A former Soviet republic on the fault line between Russia and Europe is boiling with revolt this summer. Sounds familiar — but Belarus 2020 isn’t Ukraine 2014, and that’s why it’s hard to predict what will happen next.
Here is a look at what’s different this time, and why it matters:
The uprising in Belarus erupted last week in a democratic vacuum, in a country where challengers to President Alexander Lukashenko are jailed or exiled and where there is no experienced parliamentary opposition.
So those at the forefront of Minsk protest marches have been ordinary Belarusians, instead of established political leaders like those who helped galvanize crowds and funding for Ukraine’s 2014 protest movement, centered around the Maidan independence square in Kyiv.
In Belarus, “the absence of bright leaders undoubtedly weakens the protests ... Leaders bring awareness,” independent political analyst Valery Karbalevich said.
So Belarusian protesters formed a new Advisory Council this week to try to “offer the street a clear plan and agenda,” he said.
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However, opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova argues that the mass protests this month in Minsk, which came together in decentralized clusters via messaging app Telegram, show that Belarusians no longer need a vertical hierarchy telling them what to do.
And a leaderless protest has one key advantage, she said: “It cannot be beheaded.”
ORDERLY, AND OK WITH RUSSIA
When unprecedented crowds of 200,000 people marched through the tidy, broad avenues of Minsk on Sunday, they came to a halt at red traffic lights, waiting obediently until they turned green.
In Ukraine, by contrast, “protesters burned tires and threw Molotov cocktails,” said Syarzhuk Chyslau, leader of the Belarusian White Legion organization.
That’s in part because the Minsk marches lack the kind of far-right and neo-Nazi militant groups that joined Ukraine’s uprising and fanned the violence.
It’s also because Belarusians aren’t driven by the deep-seated anger at Russian influence that fueled Ukraine’s uprisings in 2004 and 2014, or Georgia’s ground-breaking Rose Revolution in 2003.
While Ukraine has been geopolitically split between pro-West and pro-Russian camps since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Belarusians are broadly Moscow-friendly.
Not a single European Union flag has appeared at the Minsk rallies, and the protesters aren’t pursuing NATO membership at the Kremlin’s expense; they just want to freely choose their own leader after an election they believe was stolen from them.
Pavel Latushko, a former Lukashenko loyalist now on the protesters’ Advisory Council, hopes this could allow Belarusians to count on help from both Brussels and Moscow to settle the current tensions.
“If the EU and Russia together acted as a mediator in resolving the Belarusian crisis, this would be an ideal option,” Latushko told The Associated Press.
While Ukraine’s protest movement built a huge tent camp in the center of Kyiv, complete with food delivery and security forces, the only perks for protesters in Belarus so far are bottles of water.
“There are no oligarchs in Belarus who would give money for hot meals, medical treatment and tents. Even to pay police fines, Belarusian protesters collect money themselves,” analyst Alexander Klaskouski said.
Unlike Ukraine’s largely privatized economy, Belarus’ economy remains 80% state-run, and little has evolved since the Soviet era. That makes it even more remarkable that workers at state-run factories have joined this week’s protests and strikes.
“The structure of the economy allowed Ukrainians not to be afraid of the state, which in Belarus could throw any person out on the street with nothing at all,” said Klaskouski.
The EU and U.S. also had economic interests in Ukraine before its 2014 uprising, but have only a marginal role in the largely closed-off Belarusian economy.
Given that, the Kremlin can’t easily portray Belarus’ protests as a Western-backed effort to sow chaos in its backyard the way it could in Ukraine. Russia used that argument to justify its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and backing for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine in a war that still simmers, six years on.
But Russia’s role in Belarus is pivotal, as the country’s top trade partner and main military ally.
So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear to Germany and France that they should steer clear of any interference, but hasn’t revealed how he wants to deal with the protesters or with Lukashenko, the only leader in the former Soviet space who’s been in power longer than Putin himself.
Ukraine has been a cacophonous democracy for much of the 29 years since winning independence from the USSR, and Belarus is dubbed Europe’s last dictatorship — but they share some similarities.
“Lukashenko made the same mistake as (former Ukrainian President Viktor) Yanukovych — he began to brutally beat peaceful protesters, which sparked a tsunami of popular protest, insulted dignity and triggered a revolution,” said analyst Vladimir Fesenko, director of the Penta Center in Kyiv.
Belarusian economist Dmitry Rusakevich, 46, participated in the Kyiv protests on the Maidan, and now goes out to Minsk’s Independence Square every evening.
“Maidan woke up Belarusians and showed that we need to fight for freedom,” he said. “It took the calm Belarusians a long time to muster the courage to say no to the dictator.”