Belarus has undergone profound political changes in the past year. The EU’s strategy and response chiefly has focused on leveling sanctions on the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. The longtime ruler kept his grip on power by rigging the country’s fraudulent August 2020 presidential election and unleashing police brutality against the peaceful protesters who then took to the streets. In response, the EU has imposed three sets of sanctions. These included visa bans and asset freezes on over eighty Belarusian officials and financial and business restrictions on seven economic entities associated with the regime.
These measures, however, have not deterred the Belarusian authorities from pursuing hardline tactics. Perhaps even emboldened by the limited sanctions, the regime has tightened the screws further. Arrests, imprisonments, and political firings have become commonplace. Between May 2020 and the end of the year, over 33,000 people were detained and prosecuted, and 900 individuals (including nine journalists) have faced criminal charges—all numbers that continue to grow. The survival of Lukashenko’s regime is at stake, and although the sanctions send a strong signal from European leaders, Belarusian authorities can ignore the sanctions without doing themselves serious harm.
The EU should not focus solely on sanctions as it seeks to support democratic change there. It is just as important to look deeper at Belarus’s changing society and to consider how best to address the people’s tangible needs. Sanctions always involve discussions of who may be adversely affected, and any sanctions Europe levies against Belarus should be balanced by reciprocal assistance to civil society.
Civil Society in Belarus
Many months of public resistance to Lukashenko’s regime have revealed profound changes under way in Belarusian society. Dignity, individual rights, and demands for self-determination and freedom of expression have come to the forefront, replacing the paternalistic social contract of the past two decades, whereby the public enjoyed rising living standards by forfeiting the right to participate in politics. Many Belarusians want to be recognized as political actors with the right to shape their country’s political future by electing a government of their choosing and expressing their views freely and without fear of retribution. Many of them also want greater opportunities for economic growth and personal fulfillment. The promise of stability, once highly welcome to the traumatized generation of the early post-Soviet days, is no longer as compelling as it used to be. Not surprisingly, the latest data from the World Values Survey shows a significant shift in Belarusian values in recent years.
This leap in civic consciousness is due to several factors. First, a new generation of Belarusians who see rights as inalienable has come of age during Lukashenko’s decades-long rule. In their forties and younger, these people are receptive to the flood of online information and cultural changes ushered in by globalization, and they tend to view Lukashenko’s regime as archaic and retrograde. The second factor is the rapid growth of Belarus’s private sector in recent years. Employment in the private sector as a share of the total workforce grew from 37.8 percent in 2012 to 44.7 percent in 2019. Consequently, a middle class ready to take the initiative and participate in politics has emerged. Third, the widespread reach of internet-based media has eroded and eventually overridden the state’s former monopoly over information.
These profound changes in civic consciousness have spurred considerable public activism and mobilization in Belarus. The uprising against Lukashenko—of unprecedented scope and size, involving hundreds of thousands of protesters at its peak—is dramatically changing how people think and behave. People are building horizontal ties and setting up the logistical groundwork to facilitate protests. Local activism and other forms of self-organization, such as independent trade unions and professional associations, are taking shape. These spontaneous forms of activism all are helping undermine the viability of Lukashenko’s regime and lay sociocultural foundations for future concerted action. This bottom-up building of democracy is a profound and probably irreversible change with long-term consequences.
Yet Belarusians have a long way to go before they can bring about lasting political change and build resilient democratic institutions. Both the country’s democratic political opposition and civil society lack the experience and skills to successfully translate their political demands into action. Decades of Lukashenko’s personalized autocratic rule have eviscerated institutions such as political parties and lobbying groups. Lukashenko established a direct line to the people, bypassing other political actors and reducing parliament and other government actors to rubberstamps for implementing his orders. The opposition has never been properly represented in any state or regional political bodies. Neither opposition politicians nor civic groups have had the chance to learn the skills of political maneuvering and vying for real power. Belarusians’ struggle for democracy is being driven by the enthusiasm and courage of activists who lack formal power or organizational knowledge.
