Okategoriserade A historical background to the demonstrations in Belarus

An interview with three researchers at Södertörn University; Nikolay Zakharov, senior lecturer in sociology, Per Anders Rudling, associate professor of history and Andrej Kotljarchuk, historian at the Institute of Contemporary History at Södertörn University.

Published on balticworlds.com on September 21, 2020

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Mass protests in Belarus have increased as President Lukashenko’s stance hardens, with demonstrators being abused by the security forces, people arrested and imprisoned. The protests started after the presidential election in August and are some of the largest ever seen in the country, despite suspicions of vote-rigging and corruption being nothing new – nor is the police violence that targets the political opposition. But what makes the summer of 2020 different? Can history provide the answers?

The Republic of Belarus, formerly Belorussia, was first declared an independent republic in 1991. Three years later, a young Alexander Lukashenko was elected leader on his promise to return to the days of the former Soviet Union, with a strong national identity as the supporting principle. However, the winds of democracy ceased to blow after a few years, and power became concentrated around the president. Dissent was not welcome.

“Lukashenko identifies himself with the nation of Belarus, which is why he has to have 80 percent of the votes. If he were to be ‘satisfied’ with 60, he would have to admit to there being an opposition. The election results mean he can legitimize his power and justify there being no parliamentary opposition. But it is extremely unlikely that he had such a large majority,” says Nikolay Zakharov, senior lecturer in sociology, who studies the Belarusian societal model, civil society and nation building.

The role of nationalism

National identity and nationalism are a common thread in the history of the country, either being stifled by the surrounding great powers or encouraged and used as tools for controlling the populace. Stalin, for example, was responsible for issues surrounding nationality in the first Soviet government and saw the potential of using Belarusian nationalism to mobilize support for the new regime.

“Even though Stalin regarded nationalism as something fundamentally suspect, he believed he could create loyal nationalists by meeting them halfway. Nationalist in form, but with socialist content,” says Per Anders Rudling, associate professor of history, who has researched the history of Belarus in the first half of the twentieth century.

Flags become important symbols

One national symbol that received a great deal of attention during the summer’s protests is the white and red flag. The battle for Belarus’ flag goes back a long way, to the early twentieth century, when the idea of having its own flag was born – white with a horizontal red stripe in the middle. This flag has been prohibited since 1996, using the argument that it was introduced and used by Belarusians who sympathized with the Nazis, though historians say that this is not correct. This flag has now become an important symbol of resistance against Lukashenko.

The official flag also has a politically charged history, as it is associated with the Soviet Union, a regime with millions of human lives on its conscience.

“Lukashenko makes a big deal of ‘we are a small piece of the Soviet Union that lives on’, with everything that entails for stability and so on, but every national flag has different narratives in its history. I’ve seen how both flags are now being used by protestors and, when you see pictures from the demonstrations on the television, it is important to know what they mean,” says Andrej Kotljarchuk, historian at the Institute of Contemporary History at Södertörn University, and raised in the Belorussian S.S.R.

Three historic events

Researchers agree that there are three main historic periods and events that have shaped the country as we see it today, which can help to explain the double-edged relationship it has with its neighbor to the east, Russia. The first one is the Stalinist terror of the interwar years, in which more than 50,000 people were murdered and many of the country’s elites disappeared. The second period is World War II, which devasted Belarus; 2.5 million people died and the country’s Jewish and Roma populations were almost entirely annihilated in the concentration camps.

Belarus was in ruins as the war came to an end so, despite the Stalinist terrors from just a few years before, the Red Army was welcomed as a liberating force when it entered the country. This was the start of the third period that has shaped the country – its years as a Soviet republic.

“When Belarus was part of the Soviet Union it was at the center, it was not a border republic on the periphery or between two major powers. Capital flowed in, and it was part of the imperial heart, once again strengthening the Belarusian identity,” says Kotljarchuk.

Belarus today

Belarus is still, somewhat inaccurately, called the last Soviet state. This is largely due to Lukashenko’s electoral platform from the 1990s – a return to the Soviet Union. However, when Mikhail Gorbachev was ousted in a coup in 1991, this was done with the support of the local party in Minsk. When President Boris Yeltsin and the new Russia tried to leave behind a society built on communism and socialism, Belarus wanted to do the opposite, which Nikolay Zakharov says has given the country a unique societal model.

Unemployment is very low, as there is something called general employment. At the same time, many factory workers are furloughed several days a week due to a lack of work. Healthcare and education are free, but at the price of an authoritarian government and a muzzled opposition.

The protests in the late summer of 2020 are different to those that preceded them. A new generation is out on the streets, people who do not have the same memories of the years as a Soviet republic. People who have had enough of police violence. Nor does Andrej Kotljarchuk believe there are any economic reasons for the protests.

“There were demonstrations in 1996, 2004 and 2010. What is different in 2020, is that it is more of a popular movement. Many of those on the streets are not politically active, and it’s not just happening in Minsk. Also, more women are becoming involved in politics: presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the opposition Coordination Council; musician Maria Kalesnikava; and Nobel laureate in literature Svetlana Alexievich are just a few examples,” he says.

The protesters’ demands are simple: that Lukashenko resigns and free and democratic elections are held. Reality, however, is anything but – and the president is showing no sign of being willing to step down. And we can add Russia to this, as it regards the area as being of vital military interest vis-à-vis Europe and the US. The three research colleagues all agree, Putin will want to have a hand in deciding who runs his neighboring country.

  • by Sophia Nilsson

    Communications Officer at Södertörn University with a focus on the area studies conducted at CBEES, and the University at large, on the Baltic Sea Region and Eastern Europe.

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