As the war in Ukraine rages on, the stability of neighboring Belarus, which supported the Russian invasion, appears to be fractured. Has Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression opened a Pandora’s box for a regime that is practically a distant wing of the Kremlin?
Recall that in the last Belarusian presidential election, in August 2020, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya almost certainly defeated incumbent President Aleksander Lukashenko, whose henchmen dismissed her opponent as a “housewife”. When an outpouring of support made it clear that Tikhanovskaya was headed for victory, Lukashenko tweaked the results, claiming more than 80% of the vote and sparking huge protests that lasted for months.
Lukashenko’s regime responded to post-election protests with terror and mass arrests, leading to even larger protests. Within days of the election, its grip had begun to weaken, with workers, state media, doctors, students, pensioners and many others speaking out publicly against the security services. The whole country went on strike, but Lukashenko, in power since 1994, held on by the skin of his teeth, thanks to the brutal interventions of loyal special forces, already drenched in innocent blood and therefore totally dependent on him. (Ultimately, Lukashenko chose not to test the army’s loyalty.)
Nonetheless, it’s been clear since then that the Belarusians won’t return to the passivity they showed before August 2020 for the past 23 months. Because the Lukashenko regime had offered virtually no state aid or media coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic in the months leading up to the election, Belarusians had already turned overwhelmingly to independent media, whether they still read and watch today, despite the threat of imprisonment.
Like Ukraine, Belarus is culturally foreign to Russia. This is why Belarusians were able to stun the world with their protests and sustained demands for democracy in 2020, as Belarusian society was subjected to Sovietization and centuries of Russification. Belarusians acted as if they lived in a modern, democratic and liberal society, as that is what many Belarusians consider themselves to be (although the older cohorts are still heavily influenced by Russia and Lukashenko himself).
To keep this broad-based opposition movement at bay, Lukashenko must rely on constant draconian repression. More than 1,000 political prisoners were sentenced to prison terms of more than ten years and another 1,500 were imprisoned for protesting against the war in Ukraine, including sabotaging railways to obstruct the Russian army. Others received unofficial punishments on the spot, such as shots to the knee.
For example, as she was walking out of a courtroom recently, 28-year-old Belsat TV journalist Kaciaryna Andreyeva remarked to her husband: “I got a longer sentence than Solzhenitsyn. While the famous Russian dissident was sentenced to eight years by the Soviets, Andreyeva was sentenced to eight years and three months.
Comparing Belarusians to Ukrainians and expecting the same kind of resistance is unfair. Belarusians do not have opposition members in parliament or local governments like Ukrainians had before the invasion. Poles also protested peacefully against the imposition of martial law in December 1981, as it was the only way for them to make their voices heard. And while the 10 million strong Solidarity union was downsized after 16 months of operation, the myth survived. A million people may have left Poland, but the rest stayed and did not forget how to take to the streets.
Poland’s experience offers a glimpse of what may await Belarus. The Poles had their chance to achieve independence in 1989 because they took advantage of a brief moment of uncertainty in the Kremlin. Similarly, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, Ukraine seized the moment and gained sovereignty (although Russia has threatened that sovereignty ever since).
Russia’s failed war in Ukraine may soon present a similar opportunity for Belarus. Since 2020, Belarusian society has articulated its values, learned the art of long-term resistance, and created a free media based abroad. And now, for perhaps the first time ever, Belarusian dissidents are getting their hands on guns and joining the fight against Putin in Ukraine, where they are becoming renowned for their courage and battlefield successes. (It should be recalled that in 2014 Ukraine also had mainly volunteer battalions.)
On the second anniversary of the protests, all political forces reached an agreement and a Belarusian government in exile was formed, led by Tikhanovskaya. This includes its office operating in Vilnius; the National Anti-Crisis Directorate, headed by Pavel Latouchka; the Warsaw-based BYPOL initiative of former uniformed service members; the Opposition Initiative, which includes cyberpartisans; and the Pahonia Regiment fighting in Ukraine. The Coordinating Council, created during the protests two years ago and involving Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexeyevich, is being transformed into a substitute parliament.
A notable change is that the government in exile already has its own armed wing, for which more than 200,000 Belarusians have signed up, ready to rise up against Lukashenko at the first opportunity, including by force. Until recently, Belarusian soldiers and government officials had no alternative. But now they have a choice between the illegitimate government in Minsk and the legitimate majority-elected government in 2020, led by Tikhanovskaya. That choice will be made when the opportunity arises, which could be when Russia’s humiliation in Ukraine throws the Kremlin into chaos.