The revolution will not be colourised
Alexander Lukashenko has normalised many dubious practices during his 26 years in power in Belarus, and his share of the vote in the most recent presidential election – 80.1 per cent – is uncannily similar to the figure recorded at his five previous landslides. His initial response to suggestions of vote-rigging was characteristically ruthless. Protests were met by water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades, and three demonstrators were killed. As more than seven thousand people were taken into custody, social media were flooded with accounts and images of torture. Lukashenko wasn’t defiant in the face of the resistance so much as dismissive. His adversaries were either criminals or unemployed, he said. Insofar as they reflected a genuine threat, it was only because they were ‘sheep’ under the direction of shadowy foreign powers.
The script is familiar. Peaceful rallies against Lukashenko’s 79.67 per cent victory in December 2010 were similarly suppressed. The plot’s been taking unexpected turns though. As the unrest spread, high-profile figures including TV presenters, the rector of the national university and members of the Minsk Philharmonic Orchestra have sided with the protesters. Last Friday, the interior minister apologised for arresting too many ‘random people’, and the OMON riot squads he controls suddenly vanished from the streets. The uniformed law enforcement agents who remained were no longer breaking bones – several were photographed fending off hugs and flowers instead – and on Sunday, Belarus experienced the largest demonstrations in its history. The so-called sheep seem to be sensing their strength – and if posts on Telegram and Facebook are any guide, their acquiescence to authoritarianism is evaporating.
Inertia may yet be the president’s saviour, and Belarus’s formidable security apparatus is built on powerful personal allegiances. Lukashenko’s departure is becoming at least imaginable, however. On a visit to the Minsk Tractor Works on Monday morning, intended to counter opposition calls for a general strike, Lukashenko sounded both agitated and vulnerable – mortal, even. Heckled repeatedly, he insisted there would be no re-run of the election ‘until you kill me’. As he stormed off, the workers chanted ‘Resign!’
The elephant in the room – or perhaps the bear – is Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader has long been wary of Lukashenko: the Belarusian president has always been a little too fond of playing political footsie with Brussels and Washington, and doesn’t consider Putin (in power for a mere twenty years) his superior. But though Russia’s president would prefer a pliant stooge, he can’t afford to see his neighbour toppled. The ousting of an autocrat in a former Soviet republic, six years after Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine, would give his domestic critics a very unwelcome boost. With regional elections only a month away, discontent in the south-eastern city of Khabarovsk has already unnerved the Kremlin, and Russia’s opposition is now being galvanised by events in Belarus. The white ribbon adopted as a symbol by Lukashenko’s electoral rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, certainly won’t have pleased Putin. It has been associated with his opponents since 2011, when allegations of vote-rigging sparked Russia’s largest protests in twenty years.
Aware that his options are limited, Putin has so far acted with restraint. Though he was quick to congratulate Lukashenko on his re-election (only Xi Jinping was quicker) and to warn EU leaders against ‘meddling’, the Kremlin’s official line is that those ‘problems that have arisen’ will sort themselves out. Lukashenko has been making more noise though. Over the weekend, he warned that Nato forces were massing at the borders and that his adversaries were drawing directly from the ‘manual of colour revolutions’. That’s not just fighting talk; those are trigger words. Since Georgia’s ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003 and Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2005, the Kremlin has portrayed popular protests against fraudulent elections as part of an aggressive Western strategy. ‘We see what tragic consequences the wave of so-called colour revolutions led to,’ Putin told his Security Council in 2014, a few months after ordering the invasion of Crimea. ‘We should do everything necessary so that nothing similar ever happens in Russia.’
The rivalry between the two leaders is clearly on hold – and now that it’s them against the world, their dysfunctional relationship may even get back on track. As Putin has been scolding the European Union, Lukashenko has initiated criminal charges against protest leaders, and instructed his interior minister to get OMON riot police back in action. Belarusian state media are pumping out alarmist propaganda similar to that seen in Russia before the invasion of Crimea – tales of fascism on the march, and fantastically untrue claims that the Russian language is about to be sidelined – and the apparent poisoning yesterday of Putin’s most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny, has only added to the growing sense of menace. Navalny’s YouTube channel reported favourably on the Belarus strike movement a week ago. The same day, Lukashenko said that ‘Navalny’s people’ were among the foreign ‘masterminds’ organising aggressively against him. Such coincidences have significance in Moscow and Minsk – and whatever else may lie behind Navalny’s hospitalisation, as he fights for his life, many Belarusians are already associating his fate with the future of their country.
At a small protest I attended last Sunday outside the Belarusian Embassy in London, emigrés were as worried as they were hopeful. Lukashenko had claimed a day earlier that Putin had offered him ‘comprehensive assistance’ to combat ‘external military threats’, and though everyone dutifully expressed confidence that the president was on the way out, fears of Moscow hovered over all the conversations. When we retired to the pub, I casually asked my new acquaintances what their revolution would be called, if it had a colour. They reacted as though stung. It didn’t have any colour, they said. It wasn’t even a revolution.