The democratic opposition in exile has focused its efforts outside of Belarus by aiming to spur international pressure on the regime and seek help for victims of repression within the country. Although this work is important, working with members of the nomenklatura—government officials and others working in government-related bodies, such as managers of state-run factories—and other people in Belarus should be the top priorities. The opposition may be a little naïve to believe that strong economic sanctions and other forms of international pressure can coerce Lukashenko’s repressive regime to bow to protesters’ demands. Political change in Belarus will not happen unless public officials, their supporters within society at large, and members of the security services can be convinced to abandon Lukashenko.
The opposition therefore needs to transform itself into a real political force at home. Raising awareness and engaging in civic mobilization campaigns inside Belarus would help rouse the silent majority of the population to action and erode the regime’s support, though this would also entail reaching out to the more pragmatic elements of the regime. In other words, the opposition needs to actively shape Belarus’s domestic political agenda and show that its members can lead the country by enacting long-overdue reforms.
How the EU Should Engage With Belarusian Protesters
The societal changes at work in Belarus raise the question of how the EU should support this nascent transformation.
Fostering Political and Economic Empowerment
Belarus’s opposition sorely lacks expertise and sufficient funding. The leaders of the democratic movement need coaching on how to run a political opposition that holds the government accountable. They must learn how to attract new followers and campaign effectively. They also need to be trained in how to advocate and lobby government officials for change.
The opposition needs the know-how to create policy proposals and offer a new vision that would excite the nation. Improving its members’ strategic, management, and communications skills is also crucial, so they can devise an effective approach and persuade the regime to enter negotiations. Meanwhile, Belarus’s civil society needs to learn similar skills. Its members must be coached on how to set up sustainable organizations, strategize effectively, and lobby opinion leaders and politicians to influence policymaking.
Belarus is experiencing a delayed nation-building process. Both the movement’s political leaders and supporters in civil society need to create space for complex debates over policy and ideas, helping to foster a new vision for the country. People are deciding who they are, how they want to live, and how their relations with neighboring countries should look. Investing in research endeavors on these topics; forming real-life or online hubs for debates to glean ideas from citizens, associations, businesses, and other institutions; and establishing a Forum for a Democratic Belarus in Europe are all worthwhile ideas to explore.
Belarusians also need economic empowerment. Government repression and the coronavirus pandemic have done great harm to the people’s economic well-being by undermining macroeconomic stability, exacerbating the brain drain of talented emigrants fleeing the country, and exposing those staying behind to debilitating trauma and economic uncertainty. For the many people still being fired for their political stances, it matters greatly that much of the Belarusian economy is still state controlled, as they are often unable to find new employment. External support for informal educational programs on entrepreneurship and direct grants to those wanting to start their own businesses would be helpful. Boosting the presence of the Eastern Partnership’s EU4Business in Belarus, an initiative that provides consultative assistance and microloans to small and medium-sized enterprises, could be useful too.
The difficult part is knowing how to identify these new actors on the ground and deliver funds to them. The new activists are not familiar with the mechanisms of grant making and do not know where to look for support. They do not work in traditional NGOs, but in disparate, unregistered groups. They need flexible grant structures, which can enable discreet transfers of resources. Organizations like the European Endowment for Democracy were designed for such purposes, but even they may have difficulties under Belarus’s prevailing repressive conditions.
One potential workaround would be to transfer skills and expertise by hosting online workshops with international experts or facilitating opportunities for short-term training stints overseas for opposition figures and members of civic groups when the pandemic has been subdued. Funds should also be made available to local experts to set up informal educational hubs (such as online and in-person courses, YouTube videos, and media projects).
New technologies may help too, especially in a country as tech-savvy as Belarus. One idea is to transfer funds in cryptocurrencies, given that the country already has a working legislative framework for them. Another avenue would be to encourage projects involving civictech (technologies geared toward citizen empowerment), which could help with community organizing and related campaigns and initiatives.
