasm remain from Belarus 2020.

First of all, it is the hope for a new society. And this community, which is being created before our eyes today — I have no doubts — is the progenitor for the formation of a new, open and European political nation. A nation and society based on the European values ​​of equality and dignity and not on outdated concepts of ethnic nations. In this respect, the new Belarus can be an example for many countries of the so-called developed West…

The second hope is in waiting for a new public policy and social activation. What we saw last year, and what is happening now, will bear fruit, regardless of the outcome of the protest or its end date. Belarusian society as a whole is a completely different society than the one we knew a year ago. These processes have already resulted in a change in the collective identity of Belarusians on many levels.

The last hope, but one no less important for me personally, is that we are already seeing the emergence of new conscious and proactive social groups. A tangible example is the workers of the Belarusian IT sector. The peculiarity of the situation is that Belarusian IT workers are one of the wealthiest, most socially and “prestigiously” protected groups in Belarusian society. Until recently, this group was, with some exceptions, very apolitical and not interested in participating in the country’s social and political life. The situation changed dramatically just a few days after the presidential elections on August 9th 2020. The IT cluster went from being a group that had played a significant role in shaping the budget of the Belarusian economy for the past few years to becoming one of the most important social groups in the Belarusian protest of 2020.

And finally, over the past decades we have seen Belarus as a country that has constantly drifted somewhere on the periphery of European and regional politics. I think that in terms of values, Belarus very quickly became for many countries an unexpected example of transformation. An example that those in power (both in the East and the West) are not necessarily happy with. Examples include the Belarusian women’s marches or the practice of protest solidarity and self-help campaigns. Has the Belarusian example not been an inspiration for citizens of other countries? For example, we must look no further than to what is happening in Russia after Navalny’s return and arrest. I know that many will accuse me of near-sightedness and unjustified enthusiasm. But I see more parallels and unexpected coincidences — and remain hopeful.

Maxim Rust is a political analyst and researcher of political elites in the post-Soviet space. He has a PhD in Political Science and Administration from the University of Warsaw. He is also a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe and lecturer and researcher at the Centre for East European Studies at the University of Warsaw.

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