Democratic Organizations: Relocation and online communication
In 2021, party-building was going on in an extremely adverse environment of escalating repression against almost all democratic organizations. Some of them had to conduct their activities from abroad, escaping criminal prosecution in Belarus. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s Office and the People’s Anti-Crisis Administration (PACA) headed by Pavel Latushko managed to establish effective interaction with their supporters inside the country with the help of independent media and their own communication channels. Center-right activists continued to cooperate with Tikhanovskaya’s headquarters (United Civic Party), the Coordination Council (Belarusian Christian Democracy) and PACA (For Freedom movement), expecting repression to stop one day, or a window of opportunity to open.
Viktor Babariko’s organizing committee named “Together” still could become the most popular party project. Alongside Andrei Dmitriyev’s Our Party, since the second half of the year, “Together” has been focusing on educational activities to consolidate sympathizers in the face of stiffening repression.
In 2021, Alexander Lukashenko relied on the tough suppression of dissidents, and gradually froze party system development, including all loyalist projects.
- Continued free coordination between democratic organizations within the broad coalition led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s Office and the People’s Anti-Crisis Administration;
- Switching of party projects into a sleeping mode in expectation of a window of opportunity or relaxation of repressions;
- Freezing of party system development by the authorities in the period of reaction, yet with a possibility of reinvigoration of political establishment’s projects amid the falling rating of Lukashenko.
It got much harder for democratic organizations to engage new members under the mass repressions and relocation of activists from Belarus. Although the authorities failed to depoliticize society, by the end of the year, they managed to take the streets under control, clear cities of any signs of protest, and consolidate loyalists around Lukashenko.
The democrats did not achieve a success under their joint mobilization plan for the spring of 2021, mainly because the active part of society had largely burnt out in the lengthy confrontation with the authorities. Nevertheless, local marches and subversive protests resumed. The spring strategy was initiated by a broad coalition of political organizations and democratic initiatives, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s Office, the Coordination Council, People’s Anti-Crisis Administration and Veronica Tsepkalo.
The latent politicization of society and its mobilization capacity remained, among other things, judging by the vote in support of the united democratic campaign for negotiations with Lukashenko. More than 780,000 people took part in the voting despite government’s countermeasures.1
Political organizations succeeded in keeping civil society’s demands on the agenda of relations with Europe and regarding their influence on the attitude of the Western capitals towards the Lukashenko regime. The organizations kept calling for sanctions and the international isolation of Belarus. The democrats initiated advocacy campaigns and exerted effective pressure on foreign companies. These efforts resulted in the refusal of a number of Western companies to place advertising in the Belarusian state media and to continue economic cooperation with state-run corporations.
At the same time, they could no longer engage activists in cooperation with civil society organizations. Most NGOs, including the Belarusian Popular Front Adradzhenne (“Revival”), For Freedom Movement and Tell the Truth Campaign, were officially liquidated in the second half of 2021.
Despite the declared intentions, the authorities did not amend the laws and regulations on political parties, and did not begin the promised re-registration of political parties.2 Lukashenko once again curbed the enthusiasm of state officials, who were eager to build a fully controlled party system. Early in the year, Belaya Rus (“White Russia”) Association announced its transformation into the Party of National Unity, while the registered democratic parties, tried to keep low profile, fearing liquidation, and avoided harsh statements.
Tough repressions coupled with the refusal of the authorities to enter into dialog and the state propaganda kept society polarized. The segmentation of the advocates of change increased, and the common agenda of civil society gradually eroded over the year.
In the first months of 2021, Olga Karach, head of Our Home organization, was among those who fell under severe criticism on the part of the democratic coalition. Our Home managed to establish effective channels of communication with supporters of change, but then the organization’s influence on the agenda declined, among other things, as a result of scandals.
The discussion about a revision of the dialog policy was resumed in the public space later that year. The voice of the critics of the sanctions approach (with Belarusian Popular Front head Zenon Poznyak in the lead) grew louder.
A part of political organizations, including activists of Viktor Babariko’s team and the organizing committee of Together party, showed their willingness to work out a compromise with Lukashenko, but he dismissed any possibility of dialog. The government only sought to force all strata of society to accept Lukashenko’s presidency as legitimate.
