Frozen Systemic Crisis: Occupation regime and resilience of civil society

Gennady Korshunov

Summary

The year 2020 was a period of protest and a horizontal revolution in Belarus, while the year 2021 can be described as a period of repression and counterrevolution on the part of the powers that be. Two competitive social media – the pro-regime and protest-democratic – emerged in the confrontational environment. In an attempt to suppress their opponents, the Belarusian authorities actually created a situation, which can be defined as “internal occupation”.

The government did not manage to reverse the course of events, since Belarusian society, which included the national diaspora that grew stronger manifold, had enough resources and competences for successful counteraction to the regime, and for its own development. After the last year’s “freeze”, this distinctly manifested itself after the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Trends:
Normalization of the crisis and two Belaruses

The confrontation between Belarusian society and the Lukashenko regime, which erupted during the mass protests in 2020, remained unresolved in 2021. No matter what actions were taken by the parties, neither of them managed to achieve a decisive advantage over their opponent.

On the one hand, the plans and projects announced by the democratic camp (the return of protests to the streets in spring, forcing the authorities to negotiate, a new election, etc.) were not implemented, and, consequently, did not make a critical impact on the government. On the other hand, the authorities’ efforts to destroy independent media outlets, civil society organizations and networking self-organization activists failed to subdue society and turn the page on the past.

A new status quo was established, as the old social contract was no longer observed, state repression intensified, and social activism went subversive. The previously spontaneous confrontation became systemic. In other words, the crisis, which began in 2020, entered a new phase, got routinized, and turned into a new normality.

The authorities systematized their actions, which resulted in both the legal and institutional shaping of repressive and violent practices applied in 2020, and in their upscaling, which led to an almost total suppression of any manifestations of social activity, which the regime was unable to control.

In turn, Belarusian society grew significantly after the 2020 events. The huge upswing of solidarity and mutual assistance, expansion of the horizontal ties, and the feeling of national unity enabled Belarusian diasporas outside the country to feel full-fledged members of Belarusian society, and to begin acting with as such. Although those devoted to protest lowered the degree of activism inside the country, society continued self-organization, looking for new forms of mutual support and opposition to the regime, and starting new institutions, which would either work in parallel or completely replace state institutions.

Public opinion surveys1 and expert polls2 show that Belarus was in a state of severe crisis. They demonstrated the prevailing distrust of state institutions and chronic anxiety and fear fueled by the authorities, security agencies and propagandists, particularly in Minsk, where the degree of protest has always been the highest.

Expert research makes it possible to estimate the actual strength of the parties to the confrontation. Although the regime managed to retain power, it was in an acute crisis, having no capacity to maintain its stability. Despite the constant repressions, society remains strong, mainly acting within the framework of horizontal sociality with the Belarusian diasporas in the avant-garde.

Normalization and stabilization of the crisis lead to an increasing divergence and mutual alienation of the authorities and society. Two opposite narratives and two competitive systems emerged. This phenomenon is described as the existence and opposition of two versions of Belarus3: vertical-authoritarian Soviet Belarus and horizontal-democratic people’s Belarus.

Internal occupation regime

The specificity of the transformation of state institutions and the presence of “two Belaruses”, reliance on the security bloc, massive repression, non-recognition of the results of the 2020 presidential election by society, and maintained position towards the de-legitimization of the Lukashenko Administration gives grounds to define the new format of the governments’ functioning as “internal occupation”, as both the Belarusian authorities and society basically interpret it.

This perception is based on the popular denial of Lukashenko as the winner in the 2020 presidential election and the proponent of the national sovereignty. The months of mass protests that followed clearly demonstrated the popular attitude to the regime for all key social and political actors. Little changed in this respect in 2021. The majority of Belarusians seemed to had adopted this point of view. The power vertical and the international community are likely to realize this as well.

The declared illegitimacy of the Lukashenko regime narrowed its instrumentality down to a few tools, the repressive machine apparently being one and the major of them. The authorities saw the escalation of repressions as a way to preserve itself.

The second important point is that after the events of 2020, the government and its security bloc began to perceive Belarusian society as hostile, disobedient and unbowed. It does not matter who, how, and why “the quietest field, the most obedient population”.4 changed. What does matter is that the people turned out to be an enemy. That is why the authorities set themselves the very simple task: the harshest pacification of the population, i. e. violent peace enforcement. This perception of society provokes the pseudo-violent rhetoric of the country’s top leadership5 and the occupation narrative6, and, consequently, the perception of those who disagree as the people who should be eliminated.

