Protest and Dialogue: What is Belarus’ Future?

Lack of mutual trust, international mediation, and a controversial compromise with the security forces

On October 20th, 2020, the weekly analytical monitoring Belarus in Focus in partnership with Press Club Belarus, the Belarusian expert community “Nashe mnenie” and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) held an international Expert-Analytical Club meeting to discuss the prospects for a national dialogue in Belarus and relevant international experience.

Guest speakers:

Andrei Kazakevich, political scientist, director of the "Political Sphere" Institute (Belarus)

Edgar Vardanyan,political scientist, chief editor and analyst at Detector.am (Armenia)

Dmitry Gromakov,sociologist, head of research projects at the Center for Social Engineering "Implementation and Analysis of Non-Systemic Actions" (Ukraine)

Kamil Klysinski, senior fellow at the Center for Eastern Studies (Poland)

Experts and analysts from various think-tanks, international journalists, foreign ministry officials, civic activists and other specialists following recent developments in Belarus participated in the discussion, including Philip Bikanov (SATIO, Belarus), Yuri Drakokhrust (Radio Svaboda, Belaurs), Andrei Laurukhin (professor at HSE, Russia) and others.

The discussion was moderated by Valeria Kostyugova, editor at “Nashe Mnenie” and “Belarusian Yearbook”, leading analysts and head of analytical group at ‘Belarus in Focus’ weekly; Vadim Mojeiko, PhD in Cultural Studies, BISS analyst and Anton Ruliou, MA in International Relations, programme coordinator at Belarus in Focus and Press Club Belarus.

Discussion highlights

  •  The actions of the security forces become ineffective when the authorities understand that they no longer control the situation, that citizens do not obey, and the authorities are unable to govern the country.” (Edgar Vardanyan)
  •  “[The parties to the confrontation] have no [mutual] trust and lack respect [for each other]: from one side, we hear “Lukashenka to the police van,” and on the other, that “bandits are on the street” (Kamil Klysinski)
  •  It is difficult to trust Lukashenka. He has repeatedly failed [to implement] agreements even with those who are stronger than him, both, the EU and Russia” (Andrei Kazakevich)
  •  Tiananmen is not happening not because the authorities feel sorry for the people or they do not have enough tanks, but because there is an understanding that it will make things worse” (Vadim Mojeiko)
  •  Lukashenka is fighting for power, and [the people on] the street are fighting for democracy” (Dmitry Gromakov)

What is missing for dialogue in Belarus?

Andrei Kazakevich has noted that whilst all external actors (including Russia, the EU, and even Japan) spoke about the need for dialogue, there has been no movement in this direction for two months, let alone progress. Apparently, Lukashenka does not understand how such a dialogue can be organized. The “round table in the KGB detention center” was hardly a dialogue, rather a first contact. The opposition could be invited to participate in the All-Belarusian People`s Assembly, however this is unlikely to happen, except for some individuals, like Voskresensky.

Dmitry Gromakov believes that the key issue is the lack of trust among all parties and their unwillingness to recognize each other’s status. Lukashenka is not ready to recognize the significance of his opponents, and they in turn do not recognize Lukashenka`s legitimacy in representing public officials and those who voted for him. Kamil Klysinski agrees: “[The parties to the confrontation] have no [mutual] trust and lack respect [for each other]: from one side, we hear “Lukashenka to the police van,” and on the other, that “bandits are on the street”. Andrei Kazakevich is not surprised by this: “It is difficult to trust Lukashenka. He has repeatedly failed [to implement] agreements even with those who are stronger than him, both, the EU and Russia”.

An important element of dialogue is mediation. As Dmitry Gromakov has noted, “Lukashenka cannot start a dialogue with the candidates for his position.” In addition, someone must guarantee the implementation of any agreements. According to Andrei Kazakevich, in other countries such institutions could be churches, courts or public organizations, but Belarus lacks autonomous, politically neutral institutions of this kind, which possess the mechanisms necessary for the implementation of agreements. Therefore, the only option is international mediation by influential and consistent actors.

According to Kazakevich, the OSCE could act as a broker for facilitating negotiations, but it would be not be suitable as a mediator: "the organization is too weak to enforce anything." He believes, states would be a better option: some EU member states (Germany, France) and Russia are already involved in the Belarusian affairs. Other European states are either less interested (like Italy), or already in tense relations with Minsk (like Poland and Lithuania). The United States would be out of the question since Russia would not acquiesce to this.

Kamil Klysinski believes that Lukashenka would not accept any Western state or an international organization as mediator (at least for now). In his view, Russia would be more acceptable, but she seems to have little interest in this. According to Kamil, politicians no longer come from Moscow to Minsk to negotiate, as they did in 1996. Russia is waiting for constitutional reforms to weaken Lukashenka`s position leading to a redistribution of power, but only in respect of one person, not the entire system.

