Belarus’s opposition is growing stronger

As the war in Ukraine rages on, the stability of neighbouring Belarus, which has been backing the Russian invasion, appears to be fracturing. Has Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression opened a Pandora’s box for a regime that is practically a remote wing of the Kremlin?

Recall that in Belarus’s last presidential election, in August 2020, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya almost certainly defeated the incumbent, Aleksander Lukashenko, whose minions had dismissed his opponent as a ‘housewife’. When an upswell of support made it obvious that Tikhanovskaya was heading for victory, Lukashenko falsified the results, awarding himself more than 80% of the vote—and inciting huge protests that lasted for months.

Lukashenko’s regime responded to the post-election demonstrations with terror and mass arrests, which led to even larger protests. Within days of the election, his grip had begun to weaken, with workers, public media, doctors, students, pensioners and many others coming out publicly against the security services. The entire country went on strike, but Lukashenko, in power since 1994, held on by the skin of his teeth, owing to brutal interventions by loyal special forces, who were already drenched in innocent blood and therefore completely dependent on him. (Ultimately, Lukashenko chose not to test the army’s loyalty.)

Nonetheless, it has since been clear that Belarusians will not return to the passivity that they exhibited before August 2020. ‘We have all changed, and forever,’ says the opposition leader Masha Kalesnikova, who has not lost faith despite having been in prison for the past 23 months. Because Lukashenko’s regime had offered hardly any state assistance or media coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic in the months before the election, Belarusians had already switched en masse to independent media, which they still read and watch today, despite the threat of imprisonment.

Like Ukraine, Belarus is culturally alien to Russia. That’s why Belarusians were able to stun the world with their sustained protests and demands for democracy in 2020, despite Belarusian society having been subjected to Sovietisation and centuries of Russification. Belarusians acted as if they lived in a modern, democratic, liberal society, because that is what many Belarusians consider themselves to be (though older cohorts are still heavily influenced by Russia and Lukashenko himself).

To keep this broad-based opposition movement at bay, Lukashenko must rely on constant draconian repression. More than 1,000 political prisoners have been given decade-plus prison sentences, and 1,500 others have been jailed for protesting against the war in Ukraine, including by sabotaging railroads to impede the Russian army. Others have received on-the-spot unofficial punishments such as rifle shots to the knee.

For example, as she was led from a courtroom recently, the 28-year-old Belsat TV reporter Kaciaryna Andreyeva remarked to her husband, ‘I got a longer sentence than Solzhenitsyn.’ Whereas the famous Russian dissident was sentenced to eight years by the Soviets, Andreyeva was sentenced to eight years and three months.

Comparing Belarusians to Ukrainians and expecting the same type of resistance is unfair. Belarusians don’t have opposition members in parliament or in local governments like Ukrainians had before the invasion. Poles also protested peacefully against the imposition of martial law in December 1981, because it was the only way they could make their voices heard. And while the 10-million-strong Solidarity trade union was diminished after 16 months of operation, the myth survived. A million people may have left Poland, but the rest stayed and didn’t forget how to take to the streets.

Poland’s experience offers a preview of what could lie ahead for Belarus. Poles got their chance at independence in 1989 because they took advantage of a brief moment of uncertainty in the Kremlin. Likewise, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, Ukraine seized the moment and gained sovereignty (though Russia has threatened that sovereignty ever since).

Russia’s failing war in Ukraine could soon offer a similar opportunity to Belarus. Since 2020, Belarusian society has articulated its values, learned the art of long-term resistance and created a free media based abroad. And now, for perhaps the first time ever, Belarusian dissidents are getting their hands on weapons and joining the fight against Putin in Ukraine, where they are becoming renowned for their courage and battlefield successes. (It’s worth remembering that in 2014, Ukraine also had mostly volunteer battalions.)

On the second anniversary of the protests, all political forces came to an agreement and a Belarusian government-in-exile was formed, headed by Tikhanovskaya. It includes her office operating in Vilnius; the National Anti-Crisis Management, headed by Pavel Latushka; the Warsaw-based BYPOL initiative of former members of the uniformed services; the Opposition Initiative, which includes the Cyber Partisans; and the Pahonia regiment fighting in Ukraine. The Coordination Council, created during the protests two years ago and featuring Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexeyevich, is being transformed into a substitute for parliament.

A marked change is that the government-in-exile already has its own armed branch, for which more than 200,000 Belarusians have registered, ready to rise up against Lukashenko at the first opportunity—including by force. Until recently, Belarusian soldiers and government officials had no alternatives. But now they have a choice between the illegitimate government in Minsk and the legitimate one elected by a majority vote in 2020, headed by Tikhanovskaya. That choice will be made when the opportunity arises, which could be when Russia’s humiliation in Ukraine engulfs the Kremlin in chaos.