The rise of civic activism in Belarus shows the intricacies of developing civil society and political opposition in a country that has seen the former discouraged and the latter quashed. The decentralised nature of civic action is its greatest strength, but also its great weakness.
The recent rise of civic activism in Belarus has taken everyone by surprise, most of all Belarusians themselves. Under Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s 26-year authoritarian regime, political freedoms have been severely restricted. Large parts of Belarusian society had long appeared apolitical, preferring to live their lives in parallel to the state. The ongoing unprecedented protests and the government’s violent crackdown have reinvigorated civil society and rapidly politicised many Belarusians.
The ramifications of developments in Belarusian society are only just manifesting. The larger weekend protests were coordinated through nation-wide Telegram channels. Recently, activism has shifted more towards smaller-scale neighbourhood protests organised by various local groups, reinvigorating the protests once more. The decentralised nature of this activism has been the protests’ greatest strength, but also their greatest weakness. The coordination of the movement into a force for tangible political change will be difficult. Such an evolution is not only impeded by state repression, but also the legacy of how Belarusians have perceived civil society and political organisations in the past, and the need to avoid undue external interference. As such, the situation in Belarus highlights the fundamental difficulty of translating the momentum of protests into political processes and structures under adverse conditions.
Activism in an authoritarian country
The weekly protests have been drawing hundreds of thousands onto the streets. This level of protest was unimaginable only a few months ago. In an anonymous poll in 2019, 97% of Belarusians claimed to have never participated in a political protest. Now, many Belarusians are no longer afraid to publicise their opposition. Notably, they post on social media. One worker at a large state-owned factory in Minsk, for example, saw higher management withhold his pay rise after posting a photo on social media from an opposition rally. “However, my direct boss has been raising my salary with a bonus, because he wants change,” said the worker. Small-scale strikes, meanwhile, are occurring across the country at some of the largest state-owned factories, as well as – in solidarity – in some private companies.
Nation-wide initiatives have sprung up in Belarus, such as the retraining of fired workers and solidarity funds. But many local initiatives have also appeared. One group of local activists in the Savyetski region in Minsk, for example, is made up of neighbours aged from 19 to around 75, none of whom were politically active until this election. The group has distributed newspapers, petitioned local officials, and held evening gatherings to demonstrate solidarity.
Another aspect extending beyond protests and activism is more mundane, but just as important: it is the small signs of understated solidarity, the nods in the street, drivers briefly honking, and flags in windows. Such acts foster a common understanding of how widespread the movement has become.
Civil society organisations have struggled as civic activism has been restricted by the authorities. As a result, many NGOs rely on foreign funding, which inevitably makes them easy targets for further suspicion. A poll conducted in 2019 found that 45% of respondents did not trust NGOs. Such skepticism was even echoed during the initial protests where several participants voiced suspicion about the origin of the huge white-and-red flags. Promisingly, however, among youth only, almost 80% stated in another 2019 poll that they fully or rather trust NGOs.
The general lack of trust is mirrored in the political arena. During the campaign ahead of the 2020 elections, several candidates faced accusations of being backed by Russia or the West, and others of being opposition controlled by the regime. Belarusians have not perceived the political realm to ever imply any genuine choice or competition.
A decentralised movement
The current form of protest, being grassroots and locally organised, means that trust and awareness is raised. As activism is largely coordinated via social media channels, it lacks centralised leadership. The faces associated with the protest movement, most notably exiled presidential candidate and likely winner Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and imprisoned Maria Kalesnikava, have been important mobilisers but not political leaders as such.
This genuine grassroots character of the movement has made it difficult for the authorities to target effectively. Peaceful protests led by women, the elderly, or doctors have weakened the authorities’ attempts to smear the movement. Local evening gatherings have been difficult to disperse or discourage. Another aspect is the newly formed “Cyber Partisans”, an anonymous group of IT specialists hacking government websites, jamming government services, and publishing the personal data of security forces.
For the protests to turn into a force for political change, however, some degree of coordination, institutionalisation and strategic planning is needed. The movement’s leading figures, well aware of this, created the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power. In another attempt to coordinate the opposition, barred and imprisoned presidential candidate Victor Babarika’s campaign announced the creation of a political party “Together”. However, this announcement hardly gained traction and Valeriy Tsapkala, disallowed presidential candidate, criticised the timing of the announcement of the political party, sayingthe main aim is for Lukashenka to leave and that a party could splinter the protests.
At this stage, the protest movement has not achieved tangible political change. The regime is betting on protests dying down and has intensified its crackdown on civil society organisations. NGOs “Imena” saw its offices searched, “Vyasna” some of its activists arrested; crowdfunding platforms have been blocked; assets of solidarity funds seized from bank accounts; the Telegram channel NEXTA has been blacklisted. While the protests remain united in their opposition to the regime, the movement’s attempts to coordinate have been routed. Possible leaders have been arrested or expelled.
The momentum of the protests could become difficult to uphold. Tsikhanouskaya’s “people’s ultimatum” for October 25 led to an uptick in strikes and protests. However, wide-scale strikes did not occur. Incidents may trigger further activism, such as news of integration measures with Russia or increasingly violent crackdowns. In November, the death of Raman Bandaranka at the hands of security forces led to an outpouring of solidarity and mourning. Outside support such as international attention, further sanctions against officials, or funds for civil society organisations and independent media can boost morale. However, partners must tread carefully, ensuring any external support is transparent and locally directed.
While the legitimacy of the regime is lastingly damaged, it remains difficult for any group or organisation in Belarus to gain any in its stead. Yet protracted discontent will continue to foster a sense of community that could form lasting ties among the opposition. “We are awakened, but what’s next?” a local activist in the west of Minsk asked. Part of the answer may lie in these local settings, where the number of initiatives illustrates that the appetite to organise is there.
In October, Tsikhanouskaya virtually attended evening neighbourhood gatherings in Minsk, a tacit building of bridges between the national and local initiatives. Alongside many confidence-building actions in everyday life, established interactions will instil more confidence in others in spite of the threat of reprisals. The more organic and inclusive their evolution, the more legitimacy and trust such groups will gain and the more they will be able to overcome the legacy of marginalised civil society and opposition parties in Belarus.