The Belarusian election: Who best learnt from the Orange Revolution?

Unlike the Orange Revolutionaries, the Belarusian opposition lacked the extra crowds who would mobilize for their right to mobilize. The Lukashenko regime, on the other hand, made effective use of “political technology” alongside “administrative technology” to ensure election victory. But though Lukashenko may have won another victory, he hasn’t succeeded in abolishing politics, writes Andrew Wilson.

Who has best learnt the lessons of the recent spate of “coloured revolutions” in the former Soviet space – Belarus’s would-be “denim revolutionaries” or Lukashenko’s counter-revolutionary technologists? It is difficult to give a scorecard from the popular vote in 2006. In the absence of a reliable parallel count or independent exit poll, it seems impossible to judge whether either side has really done better than in 2001. Officially, the three opposition candidates won 11.8 per cent, less than two candidates’ 17.1 per cent in 2001. IISEPS’s (Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies) poll in 2001 gave Hancharyk 32 per cent, Milinkevich’s team in 2006 estimate between 25 and 30 per cent.

Some preliminary comment can be made about tactics and strategic context, however. First, authoritarian leaders can deliver public goods. Whether dependent on Russian subsidy or not, the Belarusian economy has grown impressively between 2001 and 2006. Many voters clearly also value Lukashenko’s version of law and order and his promise of a “quiet, comfortable home”. The Ukrainian regime in 2004 had suffered years of scandal; Lukashenko still has a solid base of support. Yanukovych stole a victory; Lukashenko seems merely to have exaggerated his.

It was therefore always going to be difficult for the Belarusian opposition to replicate the tactics of “strategic non-violence” borrowed from Gene Sharp et al. They got many things right: especially avoiding the kind of violent protest or direct action that would have given the authorities the excuse they were looking for to crack down. That is, crack down earlier. The opposition also schooled their supporters well in how to spot and avoid agents provocateurs. Gene Sharp advocates identifying and engaging the weak points that any regime will have. It is not money, he argues, but a change in mindset that is crucial to bringing about change. Moral confidence is an opposition’s most important asset, especially in encouraging the thousands of foot soldiers, who support any establishment, to defect. But in Belarus it was never clear that the regime lacked confidence. The sense of moral outrage at Lukashenko’s suppression of democracy was confined to opposition circles. The Orange Revolution succeeded because it brought hundreds of thousands of ordinary people on to the streets. The Belarusian opposition lacked an obvious hinterland of support – the extra crowds who would add their weight to demonstrations not just because they backed Milinkevich or opposed Lukashenko’s version of the national idea, but who would mobilize for their right to mobilize, who would protect the general principle of a free and fair vote. According to a Democratic Initiatives poll in 2005, only 30 per cent of Ukrainian protestors took to the streets a year earlier to support Yushchenko’s candidacy; 59 per cent were protesting against election fraud.

Strategic non-violence, in other words, assumes a regime can be pressured at its weak points. Lukashenko’s regime doesn’t have many. At least not yet – these may develop over time. Arguably, the immediate post-election period was always going to be more important than the election itself. Lukashenko may want to return to “normal”. The opposition must continue the progress it has made, and Western, particularly European, support must be more decisive than during the campaign itself. The EU must develop a policy of firm but constructive engagement. At the moment, it is barely engaged at all.

Lukashenko’s regime seems to have better absorbed the lessons of the Orange Revolution. The authorities prevented any meaningful parallel count or exit poll that might have served to set off an “electoral revolution”. It may have been obvious to many that Lukashenko’s vote was padded, but the opposition was not able to show with any convincing proof that he had won less than 50 per cent. Lukashenko maintained regime unity and the loyalty of the security services. They in turn kept protest numbers to a minimum by simple practical measures like cancelling trains to Minsk, and by maintaining a climate of fear. The Ukrainian protestors soon lost their fear of a clampdown and went on the offensive. The Belarusian authorities made sure the threat was palpable and real. On the other hand, they avoided the kind of heavy-handed action that could have given the protests extra stimulus. They arrested people leaving the square, so they could be picked off in small groups. They prevented practical supplies (food, blankets) from being brought in large enough amounts to support the protests. And they made sure the election was held in cold March weather rather than the summer.

It is somewhat surprising that the opposition did not ensure permanent occupation of their site. Had the demonstration been a sufficient threat, they gifted the authorities sufficient opportunities to recapture the ground. The authorities also prevented any snowball effect by isolating the protest with a domestic media blackout. The presence of international media was also kept to a minimum.

Finally, the regime hedged its bets by also using “political technology” in alliance with its “administrative technology”. Siarhei Haidukevich was again used to fake the politics of protest and split the opposition vote. Questions might also be asked about Aliaksandr Kozulin – in particular whether he is designed to become a “controlled opposition” in replace of a real one.

Russia of course played a decisive role, once Putin had signalled his support for Lukashenko in December. In 2001, however, similar support was predicated on Lukashenko’s promise to open doors for Russian business, which wasn’t kept. It seems reasonable to assume that the Kremlin will have obtained a firmer deal this time – so the fate of Beltransgas will be indicative. In this and other respects, Lukashenko may have won another (less) “elegant victory”, but he has not succeeded in abolishing politics. There are plenty of interesting pointers ahead.

Published 19 April 2006
Original in English
First published by Arche 4/2006

Contributed by Arche © Andrew Wilson/Arche Eurozine


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