Writing about the Belarusian opposition (BO) can be risky because any expressed negativity toward the opposition leaders is perceived in some quarters as tantamount to supporting dictatorship. Certainly, a healthy opposition is a valuable societal outlet for expressing legitimate disagreement with the authorities. And this is especially true in Belarus, where the electoral outcome officially made public on August 9, 2020, remains in doubt and the post-election protest rallies were notoriously crushed by the government. As of October 2021, there are 812 detainees labeled political prisoners by human rights groups (Spring96.org, October 17). And the Belarusian government has issued a series of draconian laws that open citizens up to charges of “terrorism” simply for subscribing to certain Telegram channels (Naviny, October 14). The absence of any officially tolerated conduits for voicing disagreement with such policies, thus, arguably qualifies the political regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka as “dictatorial.”
And yet there has been no shortage of criticism of the BO too, including from unexpected voices or outlets. In the West, the lion’s share of this criticism has been behind the scenes. Back in December 2010, two weeks prior to the penultimate major crackdown on a post-election rally, Rodger Potocki of the National Endowment for Democracy not only predicted the defeat of the opposition, which is what occurred on December 19, but also a subsequent further decline in its support by Belarusian society (Transitions Online, December 6, 2010). At that time, Potocki pointed to the constant squabbling within the BO and its factions’ inability to unite. As early as 2002, a respectable Western European book on Belarus broached the question of “whether the opposition in Belarus is past resuscitation and whether Western agencies should continue wasting their taxpayers’ money on the client-based policies that have proved so ineffective” (Ann Lewis, ed., The EU & Belarus: Between Moscow and Brussels, 2002, p. 61).
“Client-based policies” is the key phrase. It implies precious little accountability of the opposition to ordinary Belarusians and overblown accountability to external sponsors with which the BO maintains an echo chamber—each side only tells the other what it wants to hear. Under such conditions, rotations of leaders within the BO became slower than within the political regime. Still, the BO always put a good face on its never-ending defeats. This situation lingered until 2020.
In early 2020, however, the appearance of new faces such as the banker Victor Babariko, his aide Maria Kolesnikova, as well as Sergei Tikhanovsky and, subsequently, his wife, Svetlana, renewed hopes for the BO’s revival. Initially, these hopes seemed valid. After all, the new BO managed to muster the biggest rallies in the 27-year history of Lukashenka’s rule. Nonetheless, those mass demonstrations ultimately proved helpless in the face of riot police. Was the government’s heavy crackdown the only reason for the new BO’s defeat, however?
It is worth reiterating that Belarusian society is divided, and this division runs deeper than just left versus right or liberals versus conservatives. In Belarus, there are two contrasting historical narratives, and each of them implies a geopolitical orientation of its own—either to Russia or to the West. By most accounts, Belarus’s nation-building is far from complete: essentially, Belarus houses two different nations in one (see EDM, December 20, 2019).
A major flaw of the Belarusian opposition is its self-imposed lack of recognition of this divide. Initially, the new BO of 2020 stayed away from geopolitics. However, it quickly pushed itself into the Procrustean bed of its predecessors with their obstinate belief that the “other side has no ideology,” only a desire to stay in power. The new BO was also obstinately oblivious to the divisive role of symbols such as the white-red-white flag or the anthem Mahutny Bozha (God Almighty), whose lyrics were authored by Nataliya Arsenyeva, a Nazi collaborator, and therefore an easy target for the authorities.
At least to some extent, the BO, thus, fell victim to its incongruity—even in a situation where change at the helm of power bonded more Belarusians than ever. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s oft-quoted “Five Stages of Grief” seems to be a fitting model for the ongoing reflection over the new defeat taking place within the BO.
By now, the stage of Denial has largely been left behind, although occasionally abstruse publications pop up, pointing out that the powers that be fail to describe the current state of society in a “discursively convincing way,” whereas the exiled members of the BO allegedly excel at that exercise (Isans.org, October 4).
The stage of Anger is perhaps most representative of the current situation, as is clear to anyone who follows Belarusian users of online social networks.
The stage of Bargaining is reflected in the multiple distortions identified in Lukashenka’s interview with CNN (Svaboda.org, October 6) as well as in the interview of Valery Shklyarov, a Belarusian-American operator of electoral campaigns, who was released from a Belarusian jail following US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s solicitation (Svaboda.org, October 13). The gist of the “bargaining” in both of those cases is in the attempt to prove that negotiations with a dictator would be morally wrong.
The stage of Depression is also widely represented. One of the three questions addressed during Radio Liberty’s October 11 conference on Lukashenka’s “crimes against humanity,” for example, was, “Why the processes are so slow?” To wit, many people in the West agree Lukashenka is a criminal, but do nothing about it. The other discussion question was “Will Lukashenka manage [nonetheless] to achieve recognition across the world?” (Svaboda.org, October 13).
Perhaps, the most advanced stage of grief, that of Acceptance, is faint-heartedly displayed by Ryhor Astapenia of Chatham House, whose most recent internet-based survey concluded that Belarusian society is, indeed, divided (EuroRadio, September 29). It is not just Lukashenka versus the Belarusian people; rather, it is two parts of society at loggerheads with each other. That conclusion is far from novel—it has already been publicized by some academics, notably Sergey Nikolyuk, for at least 20 years (SN, August 16). The BO’s analytic self-reflection, therefore, has come full circle.