Civictech is also useful for matching donor funds with contributions from startup companies through crowdfunding platforms. Several Belarusian civictech projects have proved very helpful in promoting democratic practices. Some examples include Golos (an online platform that carried out an alternative vote count during the 2020 election and now monitors public approval of the opposition’s initiatives), Chestnye Lyudi (a group focused on domestic election observation and other initiatives), and Narodny Opros (a group that surveys public opinion and assesses protest participation). Other noteworthy platforms are an app for supporting local activism called “I Am Protesting” and a platform for civictech and digital solidarity known as Hub Peramen.
Supporting Sociocultural Change
In addition to thinking about concrete economic and political backing, EU members should recognize that a lot of Belarusians are experiencing something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of daily political repression and continued violence by the security services. Mobilizing people around a positive, future-oriented agenda would help give people the mental strength to endure this duress. Mental health tends to be greatly neglected in post-Soviet societies. The EU could look at ways of supporting projects that offer peer-to-peer training for psychological therapists, work with children who have witnessed violence by the security services or seen family members be arrested, or assistance for families being unjustly targeted by state-linked bodies including child protective services in retaliation for their political activities.
Cultural activism has been at the forefront of the Belarusian protests. Theater groups that help raise awareness of and interpret people’s trauma have proven therapeutic value. Belarus’s Janka Kupala National Theatre was among the first to support the democratic protest movement in August and has offered filmed plays to boost the morale of protesters. Another valuable project is Volny Khor (Free Choir), which has been relentlessly singing protest songs in public places and organizing widely viewed online concerts. Such projects, along with street theaters, have proven valuable in demystifying and dismantling autocratic regimes in other European countries (such as Serbia).
Gender equality is another area that needs attention in Belarus. The unprecedented public support for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s candidacy in the country’s 2020 presidential election illustrated how Belarusian society is evolving. Women’s central role in the subsequent protests have been an added source of momentum for the emancipation of women. Tsikhanouskaya’s transformation from an unlikely stay-at-home mom to an accidental presidential candidate and then her ascent as a high-profile opposition figure mirror the profound changes under way in Belarusian society as a whole.
Yet many Belarusians’ views remain old-fashioned. Women are often perceived as a symbol of the protest rather than a key driving force. Their contributions to the protest movement have been routinely underestimated and crudely reduced to patriarchal conceptions of beauty. For example, in its coverage of Belarusian model and political figure Olga Khizhinkova’s politically motivated stint in prison, the Belarusian media tended to focus superficially on her appearance rather than her professional achievements. The work of thousands of female protesters or the hardships endured by wives whose husbands have suffered political repression tend to be underreported and seldom recognized as heroic. Tsikhanouskaya and other prominent female politicians (such as Maria Kolesnikova or Veronika Tsepkalo) have avoided raising issues related to women’s rights. Public education on issues of gender equality is largely absent in Belarus. The EU should support formal and particularly informal educational programs and media training designed to promote gender equality.
While sanctions have dominated Western debates on how to deter Belarus’s authoritarian regime, it is vital for EU policymakers to find other tools as well. The changes within Belarusian society indicate the people are ready to seize the opportunity to shape their future. The EU needs to focus on helping Belarusian civil society develop and assisting the country’s opposition forces in expanding their professional competencies. These Belarusian actors need to marshal their resources and build trust and alliances with new allies within the country including potential regime defectors and people who have not been politically engaged in the past. For that to happen, civic and political groups need transfers of expertise, technological innovations, and financial resources from European partners that reflect the qualitative ways democratic activism in Belarus has changed.
Katia Glod is an independent political risk consultant focusing on former Soviet countries. She is also a nonresident fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, DC.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.
Correction: The first paragraph claimed that the EU had not sanctioned Lukashenko. That was incorrect and has been removed.