Return of the Denim Revolution
Have no illusions in the western-backed Belarus opposition, warns Eddie Ford
Over the past few months, there have been massive protests against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko - referred to as the “last dictator” of Europe. Many thousands have been arrested and detained, and often brutally treated. Though opposition to Lukashenko remains fierce, the protests appear to be dwindling a bit.
What kicked off the protests was the election authorities crediting Lukashenko with 80% of the vote in the August 9 presidential elections, which uses a two-round electoral system like France. This gives him a sixth term in office, making him the continent’s longest-serving president - he first took office in 1994 amidst the chaos caused by the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
It need hardly be said that the result is highly implausible. If anything, it was probably the other way round. Indeed, the opposition leader, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya - now holed up in Lithuania - says she had won 60%-70% of the vote, based on results that had been “properly counted”. Frankly, if Lukashenko had really won with 80% and the opposition put 100,000 people on the streets he would not need to beat down the protestors in the way he is doing, with such a high level of support in the country as a whole. But in reality Lukashenko is deeply unpopular - there was almost certainly ballot-rigging on a huge, systematic scale.
The demonstrations have seen extremely large numbers of riot police facing off against lines of protestors carrying balloons, flowers and 1918 version red-and-white national flags. Demonstrators have laid down on the road to hold back the riot police, chanting “Disgrace!” and “Go away!” Others mocked Lukashenko on his 66th birthday, carrying a puppet and chanting, “Happy birthday, you rat!” There have been repeated sightings of armoured personnel carriers in Minsk, although they have not been deployed against the crowds of protestors ... yet.
Inevitably, the European Union, the UK, Canada, etc have refused to accept the result of the election. The EU has imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials deemed to be responsible for “violence, repression and election fraud”. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, issued a press statement saying that the US administration was “deeply concerned” over the conduct of the election - whilst the president himself has said that a “terrible situation” was unfolding in Belarus. At the beginning of the week, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia announced travel sanctions on 30 Belarusian officials, with Lukashenko topping the blacklist. The three Baltic states are now urging the west to take “firmer measures” against the Belarusian authorities.
Meanwhile, rather optimistically, Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign team have created a 600-strong Coordination Council to facilitate a “transfer of power” - the suggestion being that she could become “national leader” in a transitional government that would hold power until new elections can be held, having already appealed to the ‘international community’ to recognise her as the winner. Membership of the CC, or transitional council, is open to any Belarusian citizen who recognises that the presidential election was falsified and is “trusted” by virtue of being an “authoritative figure”, such as a doctor, teacher, business leader, author or sportsperson - a novel way of approaching things. Interestingly, CC presidium member Pavel Latushko has stated that the opposition does not want to radically change the course of Belarusian foreign policy - “friendly and profound” relations with Russia need to be maintained, as well a “good working relationship” with the EU in order to act as a “bridge” between the east and west. However, Lukashenko was far from impressed: his prosecutors opening a criminal case over the formation of the CC and called its leaders in for questioning.
Obviously becoming something of a rising star in the west, Tsikhanouskaya will address the United Nations security council on September 4 via a video link at the invitation of Estonia - though at this stage it is not clear whether Russia will try to stop her speaking. She will then address the Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe next week. Previously she told the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee that government intimidation would not stop the protests - “We will not relent” and “demand all political prisoners be free”.
The opposition is now waiting nervously for the response of ‘great’ Russia, as it is certainly the case that Vladimir Putin would dearly like to bring the ‘white Russians’ back to the fold of a united motherland - both peoples having a very similar language, culture and history. Russia and Belarus are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, made up of a number of post-Soviet countries, and formed a union in 1996 that promoted greater integration, as well as guaranteeing citizens the right to work and reside freely in both countries - almost sounds like the EU’s single market.
