Belarusian Opposition’s ‘Unspoken Problem’

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 91

(Source: Press Service of Opposition Leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya)

Executive Summary:

  • Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government continues to see success its foreign policy while conducting state visits to Azerbaijan and Mongolia as well as hosting Hungarian officials and businessmen.
  • The Belarusian opposition, however, is experiencing an identity crisis, evidenced in the low polling turnout for their recent Coordination Council elections and how the opposition can only claim to represent a minority of Belarusians.
  • The ability to win over “hearts and minds” on both sides will be a critical aspect of any Western policy toward Belarus.

Belarus’s political divide is widening, as seen in contrasting developments on both political flanks (see EDM, May 30). Official Minsk has scored recent successes in strengthening some of its foreign partnerships. In contrast, analysts point out that the Belarusian opposition risks losing its identity. Against this backdrop, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government continues to pursue a more pragmatic line in its foreign policy while the opposition-in-exile struggles to connect with the domestic Belarusian population.

Following a productive trip to Azerbaijan, Lukashenka visited Mongolia from June 1 to 4. He proposed several joint Mongolian-Belarusian economic projects and promoted Belarusian products, including processed food and agricultural machinery (see EDM, June 3). He likened Mongolia’s existence “between two empires”—Russia and China—to Belarus’s experience of maneuvering between Russia and the European Union. Advising Mongolian President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa to be a tough geopolitical player, Lukashenka asserted that contemporary international politics respect force (Zerkalo, June 3). He also addressed criticism from Mongolian journalists about Belarus’s support of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, claiming their views were tied to Western propaganda (TASS, June 3).

Earlier, on May 29, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó made his third visit to Minsk, having visited in October 2023 and February of this year. In October, Szijjártó was the only official Western participant in the Minsk-based International Security Conference and was received by Lukashenka (see EDM, November 3, 2023). This time, Szijjártó was accompanied by representatives of 24 Hungarian companies and expressed a commitment to develop economic cooperation with Minsk in areas unaffected by EU sanctions (Pozirk, May 29). In an interview on Belarusian television, Szijjártó highlighted Hungary’s disagreements with the EU policy on Ukraine, suggested immediate negotiations between the warring parties, and complained that Brussels penalizes Budapest by withdrawing previously agreed funds (; SB, June 2).

Despite these repeated meetings, bilateral Belarusian-Hungarian trade declined to $22 million in 2023, the lowest in a decade. Pavel Matsukevich, a former Belarusian diplomat, suggests that “in 2024, the situation could change or, with Hungary’s help, trade with other countries has somehow grown. With their Hungarian colleagues’ assistance, Belarusians are probably closing some import deficits that arose due to sanctions.” Matsukevich also speculated that Hungarians might be discussing the release of political prisoners in Minsk behind the scenes. Nothing has been confirmed, though, if true, this issue may be of greater importance with Budapest assuming the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in July (NewBelarus May 31).

Minsk also took satisfaction in Interpol’s rejection of the request to issue a Red Notice for Tomasz Szmydt, the Polish judge who claimed asylum in Belarus in May (see EDM, May 15). Interpol defines a Red Notice as “a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender, or similar legal action.” Katarzyna Nowak, the spokeswoman for Poland’s central police headquarters, said that Interpol apparently “does not allow the processing of data through its channels concerning activities against state security defined as political crimes” (, June 4).

On its side, the opposition-in-exile has struggled to achieve similar success. Between May 25 and 27, only 6,723 people cast their votes in the elections to the Coordination Council (CC) via telephone app, representing 0.1 percent of all eligible Belarusians and about 3 percent of the post-2020 Belarusian diaspora (Belsat, May 28). A total of 157 candidates ran for 70 seats in the CC. The low turnout occurred despite significant opposition media coverage devoted to the elections, though all outside Belarus itself.

Despite three days of voting, most critics agree that a lack of interest was the most significant limiting factor. Alexander Klaskovsky, a veteran opposition-minded Belarusian journalist, writes, “The attempt to build analogs of regime structures in emigration … a kind of parallel state—looks controversial.  … Opponents of the regime should more soberly assess their capabilities and act asymmetrically” (Pozirk, May 28). Mikola Bugai in Nasha Niva adds, “Those who organized these elections to the CC without sensing the mood of the people, without estimating their current opportunities and needs, should bear political responsibility” (NashaNiva, May 27). Both Klaskovsky and Bugai express concern that “external observers” may see the low turnout as “an expression of the extreme weakness of the Belarusian opposition and even of the diaspora as a whole.”

Perhaps the most direct commentary comes from Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. According to Shraibman, pro-democracy activists and Belarusians (including the post-2020 diaspora) have different agendas. He claims the activists failed to explain the rationale behind the elections to ordinary Belarusians and even some more organized groups abroad (Zerkalo, May 28). The developments associated with the polling results underscore that the Belarusian opposition is experiencing an identity crisis. Shraibman argues that the opposition can only claim to represent a minority of Belarusians, specifically those in favor of Ukraine’s victory in the war and sectoral sanctions against Minsk. The majority of Belarusians are against sanctions, and up to 40 percent support Russia’s war against Ukraine. Shraibman believes the opposition can salvage itself by explicitly recognizing its detachment from the majority’s viewpoints. He calls this conundrum the opposition’s “unspoken problem” (Decoder, May 30).

The weight and implications of this problem are paramount for the opposition, which is open to various interpretations. For example, some cynics might say, “The opposition has never represented Belarusians at large.” Regardless, the historical schism within Belarusian society regarding the country’s proper orientation—pro-Russian or pro-Western—remains a central tenet of understanding the current political environment. The ability to win over “hearts and minds” on both sides will be a critical aspect of any Western policy toward Belarus.