House of Representatives of Belarus. PHOTO Wikimedia

House of Representatives of Belarus. PHOTO Wikimedia

Okategoriserade Institutional Constraints and Possibilities in (Semi-)Revolutionary Belarus

Political institutions in a hegemonic authoritarian regime like Belarus tend to be downplayed, if not entirely ignored. While authoritarian regimes can sometimes masterfully direct constituent assemblies and other such fora, they represent a singular, politically-charged location within which protest energy and opposition efforts can be focused. Uncertainty is the enemy of autocrats and any chance for unwelcome deviations from a prescribed line can prove to be deeply destabilizing.

Published on on September 22, 2020

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Prediction is a dangerous game in comparative social science, no less when the subject is the moving target of a roiling and ongoing political crisis. Such is certainly the case for Belarus, which has been wracked by major electoral protests for over a month.[1] Analysis thus far has focused primarily on explaining the peaceful, mass popular mobilization’s contest with coercive dictatorship and its security apparatus.[2] Although very important, this has left a relative gap that has ignored alternative routes out of the crisis beyond total regime change by the political opposition or a status-quo victory by way of full autocratic repression.[3]

The binary framing of a resilient street opposition versus an oppressive and totally closed regime elides multiple other pathways towards crisis resolution that we should be mindful of – especially in the realm of political and state institutions. Although rarely considered in the Belarusian context, political scientists have increasingly looked to such bodies as venues of surprising importance during periods of potential regime transition or reconsolidation in modern autocracies.[4] To that end, it is useful to survey the rather sorry state of Belarus’ political institutions, and determine where, if anywhere, can we look to as potential areas for political resolution in the context of Belarus’ ongoing (semi-)revolutionary moment.

Political Institutions in Belarus

Political institutions in a hegemonic authoritarian regime like Belarus tend to be downplayed, if not entirely ignored, in most analyses for perfectly understandable reasons. Writing earlier in the spring for NYU’s Jordan Center, I surveyed the impotent and docile Belarusian parliament and its potential role as a part of any future reconsideration of the country’s authoritarian political settlement.[5] Broadly disempowered vis-à-vis the authoritarian executive, and totally dominated by loyalist MPs, I wrote that the legislative arena was unlikely to be a source of democratization or political confrontation so long as President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s personalist regime lasted. Even so, I argued that its institutional position could prove more important at a future date as succession pressures would ultimately loom – the need to manage leadership transition and contain future political conflict might find it better placed than its quiescence over the last two decades would otherwise have suggested. Yet such was the promise of an uncertain future, not the thoroughly dictatorial present

Of course, one could not have predicted the shock outpouring of anti-regime sentiment and protest action by a wide, cross-class coalition in the wake of this summer’s disputed presidential election.[6] In fact, like practically all analysts of post-Soviet politics, I did not give much credence to the possibility that the regime was going to be rocked by precipitous crisis in the immediate future.

Yet here we are, and what are we to make of it? At the time, Belarus’ parliament and other relevant political institutions were simply unlikely to be a central site for political transition or opposition takeover, given their wholly captured status and relatively weak institutional prerogatives vis-à-vis the presidential executive. This remains true.[7] In general, one should throw cold water on grand visions of the Belarusian legislature’s capacity for prompting democratization (especially in comparison to other post-Soviet peers like Ukraine or Armenia, for example).[8] At best, the Belarusian parliament is well placed to provide a useful venue to manage a transition towards more pluralistic (yet very possibly still authoritarian) politics, but most likely only under explicit and intentional regime guidance.[9] Given the scale of the current protest mobilization and the ongoing crackdown by the state, it is unlikely that now is the time for such a managed and careful maneuver.[10] Yet of course, as in all authoritarian politics, sometimes the accidental fruits of short-term choices and unexpected developments may play an outsized role beyond regime intentionality.[11]

So how do elections, the parliament, and other relevant political institutions matter in the crisis today – especially when what seems to be most salient is the interaction of peaceful street protests with the violent threat of security service repression?[12] In this sense there are three focal points from an institutional perspective to which it is worth paying particular attention as events further unfold.

