The protest movement under way in Belarus appears to the world as yet another “color revolution” for “regime change.” The target this time is the autocracy of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s, following the rigged presidential election in August and disproportionate use of force against protesters from then to date.
This movement’s Western sympathizers, its detractors in Moscow, and Belarus’s beleaguered authorities have (from their varying perspectives) adopted the interpretive framework of the “color revolution”—whether in supporting, opposing, or simply describing this movement in Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities are caught in a two-front struggle against the forces of regime change: the Western-supported protest movement on one side and the Kremlin on the other side. These two forces are not aligned with each other at this time. Both of these forces aim to remove Lukashenka and change Belarus’s political system, from super-presidential to parliamentary. Moscow proposes to introduce a competitive multi-party system in Belarus, apparently expecting to manipulate it through pro-Russia parties under the guise of parliamentary democracy (see EDM, October 7, 8).
Moscow and the protest movement are not aligned with each other at this time, although the movement’s leaders declare themselves ready to work with the Russian government. The Kremlin had initially contemplated destabilizing Lukashenka after the election, so as to force him back into negotiations on the “deep integration” of Belarus with Russia and prepare an orderly transition to the post-Lukashenka period in Belarus. The protest movement’s surge, however, took on the looks of a “colored revolution” and posed the threat of regime change from below in Belarus. All this compelled Moscow to condemn the protest movement and repudiate the movement’s Coordinating Council, notwithstanding Moscow’s earlier readiness to work with some of the Council’s key members in the post-election period. Belarus’s authorities denounce the “color revolution” not simply viscerally but also calculatedly, so as to dissuade Moscow from responding to the Coordinating Council’s repeated overtures.
The protest movement uses the tactics of a peaceful revolution to force Lukashenka out of power without further delay. The Kremlin proposes an orderly transition to ease Lukashenka out of office within one, maximum two years. Moscow wants the Belarusian president to stabilize the situation (with Russian support if necessary) in a first stage, then to engage in a national comprehensive dialogue leading to the adoption of a new constitution and the election of a new parliament and head of state. Moscow aims to arbitrate this process (see EDM, September 16).
None of that corresponds with the pattern of “velvet,” “color,” or regime-change movements as experienced in Central-Eastern Europe in the last 30 years. The ongoing process in Belarus resembles those earlier ones mainly in the outward optics, the stylistical patterns; but it differs fundamentally in substance. Unique features and fundamental differences need not be seen as positives or negatives, strengths or weaknesses, or harbingers of success or defeat. They simply need to be recognized in order to assess how this movement relates to the Belarusian state and society at large and what its prospects are.
The following checklist is probably not exhaustive.
First, the social mainspring of this protest movement is primarily members of the Minsk-based “bourgeois.” However, this group is acting in a heavily industrialized country with a large, state-dependent working class. These two social classes have not converged into the protest movement: partly because their interests differ, and partly because the Minsk intelligentsia has apparently not figured out how to bridge those interests. Belarus’s working class today is as pivotal to the country’s social structure as was the case in neighboring Poland three decades ago. There, members of the Polish intelligentsia coalesced with workers to form the Solidarity movement. But there is no comparable initiative in Belarus. The Polish prerequisites for it are missing.
Second, the two social classes mentioned above are Belarus’s distinctive features after a quarter-century of Lukashenka’s rule. Belarus is neither transitioning to a post-industrial society nor turning into a surplus-labor exporter. It has, instead, preserved and further developed its massive Soviet-legacy industries (a unique feat achieved by extracting Russian subsidies without ceding sovereignty); and the state-owner has guaranteed the welfare of its industrial working class. Along with this, Lukashenka’s Belarus has become a world-class center of IT services, with tens of thousands of local high-tech personnel and their families forming Minsk’s new, prosperous middle class. It became a prime moving force of this “color revolution”; and (just like Minsk’s “old opposition” and artistic intelligentsia) they find it hard to relate to the working class. Tut.by’s in-house pundit, Siarhei Chaliy, reflects that attitude: “this is a bourgeois-democratic revolution of the well-to-do people,” whereas “the industrial workers used to be a force in the last century or two centuries ago” (Tut.by, October 28).
Third, the Belarusian state sees itself as a social state and is so perceived by a critical mass of its population, who are recipients of social benefits and services. Lukashenka’s own outlook is a paternalist version of authoritarianism. The social contract has endured in Belarus for more than two decades; and the government strives to preserve it amidst external adversities (Russian subsidy cuts, the coronavirus pandemic) and internal turmoil. Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaia (Svetlana Tikhanovskaya) and her entourage misjudged the workers’ mood when she issued a “people’s ultimatum” to Lukashenka and called on workers to strike “throughout the country” starting on October 26. These and related appeals to workers from the Coordination Council fell flat (Tut.by, October 26–28).
Fourth, the theme of systemic or official corruption, pervasive in the post-Soviet “color revolutions” and protest movements, is absent from this Belarusian movement. The same is true of anti-“oligarchic” messages, ubiquitous though they have been in other post-Soviet countries. The Belarusian state is cleaner of corruption than any of the other post-Soviet states, and it has guarded against oligarchization (the tradeoff being autocratic paternalism). Extremes of wealth and poverty are not seen in this country; Belarusian officialdom on the whole does not engage in conspicuous consumption in the country or abroad; and the nomenklatura’s offspring do not form a caste but tend to pursue middle-class professions. The contrasts to neighboring Russia or Ukraine could not be starker, and they help explain Belarus’s social stability in the last 30 years.
Fifth, this is the only “color” or “regime-change” revolution in Central-Eastern Europe that does not propose to take the country Westward. It displays no political aspirations to “return to Europe” or “join Europe”; and it has little sense of Western-ness in historical or geopolitical terms. It is also the only case of a revolutionary leadership inviting Russia to mediate or arbitrate the domestic transition of power. The Coordination Council insists that it intends to cultivate better relations with Russia than Lukashenka has. According to Coordination Council member (and career diplomat) Igar Leshchenia, “Any democratic Belarusian president will have to conduct special relations with Russia, even if he were the most pro-Western one. Whether a president Valery Tsepkalo, or a president Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaia, or a president Viktar Babarika, those special relations [with Russia] would be entirely different [than Lukashenka’s]—more honest, more favorable to Russia” (Interfax, October 31).