Recent weeks have seen a massive outpouring of peaceful public protest in Belarus after an election widely believed to be fraudulent. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets to demand that longtime authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka step down and another democratic election be held.
The demonstrations are the largest in the country’s history. Their size and scope have led some to speculate that Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994, may be on his last legs. Others point to the regime’s long-standing resilience in the face of opposition challenges and close political and economic dependence on Russia as factors suggesting that Lukashenka’s regime may weather this test and continue in power.
Regional dynamics and Belarus’ recent history suggest a democratic transition still faces challenges. Eastern Europe has seen significant democratic backsliding in recent years, a trend that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And international observers for years have documented serious deficiencies in elections under Lukashenko. His regime has weathered similar protests in the past, including sizable ones in 2006.
But research on nonviolent resistance suggests that this time there may be reasons for optimism. While experience elsewhere does not guarantee success in Belarus, the opposition’s tactics and approaches may provide it some strategic advantages in the coming weeks.
Fuel from Fraud
The motivating grievance for the current protests is Lukashenka’s claim of a landslide victory (over 80% of the vote) in the August 9 presidential election, which was quickly condemned as fraudulent by much of the international community, including Germany and the European Union. Such one-sided electoral victories are by no means unusual in Belarus. Lukashenka has consistently claimed to have won elections with similarly implausible margins. But his latest claim of victory was unusually audacious.
Abnormally blatant election fraud, even in countries where such fraud is routine, has been shown to be a powerful mobilizing force for nonviolent protest. Election fraud provides a clear focal point to unify many different grievances against the regime into a single movement. This dynamic helped fuel movements that successfully initiated political transitions in Serbia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. This unity of purpose, in turn, can help generate the numbers of participants in protests necessary to bring to bear pressure for change.
Women Joining the Fight
One of the most striking features of the protests in Belarus is the prominent participation and courageous leadership of women. Opposition leaders Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Veranika Tsepkalo, and Maria Kalesnikava spearheaded the campaign against Lukashenka in the lead-up to the election after male opposition leaders were arrested or barred from running. Tsikhanouskaya in particular, stepping in for her jailed husband, has become a powerful rallying symbol for the protest movement in the aftermath of the election, even as she fled the country in response to threats from the government toward her and her family.
Women are on the frontlines of the protests as well, dressed in white, waving the white and red flag of the 1918 Belarusian Republic, and carrying flowers. The regime has responded with gender-based violence, for instance, through targeting women activists with threats of sexual assault. Yet this violence appears to have sparked even greater backlash against the regime, further fueling the protest movement.
Women’s participation and leadership are crucial factors for success in nonviolent resistance campaigns. Research on the participation of women in nonviolent resistance has found that campaigns with high levels of women’s frontline participation are less likely to break down into violence, more likely to lead to loyalty shifts among security forces, and ultimately more apt to succeed in achieving their goals. Movements with women’s prominent involvement are also more likely to lead to long-term sustainable peace.
Prominent examples, such as the “People Power” revolution in the Philippines, where a female opposition leader, Corazon Aquino, spearheaded a movement that ousted long-time dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and nuns on the frontlines of protests holding up images of the Virgin Mary successfully faced down tanks, Such nonviolent resistance prevented a brutal crackdown on the movement and spoke to the power of women’s participation in nonviolent resistance to lead to change.
Defection and the State
One key difference between the current movement in Belarus and past protests against the Lukashenka regime is the increasing chorus of opposition coming from the core of Lukashenka’s political base. Workers at state-owned factories—a critical pillar of support for Lukashenka—have gone on strike, publicly booed him and shouted at Lukashenka to step down.
While security forces as a whole appear to be remaining loyal thus far, there are increasing reports of defections to the opposition. Images of a police officer handing flowers to protesters have spread widely, as have videos of former members of the military throwing away their uniforms in disgust at the violent crackdown on the protests. A police officer’s resignation post on Instagram received 400,000 “likes.”
One of the key avenues for the success of nonviolent resistance movements elsewhere has been through shifting loyalty and sparking defections among the regime’s key supporters. Security force defections in particular make nonviolent campaigns 46 times more likely to succeed than campaigns where defections do not occur.
The individual defections in Belarus thus far are an encouraging sign for the prospects for the opposition movement. They may help spark broader loyalty shifts by signaling to current regime supporters that dissent is more widespread than they initially assumed. Such a development could prompt a defection cascade. But it is too early to determine whether these more widespread defections will occur. Strikes at some of Belarus’s plants are beginning to sputter and the security apparatus remains closely tied to the regime.
Predicting the outcome of any movement is risky. The success rate of nonviolent resistance movements has been declining in recent years. The decentralized, leaderless nature of the protests, facilitated in Belarus by digital apps such as the encrypted messaging platform Telegram, has made them more difficult to repress. But decentralized, digitally based movements frequently struggle to evolve from disrupting the status quo to achieving real political changes.
Russia also remains a significant factor. The Kremlin has long been deeply opposed to political transitions and instability in its neighborhood. Yet its willingness to tolerate change has been directly tied to the perceived Western orientation of the protest movement. The Russian government condemned the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine and engaged in a military intervention in Eastern Ukraine in response to it, in part because the Ukrainian protests were motivated by a desire for greater Western integration, among other things. In contrast, Russia remained neutral in the 2018 Armenian Velvet Revolution, in which the opposition was clear from the beginning that their goals were purely domestic and that they sought to maintain their country’s close relationship with Russia.
Thus far, the Kremlin has not intervened forcefully in Belarus, but it remains to be seen what action they will ultimately take. The Belarus opposition is widely believed to be more anti-Lukashenka than anti-Russia, and opposition leaders have been careful to describe their struggle in purely domestic terms. Yet the Kremlin is unlikely to tolerate a democratic, Western-oriented Belarus on its borders.
After meeting with Tsikhanouskaya in Lithuania on August 24, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said the United States had no indication of any planned Russian military intervention in Belarus, and urged Minsk to accept mediation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. After a meeting with Biegun in Moscow the next day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed Lukashenka's warnings of foreign intervention and claimed that forces in Poland and Lithuania are trying to provoke violent clashes in Belarus.
Despite these factors, the resilience of the protests to repression, the near-total nonviolent discipline of the protesters, and the strategic focus on the long-term speak to the movement’s potential to bring about change. While there are no guarantees of success, there is cause for hope. At a minimum, Belarusians have gained a new-found sense of dignity and belief in the power of nonviolent collective action.
Anushka Bose is a visiting research assistant for the program on nonviolent action at the U.S. Institute of Peace.