First, Lukashenka’s gambit to offer constitutional changes could either fatally undermine protest unity and momentum or could alternatively provide an accidental mechanism for uncontrolled regime change. Second, elite defection at the ministerial level, among top-tier leaders of the security services, or from regional administrative heads may matter much more than continued resistance by dyed-in-the-wool oppositionists, due to the latter’s weak positions outside the political system. Third, loyalist appeals to moderation or negotiation may unwittingly compromise regime loyalty by signaling weakened legitimacy and encourage further defections that invigorate new protest mobilization. Events centered in these three arenas may all spell potential trouble for the regime, achieved through institutional formats, yet identifying them is all we can do. At the end of the day, is no way to be sure how events will turn out.

The Constitutional Gambit

First, we must be attentive to the degree with which the regime actually capitulates to pressures as part of its offers of mollifying constitutional change and new elections. The early statements by Pres. Lukashenka on August 17th that he had heard the people’s voice crying for constitutional modification was an obvious ploy to buy time and wait out the fierceness of protest feeling.[13]  There is little doubt that this remains his goal, and was once more broached as an option following meetings with Russian politicians.[14]

The key element of this strategy is to subdue the protest movement through delay by providing the glimmering hope of a peace-offering through institutional means. Sudden mass mobilizations set off by fraudulent elections and organized through social media can fizzle as easily as they can be revved into action, and the extraordinary preference cascade that has coursed through a vocally disgruntled Belarusian society may be reversible if protest numbers dwindle and more express doubts about the potential for a chaotic future.[15]

If the strategy to wait out the protests by offering a poisoned olive branch of reform succeeds in suppressing direct protest action by everyday Belarusians, by striking industrial workers, and by defecting low-tier security service officers, then the game is likely over. But if protest mobilization continues apace, Lukashenka’s filibuster will fail, and he may be forced to play true to the proposal. This would be quite dangerous to the regime, and potentially lead to the oft hoped-for ‘democratic breakthrough’ that some commentators have been prematurely claiming is afoot.[16] By bringing forward constitutional change processes in times of political flux and uncertainty, autocrats can inadvertently open the regime up to widespread public criticism and the activation of political forces that can be difficult to control, even beyond street mobilization.[17]

Most importantly, public criticism during a period of constitutional contestation would not come from a protesting mass or as mere blips on social media but would be directly cast into institutionalized channels in a hypothetical constitutional convention inclusive of at least some protest voices. An effort to shore up regime support through wide representation of social, economic, and political groups may backfire, especially given how broad the anti-regime coalition happens to be.[18]

While authoritarian regimes can sometimes masterfully direct constituent assemblies and other such fora, they represent a singular, politically-charged location within which protest energy and opposition efforts can be focused, to destabilizing effects and ratcheting up the potential for uncertain outcomes.[19] At the end of the day, uncertainty is the enemy of autocrats and any chance for unwelcome deviations from a prescribed line can prove to be deeply destabilizing. The Soviet Union’s own collapse was in no small part due to the sudden breaching of political taboos during its late reform era, as the regime sought to patch up its own flagging support through newly competitive elections, revived institutional formats,  and constitutional change.[20]

Elite Defection Where It Matters

Second, the future longevity of the Lukashenka regime rests with the continued cooperation of the major political, economic, and (most importantly) military figures that staff the highest echelons of state office. One of the Belarusian regime’s most notable features has been the expertly controlled and weakened set of elites outside of the President and his family –a testament to Lukashenka’s foresighted distrust of dominant oligarchic figures and entrenched ‘deep state’ officials and his total control over place-holder officials in the parliament, in government ministries, and elsewhere.[21]

The abrupt rotation of elite cadres and the hostile regard for letting state figures gain independent power bases via economic or security service connections has been the great safeguard of President Lukashenka for well over two decades.[22] In this way, he has done unusually well in coup-proofing[23] his own rule and preventing alternative figures from rising to a plausible prominence that could act even as an alternative focal point for a pyramid of clients loyal to someone ambitious of the presidency.[24]

To that end, the crisis today is thus bereft of obvious alternates to political power. It may be believed by Western audiences that maligned and marginalized political oppositionists are obvious successors during moments of regime change, but this could not be farther from the truth. Most authoritarian regimes are replaced[25] by an already-existing elite, most usually belonging to segments of the same regime in one way or another.

