Belarus: the silenced revolution

Monday, 15. August 2011     0 comment(s)
Anaïs Marin
Researcher - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

Draft amendments to the law "On mass manifestations", released by the government on 20 July, broaden the notion of “picketing” to encompass cases of silent or internet revolution. It defines picketing as “the simultaneous mass presence of people in a pre-determined public place (including outdoors) at a set time for a pre-defined action or inaction, organized (including through the Internet or other global networks) for the public expression of their socio-political state of mind or protest”.

Official Minsk successfully put down the "revolution through social networks" that took thousands of discontented Belarusians to the streets this summer. The regime already won round 1 in the fight against the opposition in preventing a “colour revolution” after Alexander Lukashenka’s contested re-election last December. In obviating a Belarusian “Arab spring”, it also appears to have won round 2. The enduring dictator can even claim he succeeded where both Mubarak and al-Assad failed, having retained power without a single death casualty. This might be temporary however.

The reason is that Lukashenka won but a tactical battle, as Russian politologist Andrei Suzdaltsev argues. It is not a strategic victory, and definitely not an “elegant” one: driven into a corner, the regime discredited itself in using illegal violence against peaceful civilians. More importantly, it provided no answer to their growing socio-economic problems.

An unprecedented mobilisation

Worries over falling purchasing power were the initial trigger for street protests. Average revenues fell by half since the beginning of the year due to the devaluation of the Belarusian rouble (officialised on 23 May) and rising prices that cancel out the populist pay raises of last year. When Belneftekhim increased retail petrol prices by 31% on 7 June, an association of car owners organised a slow-down that paralysed road traffic for two hours in central Minsk. Quite unpredictably, passers by added to the success of the “Stop petrol” action: in answer to car honks, they applauded and some tore up banknotes into confetti. Smiling people took pictures of this spontaneous, good-natured get together, under the amused glance of powerless road policemen. A new mode of popular mobilisation, abusively labelled “silent", was born. 

The next day 400 people gathered on October square in Minsk and about 50 more in each of the regional centres. Ignoring earlier warnings from the police, bloggers and a group named “Revolution through social network” on Vkontakte (the Russian-speaking equivalent of Facebook) had spread the word: go to the central square of your city every Wednesday at 19.00, without placards or banners, and express discontent in clapping your hands and stamping your feet. 

The following Wednesday (15 June) 3000 people throughout the country joined the action of “silent solidarity”. By then the authorities had taken the measure of the dissenting nature of such flash-mobs able to gather – and this was the main novelty – people of all ages and professional categories. To prevent the action, central squares were fenced with turnstiles and flanked with policemen and OMON who pushed pedestrians to side-streets and arrested those who disobeyed their orders to disperse – altogether, 240 people were detained, including 9 journalists. From then on, the actions were named “popular promenades”, because participants could not remain static without running the risk of being beaten or arrested. 

The peak of participation was on 22 June, when 4000 people gathered in Minsk and 2000 more across the country, including in several district towns – a geographical scope of mobilisation that is unprecedented as well in Belarus. That day the anti-riot police arrested 460 participants, of whom 33 were convicted of “disorderly conduct” or “disobeying the police”. 

The counter-revolution kicked off on 29 June, as the authorities felt an urgent need to eradicate the trend ahead of the 3rd of July celebrations of Independence Day, also marred by violent preventive arrests. Diversion means were used in Minsk, where a concert was staged on October square on the initiative of the (State-backed) youth union BRSM. Repression also took a new turn as BRSM security crew (a.k.a. "druzhina") helped KGB agents in plain clothes arrest passers by and prevent journalists from taking pictures. People were grabbed randomly from the crowd and thrown in paddy wagons without identification plates. Judicial sanctions stepped up a notch as well: half of the 270 people arrested on 29 June were sentenced to administrative arrest up to 15 days for “participation in an unsanctioned action”.

