By Olena Nikolayenko
Over the past month, Belarus has been rocked by some of the largest post-election rallies since the collapse of communism. Despite state repression, anti-government protests have shown no signs of fading in the former Soviet republic, located between Poland on the one hand and Russia on the other. This surge in mass mobilization caught many observers of local politics off guard because Alyaksandar Lukashenka, a former head of a collective farm, has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1994 and has never encountered such a high level of resistance to the regime. A configuration of five factors explains why protests persist in the autocracy.
First, consistent with prior research on electoral revolutions, electoral fraud was a catalyst for the onset of mass protests in August 2020. The presidential elections turned into a battle between the incumbent president and a political novice. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya registered as a presidential candidate after her spouse, a popular blogger, had been jailed and denied a chance to run for presidency. The Central Election Commission announced that Lukashenka was reelected for the sixth term in office, with 80 percent of the vote. According to the official results, Tsikhanovskaya received 10 percent of the popular vote. However, online opinion polls, independent election observation reports, and numerous eyewitness accounts clearly indicated that the overwhelming majority of the electorate voted for Tsikhanovskaya.
Public outrage over sadistic police beating of peaceful protesters and torture of citizens in detention centers further fueled civil resistance. My research on the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine shows that the defense of human dignity was pivotal to mass mobilization against the regime. Similarly, thousands of Belarusians poured into the streets to demand the government’s respect of human dignity and the provision of political freedoms.
Second, the development of a horizontal organization structure was vital to the survival of the protest movement. In the absence of formal movement leaders, ordinary citizens relied upon informal social networks and social media to sustain protest activity. Research shows that social media can perform a variety of functions to facilitate mass mobilization. The Telegram channel Nexta assumed a critical role in overcoming the government’s shutdown of the Internet and disseminating information to over 1.5 million subscribers. Compared to Facebook and Twitter, the cloud-based instant messaging app Telegram was better positioned to bypass the state-sanctioned blockage of the Internet.
Third, commitment to nonviolent action underpins the durability of contentious collective action in Belarus. Prior research finds that nonviolent protest campaigns are more effective than violent uprisings in achieving their goals. Belarusians displayed a great deal of creativity in challenging the regime. In particular, women wearing white and holding flowers employed such attention-grabbing methods of nonviolent resistance as the formation of human chains, the performance of Belarusian-language songs, and the use of chants during peaceful marches. Notably, women compared the autocrat’s treatment of the nation to the violent behavior of a domestic abuser.
Fourth, spatial dispersion of post-election protests galvanized into action citizens across Belarusian large cities and small towns. Pockets of resistance to the authoritarian regime are no longer limited to the capital city. Furthermore, unlike the 2006 post-election protests, involving an encampment on Kastrychnitskaya Square in Minsk or the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, citizens refrained from permanently occupying a public square. Instead, protesters gathered in multiple spots throughout Minsk and spill out in bedroom communities, creating an element of surprise.
Fifth, this wave of mass mobilization was bolstered by a cross-cutting coalition of intellectuals, white-collar professionals, and the working class. A strike at the Kolubara coal mines delivered a heavy blow to Slobodan Milosevic’s standing in the wake of the 2000 post-election protests. Likewise, strikes at state-owned enterprises undermined Lukashenka’s legitimacy. In a dramatic gesture of solidarity, IT sector professionals, school teachers, sportsmen, and potash miners joined forces to press for the autocrat’s resignation.
It has yet to be seen whether the police officers and the military will defect en masse to accelerate the strongman’s downfall and reduce the likelihood of further bloodshed.