A comparison to the recent political tumult in Armenia is instructive, not least because the European politician Carl Bildt and Professor Anna Ohanyan of Stonehill College have both recently suggested comparisons between Armenia and Belarus in this crisis hour.[26] This is an inopportune comparison, most critically because Armenia’s experience of recent regime change was actuated explicitly through institutional channels that had already been penetrated by reformist figures.

Although street protest had a decisive impact in pushing extreme pressure after a fraudulent election, the specific institutional placement of Armenia’s incipient revolutionary actors was critical. The posterchild for Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution, Nikol Pashinyan, was a member of parliament, a respected elite, and the leader of a systemic political party. From his vantage point within the legislative apparatus – and given the rather fragmented Armenian political system, despite its soft authoritarianism – he was able to leverage street protest pressure to institutional advantage and ensure his own election as Prime Minister. [27]

This model is a false hope in the case of Belarus. The brave opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is a political nobody, as far as Belarusian institutions are concerned, nor is her husband. There is essentially no overlap between the narrow group of women candidates, civil society organizations, and perennially oppositional political parties and the actual institutions of political and social authority in Belarus. While this marvelously illustrates the extreme divide between protesting society and the state, it does no good when looking for institutional solutions to crisis. Neither Tsikhanouskaya nor any other protesting person can provide voice in a format that could affect the hierarchical and exclusive set of institutions that rule the country. This of course says nothing about the moral claims inherent in the opposition protests, it simply means they are not in easy positions institutionally to achieve their outcomes.

To that end, it is to high-tier incumbent officials that we must look. Elite defection is both a common symptom and cause of regime collapse, and the defection of powerful figures early on can make a decisive impact on subsequent elite uncertainty. We have seen striking examples of low-tier defection from members of the security services, and these have been broadcast widely on social media and among protesting civilians.[28] Yet defections beyond the lowest levels have not materialized so far. The greatest victories would be claims by full government ministers or military general staff members to disavow the regime, but defections by regional administrative officials would work as well. So long as key officials at the national and regional levels maintain loyalty to the regime, and given the total exclusion of opposition leaders from institutional channels, it will be difficult to translate street protest to reform or negotiation so long as the regime play hardball. On the other hand, should a cascade of senior officials abandon the regime, our analytic ears should perk up immediately.[29]

Loyally Signaling Permissive Weakness

Third, we can look to the halfway house between an (un)controlled constitutional change process and outright elite defection. In the previous wave of democratization that took place in the 1970s and 80s, regime transitions often took the form of tentative, hesitating, and uncertain interactions between the general, mobilized opposition and two subsets of regime elites – so-called ‘hard-liners’ and ‘soft-liners.’[30] In these cases, mostly derived from the experiences of Latin American military juntas, while some regime elites were entirely resistant to reform and change, others – usually civilians, party figures, and technocrats – were more interested in seeking accommodation, even if they often had no intention of jettisoning the regime itself. And yet this tentative outreach between soft-liners and the most organized segments of the political opposition formed the core groups and institutional formats through which democratization was ultimately achieved.

Belarus is no 80s-era military junta, and in perfect truth the political elite around President Lukashenka has to this point been far more united and resilient than those in Brazil or Argentina during their years-long processes of gradual political transition.[31] Yet the very group of institutionally-weak bodies that are unlikely to be the focus for democratization may in fact be filled with those very-same ‘soft-liner’ oriented elites that could nevertheless cause considerable damage to the regime.

Although such soft-liners are most preoccupied with maintaining their prerogatives during tumultuous political chaos, their very actions at attempting to accommodate moderate opposition also work in favor of legitimating general opposition grievances and undermining regime solidarity and defiance. The Belarusian regime so far has expertly denied elite enclaves outside of President Lukashenka’s orbit that could act as soft-liner bastions, yet this could easily take a different form. Normally cowed institutions such as the Belarusian Orthodox Church, state-approved trade or professional unions, or yes even with figures like the speaker of the disempowered parliament or the chief justice of the supreme court could prove to be mediators through which cautious elites may stray from the regime hardline and offer milquetoast, half-hearted concessions or offers for negotiation. In fact, a Lukashenka affiliate in the parliament, Aleh Haydukevich, actually proposed exactly that – for the legislature to loyally be used as a format to resolve the conflict in late August.[32]

Broaching any format of parley outside of a regime’s explicit interest has often been the precipitant for sustaining political opposition after hot moments of direct protest. The Evangelical Lutheran Church proved to be the accidental succor to the anti-communist movement in East Germany, while military soft-liners provided legitimacy to the anti-Pinochet vote in Chile’s 1988 referendum. In this way, lesser figures of the regime – outside the presidency and the key security figures that ultimately undergird non-party authoritarian rule – can find themselves trying to diminish conflict and tension by offering to talk and listen, yet legitimate that very same protest movement while doing so.


At the end of the day, the trajectory of the Belarusian regime is impossible to determine. It is certainly possible that its fate may be determined entirely by extra-institutional protest, by the success or failure by the regime to convince its security apparatus to repress effectively and brutally, or of course by the extraordinary intervention of foreign powers. Yet from a domestic, institutional perspective, we can look to distinct political segments of the Belarusian state as most likely centers of potential change (or counterrevolution).

The desperate gambit to call for constitutional change and new elections may be enough to save the regime by depressing protest mobilization, but it could just as easily backfire by providing a dramatic stage upon which grievances and interests force the hand of the regime to its detriment and weakening. While the institutional position of the mobilized opposition is nil, its street protest and moral weight may yet cause defections of critical elites which may similarly prove the regime’s undoing. And finally, it is possible that the lesser beasts of the regime may act on their own direction to try and moderate dissent, only to further delegitimize the regime as-is. All of these are possible institutional directions for Belarus’ future, and all are possibly dead ends in the service of further political chaos or sudden, successful repression. Belarus’ fate remains to be seen, yet a plethora of options for resolution remain during this traumatic period.

NOTE: All views are the author’s own and do not represent his employer.


[1] Tatsiana Kulakevich, “Belarus, explained: how Europe’s last dictator could fall,”

[2] Piotr Żochowski, “Lukashenka versus the public: the power play continue,”

[3] Rick Noak and Noah Glucroft, “What’s behind the Belarus protests?”

[4] Jennifer Gandhi and Adam Przeworski, “Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats,”; Thomas Pepinsky, “The Institutional Turn in Comparative Authoritarianism,”

[5] Julian G. Waller, “Parliamentary Daydreams in Belarus: When the Rubber-Stamp Really is Just a Rubber-Stamp,”

[6] On the wide demographic features of the protests, see for example: “Workers Boo Lukashenka,” BBC,; Fred Pleitgen and Mary Ilyushina “Women in white become faces of Belarus protests as thousands are arrested after disputed election,”

[7] “Belarus Parliament Condemns Attempts to Split Society,” BelTA,

[8] William E. Crowther, “Second Decade, Second Chances?”; Aleksandr Iskandaryan, “Armenia Between Autocracy and Polyarchy,”

[9] Rachel Beatty Riedl, Dan Slater, Joseph Wong, and Daniel Ziblatt, “Authoritarian-led Democratization,”

[10] Michael Bernhard,  Amanda B. Edgell, and Staffan I. Lindberg, “Institutionalising Electoral Uncertainty and Authoritarian Regime Survival,”

[11] On this point, see a forthcoming volume (2021) on authoritarian political institutions from Nathan J. Brown, Steven D. Schaaf, Samer Anabtawi, and Julian G. Waller. Otherwise, see: Javier Corrales, “The authoritarian resurgence: autocratic legalism in Venezuela.” ;

[12] See: Yao Li, “A zero-sum game? Repression and protest in China,”; Lisa Schlein, “UN Calls on Belarus to Release Peaceful Protesters Arbitrarily Detained,”; Christiaan Triebert, Cora Engelbrecht, Oleg Matsnev and A.J. Chavar , “A Crackdown on Belarus Protesters Backfires,”

[13] “Heckled and Jeered, Lukashenka Says New Election Could Be Held After Constitutional Changes,” RFE/RL,

[14] “Lukashenko suggests changing the constitution again as Tikhanovskaya invited to address UN Security Council,”; “Putin says Lukashenko’s proposal on Belarusian constitutional amendments timely,”

[15] Joshua Tucker, “Enough! Electoral Fraud, Collective Action Problems, and Post-Communist Colored Revolutions,”; Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas,; Timur Kuran, Private Truth, Public Lies,

[16] For example:  Viktoriya Zakrevskaya, “Belarus Presidential Vote: Democratic Breakthrough?”; “Breakthrough in Belarus: A Democratic Opening?” Atlantic Council,; Michael McFaul, “Trump, Pompeo and the West Must Unite Behind Belarus’ People – Before It’s Too Late,”

[17] See: Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo, Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy,; Tom Ginsburg, ed. Constitutions in Authoritarian Regimes,

[18] Mark Beissinger, “The Semblance of Democratic Revolution,”

[19] Darin E. W. Johnson, “Beyond Constituent Assemblies and Referenda,”

[20] See among others: Minxin Pei, From Reform to Revolution,; Stephen White and Gordon Wightman, “Gorbachev’s Reforms: The Soviet Elections of 1989,”; Carolina de Stefano, “An old Soviet response and a revolutionary context,”; and Graeme J. Gill, The Collapse of a Single-Party System,

[21] See: Vitali Silitski, “Preempting Democracy: The Case of Belarus,”; Lucan Way, “Authoritarian state building and the sources of regime competitiveness in the fourth wave,”

[22] Kimitaka Matsuzato, “A populist island in an ocean of clan politics,”

[23] James T. Quinlivan, “Coup-Proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East,”

[24] On coup-proofing, see: James T. Quinlivan, “Coup-Proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East,”; on patronal politics: Henry E. Hale, “Patronal politics: Eurasian regime dynamics in comparative perspective,”; on state elites: Siarhei Bohdan, “Belarusian state apparatus – strong from the outside, hollow from the inside,”

[25] Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz,“ Autocratic breakdown and regime transitions: A new data set,”

[26] Carl Bildt, “The Armenian Model for Belarus,”; Anna Ohanyan, “Belarusians Can Learn a Lot From Armenia’s Velvet Revolution,”

[27] Pietro A Shakarian, “Dispatches from the Armenian Revolution,”

[28] Volodymyr Ishchenko, „The Opposition in Belarus Is Not All on the Same Side,” ; Keith Jones, “Belarus crisis: Will the army remain loyal to Lukashenka?”

[29] Sarah Andrews and Lauren Honig, “Elite Defection and Grassroots Democracy Under Competitive Authoritarianism,”

[30] Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, “Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies,” ; Gerard Huiskamp, “Identity Politics and Democratic Transitions in Latin America: (Re)organizing Women’s Strategic Interests through Community Activism,”

[31] Vladimir Socor, “Lukashenka Holds His Own With Putin in Sochi (Part One),”

[32] Kamil Kłysiński, OSW

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  • by Julian G. Waller

    Julian G. Waller is a Ph.D Candidate at George Washington University and an Associate Research Analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses.

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