Reviews The Belarusian Maidan A new social movement

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2017: 1-2, pp 120-122
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 19, 2017

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In the 2006 Belarusian presidential election the incumbent, Aleksandr Lukashenka, not unexpectedly, won a crushing victory over the candidate from the United Democratic Forces in a vote declared “not free and fair” by a majority of international observers. While none of this indicated anything out of the ordinary, both local and international spectators were astonished by the fact that protests against the election results gathered over 10,0001 people, the largest rally against the regime in many years. Even more surprisingly, inspired by recent events in Ukraine, activists set up a tent camp on October Square in Minsk, with a daily average of 150—200 participants. Despite pressure from the authorities, the camp lasted five days before armed antiriot police forcibly dispersed it. In the aftermath police detained at least 500 people on charges of taking part in illegal actions.2
The main message of Navumau’s highly interesting book is that it is not adequate to interpret the 2006 tent camp protest in Minsk as just a “failed Belarusian Maidan”. Rather than a protest aimed at overthrowing the corrupt regime, as was the case with the “color revolutions” in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, the tent camp is, in his view, better understood as a Belarusian version of a new social movement. That is, it was a protest that instead of demanding social changes from above should be understood as a process of identity formation and as a group of social actors struggling to define history. The protesters, he notes, did not focus simply on discrediting the current regime but used innovative cultural strategies to encourage their fellow citizens to reflect on conventional knowledge about the state’s and the authorities’ ideological legitimacy. Navumau further argues that the camp became a watershed in Belarusian protest history by showing that traditional opposition actors and methods were not the only game in town. Moreover, after 2006 “Ploshcha’”[Belarusian for “square”] became a widely used metaphor as the only possible way to end the authoritarian rule. While I agree with the book’s conclusion that at the time the tent camp protest was something inherently unique for Belarus, I will discuss below what I find less straightforward — whether and how “Ploshcha” can be seen as a watershed in the country’s protest history.

Navumau’s book starts with an outline of popular protests in Belarus during the period 1985—2006. His analysis is separated into types and techniques of actions, organizers, participants and public response and provides an extensive overview of how collective action has developed in this milieu from the end of the Soviet period through the first 15 years of independence, a study of great value to anyone interested in this phenomenon. In addition to this outline, the author gives a comprehensive literature review, including a majority of Belarusian sources that makes it particularly significant for those of us interested in the topic and the context who do not speak the language.
Navumau’s outline also highlights a trend in the development of Belarusian collective activism that is extremely important for furthering our understanding of the current situation — the move towards the “routinization of protest.” In the late Soviet period and the early days of independence the population in general was keen to participate in various protest actions. Popular protests peaked in 1996, when Lukashenka orchestrated a referendum on a radically rewritten constitution that increased and consolidated his presidential powers, but from 1997 onwards, both the protest activities and the actors appear to have become to a certain extent institutionalized. Since then activities have mainly been limited to a set repertoire including only “traditional” actions, the actors being limited to representatives of the major opposition parties, or movements.
One highly important observation in this regard is that as these collective actions organized by the “traditional opposition” became increasingly ritualized and symbolic they consequently became irrelevant for the general population. Although it is likely that the harsher stance of the authorities after 1996 contributed to discouraging anyone not directly linked to the opposition actors from participating (being an open regime critic was not great for career opportunities etc.), it seems the foundation for the routine-like character of the protest is the fact that street actions mainly became a tool for the opposition to get the attention of Western countries. “Witnessing the rapid decline of mass activity”, Navumau writes, “opposition leaders addressed their speeches to the international community rather than to their typical Belarusian audience” (p. 65). In an unpublished article Vinatier and Pikulik3 explain this as a result of international actors’ continuing attempts to create democracy in this seemingly “hopeless” context. Democracy promotion efforts created a system of interdependency between opposition actors who became dependent on foreign funding to continue their work and donors/implementers who became reliant on a preferred group of trusted recipients. This did little to inspire new approaches to achieving change. Instead it cemented a “professionalized opposition core” seemingly with a monopoly over fighting a losing battle with the regime, which in turn contributed to the negative image of “opposition” and “their protests” among the general population. In this sense, according to Navumau, the tent camp was different as “…inhabitants of the tent camp undermined the routine practices of protest deployed at the oppositional rallies” (p. 193).

