Friday

22nd Jan 2021

Opinion

Street vs. state: Where is Belarus headed?

  • Belarus street protests show no signs of going away (Photo: Darya Mustafayeva)

A week ago, the popular protests in Belarus seemed close to succeeding.

Lukashenko was speechless as workers in a tractor plant heckled him and demanded he resign.

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Observers were musing about a possible Ceaușescu moment - the late Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, awoke in 1989 from his shielded life to learn that Romanians wanted him out.

But Lukashenko has not left and it seems that the ruling elite and Moscow have remained loyal to him.

While many big state enterprises, under pressure from their workers, appear to have defected from the regime, state institutions have not changed sides.

Some have gone on strike, including state TV, but there have been few defections from ministries, parliament, security forces or local authorities.

At the same time, last Sunday the protesters showed their strength once again on the streets of Minsk and elsewhere.

In short, the country may be entering a stalemate between the street and state institutions.

The government seems to be toying with two tactics: Either to use force and coercion to end the protests or provoke violence as a justification for a wider "law and order" crackdown.

Or, hoping that protesters lose momentum, to cede the streets to them, while fortifying state institutions.

All this makes the protesters' stance difficult.

So far, they have shown a remarkable commitment to peaceful protest in the face of horrific violence.

Stressing their commitment to the rule of law, protesters are appealing to the Supreme Court for the election result to be annulled.

When Lukashenko addressed the factory workers last Monday, one of them shouted: "We don't want a revolution, we want fair elections!".

To outsiders this may look naïve - of course, fair elections in Belarus would amount to a revolution - a change of the system.

Why insist on the law, when Lukashenko has long shown that he does not take constitutional guarantees of human rights seriously?

He already implied that as long as he lives, he will remain president, doing away with any pretence of electoral competition.

When security forces arrested and tortured thousands of Belarusians, some of whom are still missing, it became even clearer that there is only one threat to law and order in the country: the president himself.

And yet, it is not naïve for the opposition to ask the government to act lawfully and hold real elections. This denies the authorities the pretext for a crackdown.

By remaining peaceful and insisting on the rule of law, the opposition has mobilised vast numbers of protesters some of whom might well have been deterred by talk of revolution.

The protesters have set an example of the path they want the country to take, which is one of peace and respect for the law.

Path to change

What lawful path could lead to change?

Some have demanded a recount of the votes cast on 9 August. Most protesters have rightly avoided this demand. A falsified election leaves a crime scene on election night.

That crime scene is now two weeks old and will have been compromised.

Ballot papers are reported to have been destroyed and new, fake ballot papers could have been produced.

The most obvious constitutional solution would be the president's resignation.

In this case, a new presidential election would have to be held within 30 to 70 days.

The protesters rightly insist on a genuine, democratic election in line with constitutional guarantees and international human rights obligations.

Candidates must be able to register freely without threat of imprisonment.

State media must be required to report fairly and transparency must be ensured at all levels of the voting, counting, and tabulation processes.

Alternatively, the Supreme Court could annul the presidential election, but that would require a new-found independence from the executive branch.

Theoretically, parliament could remove the president, but this too is unlikely as the current legislature is the product of the deeply-flawed 2019 elections in which only pro-government candidates were gaining seats.

If none of this materialises, protesters need to find additional ways to increase the pressure and to keep momentum.

One option could be to target public buildings.

However, this increases the risk of violence and could undermine the peaceful nature of the movement.

The opposition could make use of alternative institutions, such as the recently established Co-ordination Council, to provide a more authoritative voice and structure.

But it will be hard to compete with state institutions which have salaried personnel, a budget, and legal status.

Whatever steps they take, protesters should be open to international involvement.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and chairmanship, currently held by Albania and next year by Sweden, has offered to start immediate talks with all sides.

The EU supports that call. Though the OSCE is a weak organisation in which the 57 participating states must reach agreement by consensus on many questions, it is the only significant pan-European inter-governmental body of which Belarus is part.

The EU already announced its intention to reintroduce sanctions against individuals involved in electoral fraud and violence, but it should remain flexible and signal that individuals can be removed from the list if they demonstrate support for a democratic, lawful process.

Putin's options

Meanwhile, for now, the Kremlin stands with Lukashenko.

Two months after constitutional changes in Russia opened the path for Russian president Vladimir Putin rule far into the future, the Kremlin is wary of Belarus setting the example of an illegitimately elected President being forced out of office by the people.

But if the protests maintain their momentum, Moscow may change its mind.

It may judge that the danger of a long-term alienation of Belarusians, who are closely linked to Russians, is greater than the symbolism of Lukashenko losing his post.

It is worth for the EU to keep talking to the Kremlin to find out if and when it may change its stance based on its experience in Armenia.

In 2018, Russia did not interfere in Armenian affairs and accepted the change on government that was brought about by street demonstrations.

International talks must include Russia, which is also a member of the OSCE.

But Russia should not be allowed to decide the future of Belarus, whose people have made clear that they want to decide for themselves.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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