Such actions generate a natural public response: the perception of the authorities as an occupation administration. The people do not always make it explicit, but they can clearly see the scale of repressions against their families and neighbors, the rechanneling of finances from the vulnerable segments of the population to security agencies, and the absence of a social base of the incumbent government. Sociological surveys show that Belarusians believe that the regime has no social base, but only power (officials) and security forces protecting this power (the police, KGB and army). As a matter of fact, Lukashenko himself states that the military, including former servicemen, should be the pillars of his power.7

The denial of the regime’s right to be the national sovereignty guarantor, its reliance on violence, as well as society’s attempts to create an alternative to the state (in cooperation with the diasporas) have fixed the occupation status of the Belarusian authorities, and problematized the possibility of reaching a consensus between the government and society.

Society’s resilience

In 2021, the authorities spared no effort to deprive society of any possibility to be a political actor. Virtually all independent mass media8 and non-governmental organizations9 were destroyed or pushed abroad. Organizations and activists were subjected to administrative and/or criminal prosecution at the local10, professional11, and national level12.

Despite the flurry of repressions that has not ceased to this day, society as a whole has retained its protest, anti-regime spirit, and developed practices of horizontal solidarity.

Based on sociological research data, it is possible to say that the protest capacity did decrease, but minimally. Between January and November, the direct support for protest13 (univocal or rather positive) only fell by 6% (from 39% to 33%), while the number of those who refuse to support it rose from 40% to 42%. Given the all-up segmentation in the monitoring measurements applied by Chatham House Belarus, the “protest core” only contracted by 4% (from 34% to 30%), while the “Lukashenko Bastion” grew by 2% (from 25% to 27%). Obviously, the changes are minimal, remaining basically in the sampling error zone.

It should be noted that the decline in protest sentiment, albeit insignificant, did not turn into a benefit for the loyalists. The main trend is rather marked by a slow and gradual increase in the share of the so-called “neutrals”, the part of society which got tired of political tension and/or is disappointed in the major political actors. It is well visible in the dynamics of such a critical element as trust in the state and independent institutions. The share of those undecided about the trust in state institutions increased by 8% on average, and those trusting non-state ones – by 10%. Another important point is the support for protest demands: the number of those undecided rose by an average of 8%.

The expansion of the “gray zone” is rather a situational process associated with economic problems, the lack of bright victories of the pro-democratic camp, and uncertainty over any prospects for the future sociopolitical situation. It is extremely unlikely that the society ‘neutralization’ trend is caused by real value transformations, the more so as the observed increase in the number of the ‘neutrals’ falls within the fear factor range (experts estimate it at 8-9%), i. e. the unwillingness to share true opinions on sensitive issues under the threat of persecution.14

The year 2021 has convincingly proved that the events of 2020 were not accidental. The Belarusian revolt was a natural result of civil society development, and it is impossible to return this society to its previous state. Repressions can only temporarily suppress external manifestations of horizontal sociality and protest activity, grassroots self-organization, and mutual support. However, whenever an opportunity or a new challenge arises, solidarization and individual proactive actions will reemerge.

The events of late February 2022 confirm this thesis. With the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war, after a brief shock, horizontal protest entities began to work again in Belarus, some in a secret, guerilla format (anti-war actions, sabotage, and information and communication support for Ukrainian troops), and some in a semi-legal mode (assistance to refugees from Ukraine, information, logistics, and resources). Belarusian political and social entities can only function openly outside the country, having an additional stimulus to action, relocated platforms of mutual assistance, Belarusian media, experts, activists of professional and neighborhood communities, which assist Belarusian and Ukrainian refugees.

Conclusion

The Russian-Ukrainian war is the main factor, on which the direction and pace of social dynamics in Belarus will depend. It is already not only the main topic in the Belarusian information space, but also the most important driver of the sociopolitical dynamics both inside and outside Belarus.

In case of Ukraine’s quick victory, it is possible to expect further (and rapid) expansion of horizontal ties and protest practices in Belarusian society. If the war continues for many months, the regime of the already double occupation of Belarus will also stay for a long time. However, in both cases, society’s resistance to the regime will remain, and it will not be possible to turn the page on the past.