As a result, an undeclared curfew fell on Belarusian cities the following Wednesdays: the police preventively shut down access to central squares already at 6 pm, while sturdily built men in plain clothes spread their net on the pavement and nearby public places. Having walked across deserted October square at 7.30 on 6 July, I can say that their suspicious glances were intimidating. No surprise then that attendance at the silent rallies continuously decreased all through the month, with only 60 people gathering on 27 July for the last time. After 9 weeks, the “silent revolution” had been silenced. Score: 2-0 for the regime. 

Why did it fail?

Alongside the state's violent dissuasive measures, a conjunction of unfavourable factors made mobilisation run out of breath: rainy days in late June and early July kept people indoors, whereas with the start of the holiday season many city-dwellers left to the “datcha” to stock up on kitchen garden supplies ahead of predictable lean times. Structural factors pertaining to the very nature of a “virtual”, silent and non-violent revolt are also involved in the failure of the movement: deprived of domestic leaders (the administrator of the 30 000 members-strong Vkontakte group is currently studying in Poland), it appears to lack guidance. Opposition leaders – those who are not  behind bars – cautiously refrained from trying to take over the movement. In the absence of charismatic leaders and organised defenders ready to fight back the arbitrary violence of the anti-riot police, the "revolution" was doomed to die out.

In the absence of audible slogans - except for “уходи!” (get out!) and “ШОС” (a TLA meaning “let him die”) that were occasionally voiced by the bravest anti-Lukashenka protestors – it lacked ideological substance and, more importantly, a programme for the future. And yet, a majority of Belarusians share a deeply rooted certitude that, as goes the song, “there can be no tomorrow when [he is] gone”. Blame it on the proverbial incapacity of the opposition to come up with an alternative action plan, or on the alleged “cowardice” of the average Belarusian, but it is a fact: Belarusians will never fight for freedom, or if they do, it will be in a “partisan resistance” way, through petty sabotage and hooliganism. A Tahrir square bloodbath is, hopefully, very unlikely in Belarus. People do want change: by May 2011 two thirds of the population supported the idea of economic reforms (this is three times more than in March). However nobody would push for them through revolutionary means: according to the same opinion poll only 8% of the respondents would be ready to participate in mass protests or strikes, whereas 76% would not. 

Should Lukashenka conclude that he is protected from an Egyptian type of overthrow? Probably yes, though the events revealed the regime’s weaknesses and its stubborn tendency to “dig its own grave”. For the first time ever, the regime was forced to be reactive: each week it tried to prevent the actions, had to shut down access to the internet, enact ridiculous warnings (“on 3 July, only adequate applauses – for war veterans and state officials – will be tolerated”) and recourse to arbitrary violence against harmless people. Yet each Wednesday the protesters inventively adopted new, lawful forms of expression. Such playing cat and mouse produced an original type of urban warfare that pushed the regime's defenders to some absurd extremes. For example a one-handed man was sentenced for “disorderly conduct” on the ground that he was allegedly clapping his hands! The authorities also took very unpopular measures, such as banning radios from airing the famous perestroika-time song “Peremen” [Changes] ahead of the 20th anniversary of the death of Kino rock band leader Viktor Tsoi.

Towards a third round?

The coordinators of the internet revolution announced a time out until 14 September to get prepared for a “hot fall” when students come back from vacation. In the meantime, they said they will conduct consultations with trade unions to try and convince blue collars to go on general strike next fall. The third force whose involvement would be necessary for a hypothetical revolution to succeed, the decimated political opposition, had already called a “Belarusian assembly” of democratic forces to be held on 8 October. Social networks are planning a nation-wide "Popular gathering" on the same day.

By then, the regime will have built up its forces as well to fend off dissidence. As soon as it will resume its session in early October, the Parliament should adopt several amendments to the law “On mass manifestations” that will virtually make any public gathering other than state-organised ones illegal.

Such measures add to the climate of fear the country has plunged into since last December. They will probably dissuade Belarusians from protesting in the near future, but a violent escalation cannot be excluded a priori. Only a miracle could restore public confidence in the government’s capacity to solve the deepening socio-economic crisis and avoid a humanitarian crisis by the start of the heating season. Yet, a confrontation can also occur, as both the regime and its opponents promised a radicalisation when round 3 of the “fight for Belarus” starts in the autumn.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discuss the topic

Personal information