This USIPeace Briefing recaps a discussion on peaceful transition to democracy in Belarus and recent nonviolent revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine.

Described as the last remaining dictatorship in Europe, Belarus is scheduled to have a presidential election in 2006 that could prove crucial to the future of the country. After nonviolent democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, questions arise about similar changes in Belarus: Is a peaceful transition to democracy in Belarus possible? And if so, what would be needed to make that happen?

On October 12, 2005, the Institute held an off-the-record discussion of these issues with people familiar with the situation in Belarus as well as with the recent nonviolent revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. What follows is a summary of the discussion. The views expressed do not reflect those of the Institute, which does not take policy positions.

Not "Rose" and Not "Orange"

Belarus is less susceptible to nonviolent political change than Ukraine and Georgia before their respective revolutions. A number of factors that aided the Orange and Rose revolutions are not present in Belarus: the ruler is more authoritarian, the public not yet as motivated to become involved, there is less access to independent media, and international support is not yet concerted. These are impediments, but not insurmountable ones. The dynamic between resistance and repression is always fluid and can alter conditions and improve the prospects for success. What strategies and tactics are called for given Belarus’ circumstances?

Regime Players Frozen in Place

Unlike Presidents Shevarnadze in Georgia and Kuchma in Ukraine, Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenka not only dominates the political opposition but also dominates potential rivals within the regime. For the moment, he enjoys full control of the regime’s coercive resources. With these functioning in a coordinated fashion, opposition is unlikely to be able to organize effectively until it achieves unity and follows a strategy aimed at weakening Lukashenka’s control of his own government.

If democratic forces are to make progress, they need to divide the regime, somehow splitting loyalties within the regime’s main pillars of support: the bureaucracy, the security forces, and the intelligence apparatus. In Georgia and Ukraine, the opposition was particularly effective at establishing contacts and connections within the security and intelligence forces and using them to limit the regime’s ability to repress opposition groups. Such splits also appeared among the economic elite, including business leaders whose defection brought significant resources to the opposition.

The international community can best help by raising the costs to the regime of maintaining the status quo and lowering the costs of transition. For example, it could promise immunity for politicians who might fear international prosecution following a transition, or, alternatively, freeze the bank accounts and highlight the investment risks posed to business leaders complicit in fraudulent elections. Experience elsewhere has shown that limiting the ability of regime members and their families to travel abroad, through travel sanctions, has a personal impact on regime loyalties that few other measures achieve.

A Public not Ready to Act

Frequently cited poll numbers find support for Lukashenka hovering around 40 percent, while the strongest opposition figures, largely unknown, run in the low single digits.

Other numbers indicate that support for Lukashenka is softer, particularly polling results from the International Republican Institute, which indicate that the public finds his negative qualities outweigh his positive ones. In other research, the Pontis Foundation has found very small qualitative differences between what respondents described as satisfaction and dissatisfaction. This suggests that regime support is not solid. Repression by the Lukashenka regime has begun to make life observably abnormal for ordinary people, which if it continues will cast doubt on the regime’s long-term survivability.

However, there has not yet been a "societal awakening" in support of change, which many Belarusans fear as a kind of instability and thus possibly not desirable. They also have little expectation of change coming as the result of elections. In recent polling from the Pontis Foundation, only 49% of respondents believed that elections could be free and fair, while 41% had doubts.

Unless the opposition can begin to shift these attitudes, as happened in Georgia and Ukraine, Belarusans are unlikely to take the risks that nonviolent opposition to the regime will necessarily incur. They will need to feel far more optimistic both about the likelihood of change and its benefits. Political opposition groups will have to conduct a unified campaign that articulates a positive agenda and does not simply call for the removal of Lukashenka. Choosing Milinkevich as the single opposition candidate was a significant step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go in convincing the public that he is a credible and appealing alternative.

The international community should encourage this shift in attitudes by assisting a broad range of local NGOs to jointly pursue a civic campaign that highlights the government’s injustice and repression and generates an atmosphere of change. The opposition will need, in the event of fraudulent elections, to be able to mount a post-election campaign that mobilizes a critical mass of Belarusans, perhaps culminating in street demonstrations in numbers so great that the security forces will hesitate to attack.

Public Access to Independent Sources of Information and Media

Another important finding of the Pontis Foundation research is that Belarus lacks a public discourse ‘mirror.’ Without independent media or other sources of information, the public has difficulty learning what others value and think. For example, the Pontis Foundation found that 68% of respondents believed that their views were shared by a majority of the population. These numbers did not change significantly when asking Lukashenka opponents (70%) or Lukashenka supporters (74%). This lack of a public discourse makes it difficult to achieve a critical mass in support of a transition, which depends on a shared, national sense of outrage—though, as several participants noted, there are ingenious methods of communicating with the public that trained activists have developed for such situations.

Independent sources of information are also essential to build the public’s knowledge of the opposition platform and, immediately following elections, to circulate news of any elections fraud. Taking into account time pressures, strategies for addressing this obstacle should take account of Belarusan geography, particularly the ability to broadcast to the entire country from neighboring countries, as the Voice of America Russian service does currently.

Hesitation by Internationals

Many Europeans view Belarus through the prism of their relationship with Russia. Their need for oil and gas from Russia makes them hesitant to "upset the apple cart" in Belarus. Some Europeans also erroneously regard the Orange Revolution in Ukraine as an American intervention, and one that creates problems for Europe insofar as it raises the issue of expanding the EU further to the East than many Europeans regard as desirable. Transition in Belarus is likely to be viewed in the same way.

It is vital that the international community overcomes its hesitations and uses its full weight in support of democratic forces in Belarus, as it did in due course in Ukraine. Freezing the foreign accounts of Belarus’ leaders and their allies would be an important step. The United States and EU will also need to warn the regime of the consequences of electoral fraud or violent repression.

Conclusion

The situation in Belarus for those seeking a peaceful, democratic transition there poses a different and arguably greater set of challenges from those found in Ukraine or Georgia. Directly transferring to Belarus the strategies that worked in those countries would likely be ineffective (thereby disproving the conspiracy theorists who believe that "people power" can be externally inspired according to some formula). But almost every case of democratic transition seems impossible until it happens, and then it is regarded as inevitable. The question is whether the Belarusan opposition can develop a strategy that uses independent communications to mobilize public readiness to act and that spurs doubt about the regime’s sustainability among its own forces—and whether the international community will step forward to punish the regime for repression and aid the nonviolent democratic opposition.

 

 

This USIPeace Briefing was written by Andrew Murrell, a contractor at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Institute, which does not advocate specific policies. For additional information about the Iraq program or other Institute activities, please contact the Office of Public Affairs and Communications at publicaffairs@usip.org or (202) 429-3832.

 

The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide. The Institute does this by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in peacebuilding efforts around the globe.

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