Navumau argues the Tent Camp was unique. “Speaking in Melucci’s terms”, he writes “it was the symbol of the transformation of Belarusian society in that it gradually emancipated itself from the influence of the large-scale project of nativist national identity, as suggested by the opposition” (p. 167). The Tent Camp’s uniqueness in Belarusian collective action history is, he notes, illustrated by a number of facts. First, the protesters were not the usual suspects (e.g. the traditional opposition parties like Belarus National Front, United Civic Party or the Social Democrats) but students, politically active youth, intellectuals and metropolitans from very different segments of society that did not belong to a single political force. Second, actions were spontaneous and not planned, unlike the “institutionalized” public rallies. Third, the participants did not express any common political goals and did not accept representation by established political “opposition” leaders. Finally, during and after the break-up of the protest the participants continued their political initiatives in different constellations, using flash mobs for example. According to Navumau, this led to the birth of a new type of collective action — focused on cultural rather than political forms of resistance and heavily relying on online channels for mobilization, communication and strategizing, which were both novel features for protests in the Belarusian context.
While not disagreeing with the above I instinctively feel the need to be careful when talking about the tent camp as a watershed, and especially in a n entirely positive way. “Although their protest seemed to be a losing battle from the very beginning, it proved to have a great symbolic meaning in the long run. The protesters helped others to banish fear; they believed and proved that solidarity and collaboration were not empty words” (p. 209), Navumau concludes. Even though it “failed” (or, as Navumau notes, never intended) overthrow the government, the protest raised the expectations among people in general and among those actively resisting the regime in particular, that “revolutionary change” was possible. “Street struggle” and “Ploshcha” became mainstreamed into the “traditional opposition’s” rhetoric and, as stated in the book, an important feature in a majority of opposition candidates’ campaigns in the 2010 presidential elections. Hence, in the aftermath of Lukashenka’s fourth reelection, the opposition candidates again managed to rally thousands of people to protest the official results, but this time it ended in a complete tragedy. Protests were even more brutally scattered and hundreds arrested, including seven of the nine presidential candidates.
The above was tremendously traumatic for everyone who had gotten their hopes up which, in my view, is a watershed. What was not achieved is generally seen as having been the “last chance” for political change. It is no exaggeration to say the era of democratic revolutions seems to be over. Today “creating a Ploshcha” only comes up in discussions as something no longer possible.4 “Failing” to overthrow the government contributed to making the opposition lose respect in the eyes of a severely disillusioned population that appears to have lost hope and settled into political apathy. The parade of color revolutions made the government more repressive and pre-emptive, further limiting the space for opposition-mindedness. This has been amplified by a “Maidan-effect” as Lukashenka is using events in Ukraine to show how “ugly” such popular revolts can get. As a result, today opposition actors are almost completely marginalized in Belarus. To a certain extent this has led to an ongoing reevaluation of mobilization strategies, but in most cases it contributed to making “routinization” of protests the norm.

Navumau’s book makes a significant contribution to the study of protest in Belarus, and to the general understanding of democratic resistance in authoritarian states. I personally especially applaud his ambition to problematize the “color revolution” literature that has taken to describing the tent camp simply as a “failed” example of such a revolt.5 The book is well written and easy to read. As it is an adaptation of a doctoral dissertation the inclusion of a long, and in parts quite complicated, theoretical and conceptual discussion is understandable. To my mind the book would however have benefited from more explicitly links between this and the empirical part. In particular the connection between, and the effects of, combining “virtual protests” and reality could have been more elaborated. This would have been particularly interesting given that the use of online methods, which according to Navumau contributed to the uniqueness and impact of the 2006 protest, today sadly appears to have become part of a protest routine and is perceived by the population as yet another conventional (inefficient) tool used by the “traditional opposition”.
The topicality of Navumau’s book is highlighted by the surprising wave of grass-roots socioeconomic protests, which have started across Belarus in 2017 (while the review was being finalized). However, the authorities’ harsh response, as well as the extremely aggressive crackdown on the organized opposition’s traditional “Freedom Day” rally in Minsk on March 25, indicates that concessions from the state leadership and any changes to the political status quo are still highly unlikely. ≈

References

1 Estimates range between 10,000 and 35,000, according to Korosteleva (2009).
2 Valerie J. Bunce and Sharon L. Wolchik, Defeating Authoritarian Leaders in Post-Communist Countries (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Elena Korosteleva, Was There a Quiet Revolution? Belarus After the 2006 Presidential Election, Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, 25 no. 2—3 (2009): 324—346; David R. Marples, “Color Revolutions: The Belarus Case.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 39 no. 3 (2006): 351—364.
3 Laurent Vinatier and Alexei Pikulik. “Democracy Promotion Derailed: Belarusian Deadlock?” (unpublished manuscript, 2016).
4 The exception is certain stubborn opposition politicians who refuse to let the idea go.
5 Bunce and Wolchik; Ustina Markus, “Belarus.” The Colour Revolutions in the Former Soviet Republics, ed. Donnacha Ó Beacháin and Abel Polese ( New York, USA: Routledge, 2010).

  • by Sofie Bedford

    PhD in Political Science from Stockholm University. Researcher at Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University (UCRS) and affiliated with the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul. Her main focus is the concept of "opposition" in electoral authoritarian states.

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Vasil Navumau, The Belarusian Maidan in 2006: A New Social Movement Approach to the Tent Camp Protest in Minsk, Polish Studies in Culture, Nations and Politics, vol. 5, edited by Joanna Kurczewska and Yasuko Shibata, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016, 260 pages.