Elections can be dicey moments for the neo-authoritarian governments in post-Soviet space.
Highly stage-managed affairs, functioning primarily as shows affirming the power and popularity of the existing regime, they can also backfire, opening up possibilities for mass mobilisation and revolutionary change. In the 2000s, this region saw a series of so-called “electoral revolutions” or “colour revolutions” – non-violent protest movements sparked by rigged elections.
Belarus's dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in power since 1994, has so far managed to put down protest movements that have emerged periodically in the country, especially in response to electoral fraud.
This occurred most notably in the wake of the 2006 presidential elections – primarily through brutal police repression.
But the recent August 2020 presidential elections have broken this pattern, and with unprecedented mass protests and strikes breaking out all over the country, Lukashenka’s fate now hangs in the balance.
The scale and intensity of the current protest movement has surprised a world whose view on Belarus is shaped by stereotypes about the passivity and apathy of its society.
In fact, as scholars who specialise in Belarus have argued for some time, the standard lazy media clichés about Belarus have served to obscure our view of what is really going on in the country. In these protests, Belarusians have revealed a different face: brave, vibrant, creative, and determined to stand up against the brutality of the state and its security apparatus.
As was the case for the 2013–14 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, it is the state’s use of violence against peaceful protesters and particularly against the country’s young people that has been the real catalyst here. Belarusians have come out onto the streets above all else in response to the horrific stories of torture, beatings, and abductions, and to the pain of the families whose loved ones have disappeared after being detained during the early days of the protest.
Many of those detained are still missing; in two cases, so far, young men who attended the initial protests have been found dead, hanged in the forest. One of them, Kanstantsin Shyshmakou, was a member of a local electoral commission who had disappeared after refusing to sign off on a falsified electoral protocol.
At the most basic level, what has energised Belarusian society above all else is a shared outrage at this violence. And this has resulted in some powerful shows of courage, solidarity and kindness, such as the massive chain of women of all ages lining the streets in a statement of protest against the brutality of the security apparatus, dressed in white and carrying flowers.
The problem for Russia
The spectacle of this mass peaceful movement poses a serious problem not just for Lukashenka, but for Vladimir Putin.
A successful example of a popular movement toppling an authoritarian leader elsewhere in the region is the last thing Putin wants his own population to see, for obvious reasons. In this context, it has been fascinating to follow the Russian state media coverage of the Belarusian events over the past couple of weeks.
Since the mid-2000s, Putin has been preoccupied with the threat of a Western-funded “colour revolution” spreading into Russia itself.
The Russian state media machine has been purpose-built to counter precisely this threat, and for years now, it has been pushing a standard line, stigmatising independent oppositionists and civil society actors as traitors and hirelings of foreign intelligence services, intent on unleashing chaos and bloodshed under cover of peaceful pro-democracy protest.
The ultimate aim here, so the Kremlin’s line goes, is to encircle Russia with hostile states, and eventually to carry out the ‘dismemberment’ of Russia itself.
A key message is that nothing is what it seems – talk about human rights and democracy is a mere cover for hostile actors driven by Russophobia and greed for money and power.
The Russian coverage of the Belarusian events, however, has been notably subdued. While many state media outlets pushed the familiar line that the oppositionists are puppets controlled by foreign states, others initially seemed to hesitate.
Russian media's take on Belarus
Contradictory and shifting lines of analysis were put forward; at one point, Russian federal state TV First Channel even ran with a lead story about late-Soviet counter-culture singer Viktor Tsoi, whose song “We Want Change” has been an unofficial anthem of the Belarusian protests. Perhaps this was the aim: to keep the world – and Lukashenka himself – guessing about how Russia would respond.
Pro-Kremlin newspaper Vzgliad noted on 16 August that Moscow had yet to confirm Lukashenka’s claims that Putin had agreed to provide him with support, and described the official Russian position as “neutral-cordial”.
The relationship between Lukashenka and Putin is complicated and has often been strained, especially in recent years, as Lukashenka has increasingly tried to play the West and Russia off against one another.
