The protests in Belarus, which began in the aftermath of the rigged presidential election in August 2020, where President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory for a sixth term, continue. They have shrunk in size, not least because of the onset of winter, but they remain defiant.
The protesters are strategic and increasingly counter the security forces with a series of decentralized local protests. Nevertheless, several hundred people are arrested each week during the protests that have taken place since August 9 in favor of new elections and a transition of power.
The international research project MOBILISE, in which Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) is a partner, has been running an online survey among Belarusian protesters since mid-August.
One of the most memorable figures of the interim results from early November, which are based on the responses of about 11,000 Belarusians, show that 70 percent of those surveyed remain optimistic that the protests will succeed in ousting Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. 80 percent reported that they were actively protesting for the first time. This bottom-up politicization of the whole of Belarusian society is the most important effect of the protests so far.
But any crisis that lasts for a long time, be it a war like in Ukraine or a mass mobilization like in Belarus, stops being news after a while.
With regard to the developments in Belarus, attention levels have definitely dropped across Europe. There is media coverage, but not nearly as much as in the first two months after the presidential election. And although the EU as a whole is moving toward a third round of sanctions against the Belarusian regime that will include Belarusian companies and further senior officials, it seems to be settling into accepting the stalemate in Belarus as the new normal for some time to come.
Many EU governments are in direct contact with the de facto leader of the opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is based in Lithuania. There are initiatives in place to help Belarusian individuals seeking asylum or scholarships, and financial aid packages for when the crisis ends are being discussed. However, the EU’s direct impact on the developments on the ground remains limited.
Initially, the leadership of the opposition Coordination Council had emphasized that the crisis had to be resolved in Belarus by Belarusians, warning against the involvement of Russia and the EU.
The message in the early weeks of the protests was that a geopolitical reorientation away from Russia and toward the EU was not on the agenda. Over time, this rhetoric has been toned down. In particular Tikhanovskaya has explicitly been calling for further sanctions and mediation by the EU, especially by Germany.
With regard to foreign policy orientations, there is already a clear sign of polarization in society: according to the MOBILISE survey data from early November, just under 40 percent of the surveyed protesters would like closer relations with the EU, while just over 40 percent oppose this idea.
The union state with Russia is only a preference for 8 percent of the respondents. By comparison, on the question of whether Russia constitutes the main threat to Belarus today, the surveyed protesters remain divided: about 38 percent agreed with the statement, about 37 percent did not.
The polarization of views, already visible in the survey, is likely to increase. This is not an attempt to talk up polarization, but rather take seriously the fact that the Belarusian protesters’ demands have evolved from a call for repeat elections to one for comprehensive democratic reforms.
As democratic values are associated with the EU—or at least with most of its member states—and not with Russia, the internal logic of the protests points to a new Belarusian foreign policy orientation in due course.
On November 26, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a visit to Minsk. He was sent by Russian President Vladimir Putin to remind Lukashenko of his promise to bring the situation under control and initiate a transition process based on constitutional reforms.
Whether Lukashenko will heed the “advice” is an open question, but the EU should be careful not to overlook the critical moment when the Kremlin moves toward pushing Lukashenko into a reform process.
Given Lukashenko’s apparent intention to cling to power for as long as possible and Russia’s invested interests in close relations with Belarus, this is bound to be a slow process. Media images of Lavrov reminding Lukashenko that he should start implementing the political changes agreed with Putin are the clearest sign yet that Moscow prefers a peaceful transition based on reforms.
How long Lukashenko can be part of this transition process remains unclear, and Putin is obviously not known for democratic constitutional reforms.
However, the EU as a whole should start watching the developments in Belarus more closely again. It needs to be prepared to clear a path toward negotiations between the Belarusian regime and representatives of the opposition Coordination Council.
Once these negotiations have started, their remit or outcome cannot be controlled entirely by any side—but the EU will need to be ready with a coherent position. It is time to formulate this position now.
Gwendolyn Sasse is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin.