The 'denim revolution': a glass half full

Margot Letain
10 April 2006

Belarus's rare if not unprecedented moment in the sun – the few days before and after the 19 March 2006 election when the country dominated the international news agenda – has passed. But although the caravan has already moved on to Ukraine, Italy, and Hungary, it is not too late to try to register the lesson of the events in the country for the future of democracy there.

Margot Letain is an independent scholar and writer on Belarusian and east-central European politics

Also by Margot Letain in openDemocracy:

Margot Letain, "Denim and democracy: what Belarusians need" (March 2006)

The official story is by now familiar. The incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko, won his third election in a row (and the third ever in Belarus as an independent country) with 83% of the vote – what the head of the electoral commission described as "confident" victory – as opposed to his "elegant" victory in 2001 with 75% of the vote. This figure left the main opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich with 6% of the vote, and another Lukashenko critic, Alexander Kazulin, with 2.3%. The official count thus estimates that the two anti-establishment candidates attracted only around half of the 15% the opposition won in 2001.

Yet the contrast between this apparent electoral weakening and the opposition's social strength is striking. Take the election aftermath: in a mild September 2001, there was barely any meaningful public protest against the official results, whereas in a cold March 2006, 10,000-30,000 people (estimates vary) rallied in Minsk's Oktabrskaya Square to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the election result. In doing so, they defied the authorities' repeated threats to classify any protesters as "terrorists" (an offence punishable by eight years' imprisonment or even the death penalty) and their resort to sending text-messages to reiterate the warning. In the face of dozens of buses filled with riot police beside the square, people continued to gather for five days after the vote; hundreds stayed overnight in freezing temperatures and thousands turned up again to a demonstration on 25 March.

The result was far from a Ukraine-style "democratic revolution". The protests were not significant enough to disrupt the normal working of the country: they were concentrated in Minsk, and echoed only vaguely in other regional cities (and hardly at all in rural areas). Moreover, the protesters left their encampment without having their demands fulfilled. Yet this does not mean that Belarus's anticipated, hoped or feared "denim revolution" failed. Rather, the events in Belarus represent the start of a process which – if understood and managed carefully – may eventually break the backbone of the Lukashenko regime.

The Minsk protests yield three important lessons.

First and most obvious, popular discontent with the Lukashenko regime exists, and a significant number of people are willing to demonstrate this openly.

Second, the opposition headed by Milinkevich is finally winning popular trust. This is no mean feat – for a decade, the opposition has not been able to harness popular discontent. The fact that it is doing so now is arguably due to the change in its stance: instead of personal criticism of Lukashenko, it is offering people an alternative way of life based on liberal values (foremost among them individual dignity), blended with a measure of national pride. In addition, its leaders have proved their personal commitment to the cause – Milinkevich and Kazulin spent nights out in the freezing temperatures so as not to let down their supporters.

Third, the forces behind Lukashenko's elite remain for the moment united and impregnable. Despite some opposition leaders' expectations, the police and the army stood firmly on his side – violently dispersing the 25 March demonstrations, smashing the protesters' camp, and detaining people bringing supplies (approximately 300 people were placed under fifteen-day "administrative" arrests); they also assaulted the presidential candidate Kazulin, key aides of Milinkevich, and several domestic and foreign journalists.

Even aside from security-force heavy-handedness, Minsk's authorities did everything to make the protests harder. In Kyiv (Kiev) in November 2004, the mayor opened the Maydan (Independence Square) to the orange revolutionaries, provided food and toilets, and even offered lodgings to non-residents in university dormitories. In Minsk in 2006, Oktabrskaya Square was sealed, food shops and cafes around it closed, and even the sewage pipe used as an improvised toilet was blocked. The media hastened to portray the usage of the pipe by protesters as a "terrorist" attempt to "poison water supply to the capital" – thus proving themselves yet another unbroken pillar of the regime.

Also in openDemocracy on the elections in Belarus and Ukraine:

Amy de Wit, "Belarus on the eve" (March 2006)

Amy de Wit, "Belarus’s contested landslide" (March 2006)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Belarus’s message to Europe" (March 2006)

Alexander J Motyl, "Ukraine’s new political complexion"
(March 2006)

Toby Saul, "Ukraine’s post-orange evolution: Askold Krushelnycky interviewed"
(March 2006)

Taras Kuzio, "Ukraine: free elections, kamikaze president" (March 2006)

Patrice de Beer, "Ukraine’s inspiring boredom" (April 2006)

Step by step to freedom

The opposition did not win, but it resisted and made its mark. To sustain the momentum it achieved, it should now do three things to advance the democratic agenda.

First, the opposition should continue spreading its ideological message, emphasising the promise of returned dignity and respect for the individual. This will sharpen the contrast with Lukashenko, who is challenging people's patience by his derisive attitude.

Second, it should find the means to sustain popular support and make it visible; for that, it needs to give people something to do, a series of small acts that are innocent enough not to invoke arrests, but yet done on a large enough scale to give people a feeling of unity and that they are partaking in a large effort. Putting lit candles in the window on one day each month in remembrance of the "disappeared" opponents of the president is one step of this kind; others could be found or borrowed from revolutionary movements in India, South Africa or Poland. These should be sustained by a programme of demands presented to the authorities, so that people have both a manifesto to identify with, and a measure of its progress.

Third, pro-democratic forces need to gather sufficient clout to cause Lukashenko's elite to crumble. The few in the top state administration who do not owe their positions to Lukashenko personally and might have grievances against him must be made aware of the clear and reliable benefit they would gain from his departure.

This effort would require western aid, but not necessarily of a material kind. Although the Lukashenko regime is not dependent on the west in any economically meaningful way, western democracies do have some influence in being able to support democracy in Belarus. The European Union's ban on thirty senior Belarusian officials (including Lukashenko himself) from entering the territory of the twenty-five member-states, promulgated on 10 April, is one example.

What could arguably work best, and is already being suggested by some perceptive western analysts, is to increase opportunities for ordinary Belarusians to see alternative modes of life, to compare them to what President Lukashenko offers and make their own conclusions. Such opportunities could range from easing of visa regulations to supplying foreign literature and periodicals to university libraries.

Meanwhile, Alexander Milinkevich has asked his supporters to pause, then return to the streets in a month – to let them rest while maintaining momentum. The opposition may still prove incompetent, the authorities may crack down with stronger force than ever, and the west may forget about Belarus yet again. Yet a short time after Belarus's "denim revolution" began, its glass is half full rather than half empty.

Belarus's historic trajectory has so far been different from other post-communist countries, and the arrival of democracy in it will also be different. Unlike the rapid, concentrated changes of east-central Europe in 1989, or the transformations of Georgia and Ukraine in 2003-05, the "denim revolution" is about a gradual shift in the national and world outlook, the values, ideas, and beliefs of the Belarusian people. It has to proceed in small steps, and the 19 March 2006 elections represent the first one.

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