Epiphenomena in the Belarusian Political Crisis

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 166

(Source: Nasha Niva)

An epiphenomenon is a secondary effect or byproduct that arises from but does not causally influence a process—so in a way, it is an occurrence whose significance is blown out of proportion. Social life and politics are replete with such epiphenomena. They regularly garner all the attention, especially when nothing else of essence is taking place, but do not contribute at all to, for instance, resolving real problems or alleviating a crisis. Still, epiphenomena can be quite edifying because public opinion leaders and influencers revealingly project their attitudes onto them, thus illuminating the broader socio-political landscape. At the end of October, at least five such telling examples could be observed in Belarus.

First, on October 23, Yevgeny Pustovoi, the news anchor of the Belarusian TV channel STV, observed that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is a courageous leader who does not use Botox and does not hide in a bunker from COVID-19, unlike other leaders (YouTube, October 25). Immediately, scores of commentators on the opposition side suggested Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was the target of this remark.

Earlier, on October 19, Lukashenka issued a statement that wearing a facemask should not be mandatory. Acting upon this remark, on October 26, municipal authorities removed shields and advertising stickers (including on public transportation) that, for the past year and a half, conveyed that wearing a mask in public spaces is imperative to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Valery Karbelevich of Radio Liberty gave perhaps too profound an interpretation of Lukashenka’s move: “It seems obvious that his position is influenced by the psychological trauma he received from last year’s protest explosion. And he is trying to overcome it by going too far in the opposite direction” (Svaboda.org, October 26).

Third, on October 22, a document leaked to the Internet, revealing a supposedly classified online survey measuring Belarusian public opinion, administered by VSIOM, Russia’s leading polling agency, and commissioned by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs back in July 2020. The source of the leak is a shady outfit called Dossier Chernov (Twitter.com/dossierchernov, October 22), which was accused of intentionally spreading misinformation on multiple occasions. Nevertheless, most opposition-minded commentators have claimed the document is genuine (New Belarus, October 26). The survey purportedly confirms inter alia that imprisoned Belgazprombank CEO Victor Babariko is still the most popular presidential hopeful in Belarus; that between 50 and 55 percent do not trust Lukashenka; and that Angela Merkel is the most popular and Vladimir Putin the least popular foreign leader, respectively. Some observers, like the philosopher Viacheslav Bobrovich, who is not certain the survey is real, still see the opinion poll’s results as reflective of a true drastic societal split in the country. For example, roughly half of all surveyed allegedly expressed support for the sanctions imposed on Belarus, and half were against them. Also, the overwhelming majority of the poll’s respondents replied in favor of “maintaining order,” and about the same majority expressed support for “freedom”—two realities that societies transitioning from “traditional” to “modern” tend to consider mutually exclusive (Facebook.com/vbobrovich, October 26).

Fourth, on October 26, last year’s presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya gave an interview to Ekho Moskvy’s editor, Alexei Venedictov. Namely, Tikhanovskaya once again underscored the absence of political ambitions on her part, implying that honest elections will allow people to make the right choice. She also claimed that “most Belarusian workers are ready to put up with sanctions that hurt them in order to get rid of lawlessness” and that, “last year, we underestimated the degree of inappropriateness [neadekvatnost] of the authorities,” implying that an “appropriate” action on their part would have been to resign when sizable protesting crowds were in the streets (Ekho, October 26).

According to the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (BSRL), Tikhanovskaya’s interview could not have been organized without Putin’s go-ahead. This is the opinion of Alexander Morozov, an associate of the Boris Nemtsov Center in Prague, and the sentiment that BSRL used as the title of the respective article (Svaboda.org, October 27). Indeed, most opposition-minded commentators believe that both the VTSIOM survey leak and the aforementioned interview reflect the new tug-of-war between Moscow and Minsk. But Maksim Samorukov, a deputy editor at Carnegie.ru, thinks otherwise. To him, both events are devoid of scandal and constitute replays of what took place on many occasions; they, rather, reflect the multiplicity of interests on the part of Moscow-based strategists and bureaucrats compared with those in politically less colorful Minsk. Yes, there is no love lost between Lukashenka and Putin, but this is hardly a revelation (Svaboda.org, October 26).

Moreover, not all public opinion leaders on the side of the opposition rejoiced upon hearing Tikhanovskaya’s interview. Thus, one of Lukashenka’s most ardent and unflinching detractors, Warsaw-based Pavel Usov, remarked that “when there is no clear outlook and no opinion, resulting from processing information personally, then statements on such crucial issues as integration, transition of power, and Russia’s influence will be superficial and contradictory. They are akin to a mechanical repetition of what others said, much like a student memorizing a few paragraphs from a textbook before the exam” (Belsat, October 26). In other words, according to Usov, Tikhanovskaya has not grown into a leader; and thus, airing her interview was at best a double-edged sword.

Finally, on October 25, the so-called Belarusian Workers Association, headed by Sergei Dylevsky, a former worker of the Minsk Tractor Plant, who left the county in August, declared a nationwide strike for November 1 (RFI, October 25). But the aforementioned Pavel Usov predicted that this appeal would end up discrediting the new opposition, most prominently Tikhanovskaya and her entourage, since the call for a general strike would almost certainly fall on deaf ears—just like a similar appeal did on October 26, 2020 (Facebook.com/pavel.usov.10, October 29). Early reporting by Nasha Niva suggests that the response to the calls for a national workers’ strike has, indeed, been modest (Nasha Niva, November 2).

In fact, only one prominent opposition-minded publication over the course of the past week avoided sounding epiphenomenal—an article by Yury Drakokhrust of Radio Liberty, published in an outlet founded by the exiled associates of Tut.by. In the piece, Drakokhrust hypothesizes that the political crisis in Belarus will, most probably, be resolved not as a result of further increases in repressions or of the protest movement gaining a second wind but rather as a result of both sides tiring of their mutual confrontation (Zerkalo, October 29). Drakakhrust’s hypothesis seems progressively more plausible by the day, all the aforementioned epiphenomena notwithstanding.