Russian state media representations of Lukashenka during the protests have often been quite heavily ambiguous. Nominally, they support him; but at the same time, they tend to present Lukashenka as something of a clown and a freak – subtly and not so subtly undermining him.
On 24 August, for example, Lukashenka staged a PR event, dressed in black combat gear and carrying an (unloaded) assault rifle, dropping in by helicopter to visit and thank his riot police guarding sites in central Minsk; Russia Today described this as “bizarre”.
Another article in Moskovskii komsomolets described Lukashenka’s “hysterical rage” over the protests. On 24 August, one opinion piece in the tabloid Komsomol’skaia pravda praised Moscow’s restraint – not reacting to Lukashenka’s anti-Russian provocations in the lead-up to the elections, and championing Belarus’s sovereignty in its dealings with Western leaders, warning them off against any interference.
Lukashenka’s misdemeanours would not be forgotten by Moscow – they would be “put aside in a special file for later” – but nor would Moscow abandon Lukashenka. This was part of Russia’s role as a responsible great power, offering its help to the deserving: “The weak, like [former Ukrainian President] Yanukovych, will be given refuge. The stoic, like Assad, will be defended. The persistent, like Maduro, will be supported. And the nature of Lukashenka’s ultimate fate depends now only on him. And on his mutual honesty with regard to Russia. And to his own people.”
Stern but patient, the Kremlin would continue to tolerate Lukashenka, so long as this remained in the best interests of ordinary Belarusians and Russians, whose peace and security are the Kremlin’s overriding concern.
'This is a democratic revolution'
The figure of Lukashenka offers a useful foil to Putin’s leadership cult as a benevolent man of the people.
The Russian media have sharply criticised Lukashenka for his “insolent and mocking attitude towards his own population” (Moskovskii komsomolets). And much of the Russian coverage has been sympathetic to the Belarusian protesters, depicting them as well-intentioned and sincere, albeit misguided, and emphasising that there was no anti-Russian feeling in the crowds.
More recently, however, the Russian official line has shifted. The turning point seems to have been Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s meeting with the US Secretary of State in Vilnius on 24 August, followed by her address to the European Parliament the following day.
It was widely reported and insinuated in the Russian media that she had now received instructions from her US masters: to order her followers onto the streets to make revolution. On 25 August Russian media headlines announced: “Sergei Lavrov: the Belorusian opposition is now being run from the West”.
Foreign Minister Lavrov commented that attempts were being made to “provoke” the security forces in Belarus, with the aim of shedding blood, in order to provide the revolution with martyrs, in line with the standard Western-authored scenario for colour revolutions.
One of the Kremlin’s chief propagandists Vladimir Solov’ev tweeted an RT report that protesters seemed to be “waiting for the command” to set up a tent camp in Minsk. In other words, the standard “colour revolution” narrative, reading the protests as a Western-orchestrated geopolitical covert operation, ultimately aimed against Russia, has now been re-activated at full force.
Reporting on Tsikhanouskaya’s address to the European Parliament, Komsomol’skaia pravda scoffed at her claim that “the revolution in Belarus is not geopolitical. Not pro-Russian and not anti-Russian. Not anti-European and not pro-European. This is a democratic revolution.”
KP commented that this passage was “obviously aimed not at the Europarliament, but at people in Belarus itself. And in Russia. The Eurodeputies would obviously have liked to hear the opposite.” This response exemplifies the deeply paranoid view on the world that has come to permeate the pro-Kremlin media reality.
On 27 August, Putin issued his strongest statement yet on the situation in Belarus, noting that at Lukashenka’s request, he had prepared security forces for deployment in Belarus in the event that the situation moved out of control. This statement, clearly intended as a warning, came amidst reports of renewed police repression and arrests in the country.
While events are still unfolding and the outcome remains unpredictable, the prospect of Russian armed intervention now looks more likely than before.
Banner image: Protests take place in the Belarusian capital of Minsk on 23 August, 2020. Source: Wikimedia Commons