Where is Belarus a Month After the Election?

Protest rally against Lukashenko, 13 September 2020. Minsk, Belarus by Homoatrox under CC 3.0.
Protest rally against Lukashenko, 13 September 2020. Minsk, Belarus by Homoatrox under CC 3.0.

As the political stalemate continues in Belarus, the opposition needs a strategy to push its agenda.

Post-election street protests, grass-roots and self-organized, are in their sixth week and show no sign of dissipating. Backed by hundreds of thousands of people across the country, they have played a crucial role in delegitimizing the regime. The MOBILISE polling project says new protesters join every week. The three broad demands are: Lukashenka to step down, broader democratic changes, and new free and fair elections.

But not one of these demands has been achieved. Protesters remain peaceful despite the escalating violence, they look angrier and more despairing. Even though strike committees have been set up at state-owned enterprises and other public institutions, MOBILISE surveys show that the number of striking workers has dropped from 20% at the beginning of the protests to 2%. In short, Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s regime has the upper hand. It is not crumbling at the bottom. It is not splitting at the top. And shows no willingness to compromise.

An opposition victory will require sharper focus and better political organization. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the likely winner of the August 9 election but currently in forced exile in Vilnius, has set up a Coordinating Council with the aim to “hold new elections and transfer the power peacefully.” However, seven out of the eight members of the Council’s presidium have been either arrested or expelled from the country (the eighth — the Nobel Prize winner Sviatlana Aleksievich — is not taking an active part for health reasons). The Coordinating Council comprises around 12,000 civil society representatives, including policy experts. But their talents have yet to be used effectively.

The Coordinating Council should think in terms of legal steps towards the transition to democracy. One way could be to pick up on Lukashenka’s pledge of a referendum within the next two years on a new Constitution but insist that it be held earlier and that an opposition’s draft be voted on too. This draft could limit presidential powers, including a curb on the number of presidential terms, or transfer to a parliamentary republic. Both provisions would trigger new elections. The Kremlin appears to be pushing for constitutional change too, so Lukashenka may be compelled to accept it, despite his current stonewalling. The opposition should also demand changes to the Election Code or a nonpartisan figure to run the election process and full oversight by local and international independent observers.

Another option for the opposition could be to focus on the local elections, expected to be held no later than February 2022. In the past weeks, there has been unprecedented mobilization at the level of small neighborhoods, with Telegram chats emerging in thousands of communities throughout the country. People place white-red-white flags on their apartment buildings and get together in the evening to sing protest songs and discuss the news. Local elections could be a way to channel this activism into concrete political action. Renewed local councils could impact on the power structures, which may weaken the regime. A high degree of engagement in local elections around the country — in terms of candidates running and people applying to become non-partisan members of the election commissions and independent observers — could also lead to honest elections in certain locations. This might bring momentum and lay the basis for honest elections at the national level.

The Coordinating Council should make its voice stronger and more recognizable. It could act as a shadow cabinet, commenting on the work of the government or coming up with policy proposals of its own. This would create a positive agenda to keep up the debate, even if protests fade out for the winter, and highlight the unviable state of the regime’s course. It will give the Council more legitimacy not only within society at large but among officials with wobbly loyalties. Together with other parts of the strategy in place, it would help to erode the regime’s basis and create a tangible platform for defection, giving vital momentum to the opposition and intensifying the crisis within a regime that seems both doomed and durable.

September 19, 2020