Andrei Kazakevich disagrees, saying that mediation is the only plausible mechanism for achieving a compromise between the parties, including Russia. The need for dialogue will only increase as the political and economic turmoil deepens and pressure mounts on society and the public sector. Such dialogue will be impossible without mediation. "Whether Russia or the EU, Lukashenka or the opposition want it or not, dialogue is simply the only workable format." Excepting a solution imposed by force of course.

Forceful solution vs agreement with the security forces

According to Kamil Klysinski, developments in Belarus are following a negative trajectory characterised by confrontation and brutal repression. It remains to be seen whether the narrative about “bandits” is mere psychological pressure or preparation for something more serious. In response, there may be a surge of hatred in society, causing events to spiral out of control. However Vadim Mojeiko believes that “a forceful solution amounts to Tiananmen and this is not happening not because the authorities feel sorry for the people or they do not have enough tanks, but because they understand that it would make things worse. What the authorities do not yet understand is that without dialogue things will get worse anyway."

Kamil Klysinski suggests a more positive scenario: everyone is waiting for Lukashenka`s constitutional proposals and the popular reaction, which is unlikely to be positive. Hence, a compromise could be sought between Russia, the Belarusian nomenklatura, and the people on the street. The latter is a complicated task since it is not clear with whom to negotiate. Philip Bikanov highlights the tragic state of affairs whereby, thanks to the actions of the authorities, anyone who could speak on behalf of the people is in prison, in exile or largely unknown (e.g. Maxim Bogretsov). Any compromise involving those released from prison will be suspect: should they be released as part of a deal with the security forces along the lines that “we will not persecute you harshly,” society is likely to reject them as they do Voskresensky, presuming that they were brainwashed in prison.

Kamil Klysinski notes that the issue of security forces is generally the most problematic in the transition from authoritarian to a democratic rule. To avoid bloodbaths, and ensure a peaceful transition, security personnel must know that they will not be persecuted en masse and in Belarus, they do not yet have such confidence. Tsikhanouskaya`s words alone are not enough. Edgar Vardanyan has noted that the transition in Armenia was low key with only a few criminal cases initiated against former leaders. Many still enjoy freedom and the process is sluggish: "The authorities were allowed to leave peacefully." Likewise, the success of the transition in Poland was largely based on the fact that the parties managed to come to an agreement with the security forces once the head of the Interior Ministry realized that he was not in danger and would even have a seat in the new government. The dark side of that decision is that this approach is still harshly criticized in Polish politics.

Dialogue vs civic resistance

The path taken by successful democratic transitions varies greatly. Kamil Klysinski recalled that in Poland "both sides understood that everything had come to an end, we hit the wall." After martial law, Solidarity has lost its cohesion of the early 1980s and understood it was unable to cope with a tough confrontation. The authorities also came to a similar conclusion, and so a long process culminating in a three-month dialogue was initiated.

Ukraine has tried both options. Dmitry Gromakov believes that it was thanks to internationally mediated dialogue in 2004 that Ukraine managed to largely avoid bloodshed. However, despite the precedent of 2004, a decade later a forceful confrontation took place anyway.

Edgar Vardanyan points to the “success of civic resistance” in Armenia, a series of continuous actions using all possible instruments of non-violent struggle. The opposition focussed on one issue, in tune with the demands of Belarusians: “how the change of regime will be carried out: terms and mechanisms.” However, attempts to organize a dialogue with such an agenda failed despite the live broadcast meeting between Pashinyan and Sargsyan at the peak of the resistance campaign. Pashinyan and Sargsyan exchanged a few words and Sargsyan left, saying that ultimatums were unacceptable in dialogue. Pashinyan simply put his backpack on his chair and held a press conference, saying that since the authorities were not ready for dialogue, this was their defeat, and that they would go to the end.

Edgar Vardanyan believes that protests are important, especially in the initial stages, but protests alone cannot achieve meaningful results. The acts of civil disobedience and various forms of horizontal non-violent pressure, which facilitated changes in Armenia, differed from protests. “The actions of the security forces become ineffective when the authorities understand that they no longer control the situation, that citizens do not obey, and the authorities are unable to govern the country.”

"If dialogue occurs, it means the street has won"

Perhaps dialogue in Belarus has not yet begun because the timing is not right. As Andrei Lavrukhin put it, “the protestors have not yet acquired the bargaining power which would enable acceptance by Lukashenka as a party to negotiations.”

Edgar Vardanyan agrees: “If dialogue occurs, it means the street has won.” Have protests already won in Belarus? In his opinion, dialogue is the final stage of a large-scale resistance movement. That is, either the authorities themselves engage in dialogue, realizing that they are losing control, or the authorities play for time until resignation becomes the only option and dialogue takes place to discuss the technical details of the transition (who is leads the country tomorrow and when to hold elections).

When dialogue begins, it is important to focus on the core issues. Dmitry Gromakov emphasizes the key difference between the opposing sides: "Lukashenko is fighting for power, and [the people on] the street are fighting for democracy." Edgar Vardanyan adds that “It is important not to forget what all this is for. Regime change is only a stage, the final goal of civil resistance is to establish democracy."

Full video of the discussion:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-9Z_qkKgVk&t=5880s

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