Transregional Center for Democratic Studies

Belarus: A View from the ‘Near Abroad’

by Mykola Balaban, Co-founder and President, NGO Environment Security Research Center “PROMETHEUS,” Lviv-Kyiv, Ukraine

As we watch developments in Belarus, we all hope the events in Minsk signal the beginning of the end of the process of democratic reversals that are still unfolding in various parts of the world. Here is a piece by Mykola Balaban, who came to the New School for Social Research in 2016 as a Global Dialogues Fellow in a program designed and conducted by the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies. Mykola lives in Ukraine, and is currently in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhya on the left Bank of the Dnipro River. Once the home of the valiantZaporozhian Cossacks, three centuries later it is the largest industrial center in this part of Ukraine, struggling to establish itself as a place where culture also matters. Mykola is there, working with local activists to launch a self-sustaining site for artistic discussion and production. 

Protest actions in Minsk (Belarus), August 16 (Source: WikiCommons)

On July 25th we would have celebrated the birthday of my close friend Bohdan Solcahnyk, but the riot police had killed him in the winter of 2014 during the “Euromaidan” revolution in Ukraine. Six years and two weeks after Bohdan’s death, I heard about the first killing during a peaceful protest in Belarus following the disputed presidential elections on August 9th that were neither free nor fair. A rally had started at night when President Alexander Lukashenko, having ruled for 26 years, claimed 80 percent electoral support. At the same time, the Belarusian Central Electoral Commission announced that the candidate of the united democratic opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, supported overwhelmingly by the society at large, had received only 9.9% of the votes. Tensions had already begun to run high at the end of May, when Sviatlana’s husband, the well-known blogger and dissident Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was arrested soon after announcing his candidacy in the presidential elections. But on August 9th, there was no doubt  in Belarus that the election results had been rigged, and that is when massive protests began all over the country.  

Before 1991, Ukraine and Belarus, two Soviet Republics on the western border of the Soviet Union, were very much alike. After all, both are eastern Slavic nations with closely related languages that Russian nationalists still regard as dialects of Russian. Though Western academics routinely put all Soviet Bloc  countries — that is, all former members of the Warsaw Pact that survived their communist regimes — into one basket,  I find this approach misguided. It is enough to point out that when my professor from Warsaw was a student in the 1980s, he could go for a summer job in France, whereas it would never have been possible for my father — in the 80s a student in Soviet Ukraine, at Lviv Polytechnic University — to go anywhere further west than the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. Even though the general lines of economic transformation were similar throughout the Soviet Bloc, totalitarian rule was much more deeply entrenched in the societies of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Hannah Arendt wrote that horizontal connections between people get destroyed in totalitarian societies, where people cease trusting each other. And I believe this observation is critical when one thinks of those three heartlands of the former Soviet Union. For the last 30 years, these societies have been struggling to restore that horizontal trust, which became critical for launching peaceful pro-democracy protests, first in Ukraine with its Euromaidan, and now in Belarus. 

Since 1994 Aleksandr Lukashenko has tried hard to preserve or simulate Soviet political, economic, and social institutions in post-Soviet Belarus. Belarusians and Ukrainians often look at each other carefully, trying to figure out whose path is more successful. And Ukrainians remember well that it was a Belarusian, Mikhail Zhyzneuski, who became one of the first victims of the Euromaidan Revolution in Kyiv. Today Ukrainians are closely following Belarusian protests with true empathy and understanding. Sadly, despite my eagerness to help, I cannot cross the border into Belarus as I’m on a Russian list (yes, Russian list!) of dangerous persons for my activities in the Euromaidan Revolution. The only thing I can do is to observe the events from Ukraine and support the people of Belarus from what is often referred to as the “near abroad.”

Though there are plenty of similarities between the Euromaidan in Kyiv  and the current peaceful mass mobilization in Belarus, especially when it comes to the use of social network platforms, there are significant differences as well. The most effective action of the opposition in Belarus became their call for a general strike at their massive state-owned factories and plants. After an initial phase of extreme violence on the part of the riot police, the protesters issued a call for a nationwide strike, emphasizing that this kind of protest is enshrined in the Constitution: it is not legal to detain or fire those who are on strike. The demands are as follows: to recognize Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as the new interim President of Belarus, to release all political prisoners, and to conduct new elections. Once the workers of over ten major factories joined the strike, the rhetoric of Lukashenko and the actions of the riot police drastically changed. The massive violence on the streets decreased, and in recent days the riot police have not been dispersing peaceful protesters. 

The Lukashenko regime that had seemed to be invulnerable to any protests turned out to be very shaky when facing workers’ strikes at state-owned factories. This is very similar to the demonstrations by Poland’s “Solidarnosc” movement that emerged as the result of a general strike in August 1980 against the Communist regime in the Polish People’s Republic. The striking shipyard workers managed to win Solidarity’s legalization as the Soviet Bloc’s first-ever Independent Self-governing Trade Union, an act that launched the end of Soviet rule in the region. 

Today in Belarus — still a “mini” Soviet Union —  the workers shout: RESIGN!

And it is those workers’ protests that have struck at the heart of Lukashenko’s most shielded possessions, his state-owned industries that have made it possible for him to  control the lives of Belarusians.

Mykola Balaban, Co-founder and President, NGO Environment Security Research Center “PROMETHEUS,” Lviv-Kyiv, Ukraine; 2016 Global Dialogues Fellow at the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, New School for Social Research, and alumni of the 2016 Democracy & Diversity Graduate Institute, Wroclaw, Poland.

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