Nevertheless, the ultimatum rhetoric remained mainstream, being seconded by the coalition led by Tikhanovskaya’s Office and the People’s Anti-Crisis Administration. The influence of the democrats on the agenda declined, but was still considerable. Democratic organizations had to relocate their activists from Belarus and build their organizational infrastructure outside the country. Organizational development of parties inside Belarus was suspended due to severe repressions, arrests and criminal prosecution. Democratic organizations tried to retain support of their sympathizers through online media, live communication and other activities, having very small wiggle room in the adverse environment.
Coalition projects: Coordination Council, Gathering Platform and the left-wing alliance
Throughout the year, the democrats were trying to find common ground, especially regarding common values. The majority of democratic organizations in Belarus and émigré centers joined the Coordination Council’s memorandum in defense of the sovereignty and independence of Belarus.3 The Council, however, was giving up positions in shaping the agenda, but remained a broad platform of democratic organizations and initiatives with free coordination and a decentralized structure.
The informal alliance of Tikhanovskaya’s Office, the Coordination Council and People’s Anti-Crisis Administration were working on a joint strategy, including on the diaspora outreach, Eastern Partnership initiative, and the 2022 referendum on amendments to the Constitution. The broad democratic coalition cooperated with independent experts and civil society, building up its capacity for self-organization and communication with supporters inside the country.
Closer to the end of the year, the coalition initiated a campaign to mobilize those hungry for change during the referendum on the updated Constitution in 2022. Tikhanovskaya’s Office, the Anti-Crisis Administration led by Latushko, the Coordination Council and a number of socio-political organizations launched the initiative named “Cross Out Lawlessness, Cross out the Referendum”, trying to hear both those who spoke in favor of a boycott and those who were going to vote in the referendum.
According to independent sociologists of Chatham House, the coalition managed to mobilize a democratic core, but a significant part of sympathizers ignored the joint strategy.4 About 30% of oppositionists were critical of the coalition’s strategy, wanted a boycott of the referendum, and did not vote, which is typical of most electoral campaigns under the Lukashenko Administration.
Some parties, both already registered and those seeking to be registered, did not publicly support the coalition’s position on the referendum at first, fearing persecution, but later voiced some ideas that were close to the joint mobilization plan.
At the beginning of the year, some political organizations and new activists launched Skhod (“Gathering”) initiative with the help of IT specialists. It was supported by the Coordination Council out of spite of the official All-Belarusian People’s Assembly. The platform attempted to obtain a negotiating mandate and legitimacy from the grassroots, i. e. directly from voters. Assisted by Golos (“Voice”) initiative, Gathering organized online voting to nominate delegates.
New activists and civil society representatives, as well as nominees from the already structured opposition, including the Belarusian Popular Front, Belarusian Christian Democracy, Tell the Truth, and For Freedom, actively participated in Gathering. However, the latter failed to attract attention of the majority of the advocates of change in the face of growing repression. Only 151 delegates were elected for 328 seats, and the number of voters only totaled 90,000.
There was still hope for the registered parties to enter into negotiations with the Lukashenko Administration. In early 2021, the Belarusian Popular Front, Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), Green Party, United Civil Party, and Fair World Party continued consultations on the constitutional reform. The parties distanced themselves from the opinionated political organizations that were delivering ultimatums from outside Belarus.
Shortly before the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, the left-wing coalition of the BSDP (Hramada), the Greens and Fair World held the forum “For Equality and Social Justice” with the participation of the Free Trade Union of Metalworkers. The delegates discussed an updated civil society agenda to begin negotiations with the authorities, proposing a phased plan to de-escalate the social confrontation and transform the regime. Their demands included:
- the release of political prisoners and discontinuance of repression,
- a new election mediated by the OSCE,
- and constitutional reform.5
This was unacceptable to the government, which continued imposing its own agenda through repression.
Democratic organizations expectably did not participate in the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly. Former presidential candidate Anna Kanopatskaya did, being among the few notable figures. The absence of representatives of political parties was also associated with the common position of the democrats, who were critical of the goals and organizational procedures of the Assembly.
In spring, the Belarusian Popular Front, Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) and the Greens tried to resume contacts and interaction with the authorities, and applied for permission to hold annual events timed to the Freedom Day and the Chernobyl march. The authorities demonstratively refused to engage in dialogue with the parties, which had reconsidered their ultimative demands. Applicants for the traditional opposition actions were sentenced to administrative arrests.
