Friday

18th Jun 2021

Opinion

Bomb shatters political consensus in Belarus

  • Political protesters in Belarus (Photo: Leonid Varlamov | mmet.livejournal.com)

This is the news the authorities in Belarus feared most. It is worse than dire economic performance figures or reports of foreign sanctions. Monday's blast in the very heart of the Belarusian capital, in the evening rush hour, shattered the very foundations of political consensus in Belarus, let alone the city's infrastructure.

Like Americans before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Belarusians have not been attacked on their soil for all 22 years of their independence. Blasts have rocked Russia, Europe, the Middle East, but Belarus remained, as the authorities liked to point out, a haven of security. No civilians – until now - have been killed in a terrorism-related activity in the country. Now the police have recognised terrorism as the most likely cause of the blast.

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Belarus and terrorism do not sit together. The right of assembly, access to information or freedom of expression have been curtailed in the country for the last 15 years, but Belarusian president Aliaksander Lukashenka has always held up stability and security as a legitimate quid pro quo.

Ultimately the majority of Belarusians seemed convinced by this trade off. They learned to live without expressing political freedoms. But they also learned to live with a sense of security and predictability, if not economic, then at least with regard to their psychical well-being.

Governments are weak in the face of terrorism, but because the Lukashenka government has claimed security as its own achievement, it will have to face responsibility for what happened.

Fall-out for the opposition

The pro-democratic forces in Belarus will not benefit from the government's embarrassment though, at least in the short term. Instead, they should brace themselves for accusations of terrorism until the real perpetrators are found. And if they turn out to be some pro-democratic radicals, or present themselves convincingly as such, the clampdown is likely to be stronger still.

After a half-botched accidental attempt of an explosion at a public festival in 2008, everyone who had training in explosives, either in the army or in chemistry faculties, were checked. The authorities will be just as thorough this time round too. A tightening of security controls is likely across the board. The level of social tension in hitherto calm Belarus will rocket. The opposition is most likely to be the first to be blamed.

It would also be convenient for the government to find perpetrators abroad, a useful way to mobilise the population internally. Given that relations with Europe are once again at a low point, and that the government indirectly blamed the German and Polish foreign ministries for the alleged attempt at a revolt after the presidential elections on 19 December, Lukashenka's government could also be tempted to try and link the two events.

The government probably realises though that any accusation of terrorism towards the EU would be a) too grave and preclude any further dialogue with Europe; and b) incredible even in the eyes of their own people. Exploring the Russian theme would not take Lukashenka very far, either. Terrorism in Russia has emanated from the Caucasus, and Belarus has not been involved on either side strongly enough to make it a credible target.

Change?

It is clear that the political system in Belarus has been derailed from the route along which it had developed until the last presidential election - even if the perpetrators of this first terrorist act are still unknown. If previously the social contract between the president and the people gave the president unlimited rule in exchange for sovereignty and stability, this can no longer be fulfilled.

Belarus faces pivotal developmental questions, not only with regard to reforming the economy, but also and crucially, with regard to understanding Belarusian national identity and sense of historic direction. It appears that Lukashenka is unable both to go back to pre-2010 or to answer the new challenges. All he can do at present is to try and maintain the status quo using heightened security.

So the key question for Belarus now is whether the person who can credibly give Belarusians a sense of their own destiny as well as propose reasonable economic policies within this framework, actually exists. And whether this person is able to raise their voice and harness popular energy and attention. Belarusians will either see a new national leader soon, or risk staying with the same one for a long time to come.

The writer is an expert in political ideologies, nation-building and nationalism at the Institute for State Ideologies (INSTID)

Disclaimer

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

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