Putin said in an interview last week that he had put together a “special police reserve” ready to intervene in Belarus at very short notice if the situation “gets out of control” - he is “obliged” to do so under the two countries’ security treaty apparently. But, he remarked, that point “had not yet been reached”, because “on the whole the situation now is levelling out”. Hypothetically, he added, the tipping point would be when “extremist elements using political slogans as cover cross a certain boundary and start armed robbery, setting fire to cars, houses, banks, try to seize government buildings and so forth”. The Russian president and Lukashenko are now in discussions about the refinancing of $1 billion of Belarusian debt to Russia - the Belarusian rouble having slid rapidly amid the political turmoil and uncertainty.
Maybe in a propaganda stunt, or an effort to intimidate the opposition, last week a Russian plane used to transport the leadership of the country’s FSB security service made a trip to Minsk for the second time in little more than a week – conveying the distinct message that Lukashenko has the full backing of the Kremlin. Towards the end of a large anti-government demonstration on August 23, Lukashenko was pictured dressed all in paramilitary-style black and carrying an assault rifle, as he flew over the protests in his helicopter. A man of action.
The Belarus president has stated that he was ready for dialogue with “labour collectives, student collectives and farmers”, but not with the leaders of the protests. According to the Belarusian state news agency, he described them as “rogues, who are committing outrages, roaming the streets and shouting that they want dialogue” - but “they don’t want any dialogue”. He declared that “no-one from the authorities is sitting down with street protestors”. Lukashenko has painted the protests against his rule as part of a “Nato plot” to carve up Belarus, accusing neighbouring countries of beginning a “hybrid war” against Belarus and darkly claiming that Poland has plans to take over a “chunk” of its territory, having put the military on full combat alert on the country’s western borders.
But, as the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. If they could somehow pull it off, the leading imperialist powers would love to do a Ukraine and prise Belarus away from the Russian orbit, whether by promoting internal protests or by various forms of economic warfare. Having said that, it is hard to imagine Vladimir Putin, or any Russian leader, allowing that to happen. Having Belarus as an ‘associate’ member of the EU or even Nato, for example, would feel like a direct threat to Russian state interests.
Just as with Ukraine and the Maidan protests, it is vitally important to have no illusions in the opposition - it is thoroughly pro-western and pro-liberal, exemplified by Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Her economic platform, such as it is, stresses the importance of increasing the role of small and medium-sized businesses. She plans to offer them interest-free loans, cancel state inspections of private entities and provide “legal protection for foreign investors”. She has also spoken about allowing “profitable” state-owned enterprises to continue to operate, while requiring the rest to obtain help from “outside professionals”. Naturally, her western friends will encourage her to go much further in that direction.
What this liberal economic agenda would mean for a country like Belarus would not be Swedish-style living standards and social security - that is for the birds. Rather, Belarus would be turned into a basket case. It would result in mass migration, mass closure of nationalised industries and a general decimation of the working class. Of course, that does not mean that communists stand with the Lukashenko regime - it is repressive and anti-democratic to the core. The working class should be organised to overthrow it. It is just that communists recognise the real nature of the opposition as currently constituted.
The protest against the outcome of the March 19 election began as soon as polls closed, with more than 10,000 people gathering in the capital. There were smaller gatherings for the next few days, then an upsurge on March 25, when approximately 45,000 protestors in Minsk confronted state forces - until the riot police eventually dispersed them. More than 100 people were arrested, including Alexander Kozulin, a former government minister and a candidate against Lukashenko. He was badly beaten and sentenced to five-and-a-half years imprisonment for “hooliganism” and “incitement to mass disorder”.
What we have in Belarus right now is essentially a classic western-backed colour revolution - the return of the failed Denim Revolution which followed the 2006 Belarusian presidential election - jeans being an obvious symbol of western culture. The success or failure this time seems to hinge on the loyalty of the army - if it splits, Lukashenko will probably go. Then there is the Russian option. But Lukashenko should be careful what he wishes for, as military intervention by the Kremlin could lead to a whole host of unintended consequences.