By the middle of the year, the left-wing coalition of Hramada, the Greens and Fair World suspended their development due to the deteriorating political situation. The parties were even unable to rent premises for a joint event, as the authorities forbade the landlords to cooperate with the applicants.
Fearing reprisals, members of the Right of Choice party alliance refused to jointly observe the February 2022 referendum. Over the years, the Right of Choice observation had been an example of successful cooperation between the United Civil Party, Belarusian Popular Front, Hramada, the Greens, Belarusian Christian Democracy, Party of Freedom and Justice, and Radio-Electronic Industry Trade Union.
Renewal of the party field: Viktor Babariko’s “Together” and Andrei Dmitriyev’s “New Party”
At the beginning of 2021, a number of leaders and teams announced the establishment of new parties, including loyalist and pro-Russian ones. However, most of the party projects were put on pause in the middle of the year.
Nearly 6,000 founders joined the organizing committee of “Together” initiated by imprisoned ex-banker Viktor Babariko during the first month after the announcement of the party formation. The organizing committee hoped to hold a founding congress in May, but, amid escalating repression, it was postponed indefinitely.
Since law enforcers were obstructing regional meetings, the “Together” headquarters went online, trying to reach wider population without focusing on ideological and value-oriented matters that could divide or demotivate a part of the audience.
Following Babariko’s headquarters, leader of the People’s Anti-Crisis Administration Pavel Latushko announced the establishment of a party in the distant future, i. e. after a victory over the regime. Unlike “Together”, Latushko mainly addressed the staunch opponents of the Lukashenko regime and the democratic core. He managed to reinforce his organization by inviting, among others, his former colleagues from the diplomatic corps. At the same time, some other team members (E. Bury, V. Prokopyev, A. Ostapovich, etc.) left the Administration for different reasons, including to start their own projects.
Andrei Dmitriyev, presidential candidate in the 2020 election, tried to form Our Party, but the founding congress was postponed due to the adverse political situation. The party continued online communication and educational activities for the sympathizers, waiting for a thaw.
The national democrats from the Belarusian Popular Front had to suspend their public activities, especially after the arrest of their leader Grigory Kostusev. At the beginning of the year, the party expected to consolidate its supporters and celebrate the Freedom Day. The BPF leadership applied for official permission. However, by March 25, repressions were in full swing, hitting new groups of dissidents. A ban was imposed on all public party activities.
Throughout the year, some BPF activists emigrated to escape criminal prosecution for taking part in the 2020 riots or for administering some popular regional media or public initiatives. In the autumn, the Ministry of Justice liquidated the BPF’s Adradzhenne Public Association, the oldest social and political movement of the national democrats.
Constructive opposition and loyalists in the stand-by mode
It became obvious by the end of the spring of 2021 that the government halted the experiment on the establishment of new controlled loyalist parties, although statements were made in early 2021 that there would be a National Unity Party (mainly formed of Belaya Rus members) and a Union Party of supporters of integration with Russia.
The authorities also lost interest in an anti-Russian party of former presidential candidate Anna Kanopatskaya, which was supposed to engage the audience of national democrats and supporters of the BPF Adradzhenne. The Round Table of Democratic Forces led by Yuri Voskresensky, the New People and the Democratic Union that targeted at the teams of former presidential candidates Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo, respectively, did not evolve either.
As before, the sleeping political parties on the Justice Ministry’s register did not show any signs of independent public activity, except for supporting the regime or participating in official events.
Political organizations will adhere to the strategy of cooperation as a coalition, but mutual criticism and tension will intensify amid shrinking resources, a narrowing audience, and in the absence of tangible results in forcing the Lukashenko regime to negotiate. Organizations in exile will continue developing their networks in an effort to preserve their assets and influence the intra-Belarusian agenda, as well as relations between the West and Belarus.
Given the strong politicization of society, demand for political parties will remain high. However, their attractiveness will be mainly determined by the presence of popular charismatic leaders, rather than ideological values.
Against the backdrop of the total purge of civil society organizations, the fact that the registered parties have not been liquidated suggests that a part of the political establishment has not abandoned the idea to develop a controlled party system in the next few years. However, Lukashenko is interested in delaying the adoption of new legislation on parties, and, fundamentally, is not interested in any transformations of his personalistic regime. Nevertheless, a part of the state apparatus and loyalists expect the role of the security bloc to decrease, and the experiment with controlled parties to be resumed, together with integration of some moderate opponents into the political system.