For many people in Belarus, change has already happened
Outside observers are often surprised at the rapid emergence of Belarus’ protest movement, but listening to how protesters frame their own actions can teach us much about what is going on.
In the wake of Belarus’ presidential election on 9 August, international media, commentators and analysts have turned their gaze on the country in awe and surprise – following the unfolding events and trying to grasp what is happening. As we write, the people of Belarus have persevered peacefully (as in nonviolently) for more than three months, taking to the streets day after day, forging, developing and sustaining strong networks of support and solidarity across lines of class, gender, age and place of residence. These diversified and multiple forms of protests remain unified by key demands: new and fair elections, freedom to all political prisoners and accountability of the state actors who have perpetrated violence against peaceful citizens.
Over the last three months, English-speaking experts, commentators and journalists have often focused on the prospect of the protests’ success in the near future. How long could/should the protests last? Are these tactics successful? Is change possible and when will it come? Another frequent inquiry (“Why now?”) has reflected observers’ astonishment at “the sudden awakening” of the Belarusian people and their rampant politicisation.
In contrast, discussions among people in and from Belarus - on the streets, in chats and social media, in our conversations with friends (many of whom have been arrested, detained and fined) - focus more on solidarity across all sectors of society, the need for justice, decentralised self-organisation, and consistent horizontal support (financial and emotional).
For many people in Belarus, it seems, the change has already happened.
“The people who live here”
Prior to August 2020, Belarus’ political landscape has predominantly been seen – outside and inside the country - as a contest between Lukashenka and the Belarusian national opposition.
Most of the protests that preceded the August uprising have fallen into the logic of “colour revolution” and “electoral protest” - the 2006 Jeans or Blue Cornflower revolution, protests against the result of the presidential election in December 2010. People involved in the protest actions defined themselves and were presented in the media as “social activists”, “patriots” and “Belarusian dissidents”. The language of patriotism drew on nationalist discourse, and the idea of dissidence referred to resistance in the Soviet era. These protests were short-lived and “unsuccessful”, and were seen and framed as “failed revolutions”. For decades, Belarus was perceived and depicted as “the last dictatorship in Europe” with a “dormant population” and a national opposition that was small in numbers, under state pressure and so far unsuccessful in bringing change.
This time, it seems that a framework oriented around nationalism or Soviet-era dissent is too narrow for the current people’s movement. All sectors of society have mobilised - from the elderly to workers, from women to students, from artists to professional athletes. Minsk, the capital, became one of many arenas for people to express their discontent, alongside people voicing their demands in smaller towns across Belarus. Despite the crashing, disheartening and horrific state violence, the people on the streets have remained decidedly non-violent. There is no established party that leads the protests. The Coordination Council was formed in response to the persistence of people being out on the streets, but it is not the coordination centre of the protest. Instead, the role of the council is more political and diplomatic in nature, including holding dialogue with established political institutions in Europe and the illegal authorities in Belarus. For an external observer, the protests in Belarus are powerful, massive and visually stunning - yet probably repetitive, slow and too dispersed.
In Belarus’ recent political history, several protests share some crucial features with the ongoing mobilisation. For instance, the 2011 “Silent Revolution” was similarly leaderless: people mobilised by the deteriorating economic situation coordinated their action via social networks and deliberately avoided association with any opposition political parties. Some of its practices, including silent clapping of the crowd, are reproduced in the 2020 marches. As then, today there are no speeches, no protest centre, just a steady flow of people on the streets. Similar to the ongoing protests, the 2017 “Belarusian spring”, which saw mass mobilisation against the so-called “social parasite” tax, was also deemed “unexpected”. Local and international experts, as well as the media, were surprised by people suddenly turning out on the streets, including in Belarusian provincial towns.
All these parallels, as well as the current protest dynamic, point to the need to look beyond normative understanding of protests and account for slow and hidden resistance. Analyst, academic and media attention focus overwhelmingly on investigations of wars and other military-related conflicts and to studies and reports focused on governments, parties, and established political institutions, that nonviolent slow resistance can pose a challenge to be conceptualised and made comprehensive. Ideas and forms of social movements have been enormously influenced by the emergence and centralisation of the western democratic nation-state. As a result, the vision of and expectations from social movements as means of engaging in “public politics” have been largely shaped in democratic contexts. Therefore, they suggest western forms of liberal democracy as a universal path for protesters to follow. The success in this framework almost inevitably looks like a swift revolution, with key romantic heroes appearing on a nation’s path to modernisation, western democracy and free markets.
These bonds and networks, this new sense of meaningfulness - as well as a shared experience of living through grief and pain - cannot be undone in Belarus
While international and local media persistently uses the trope of “opposition” (with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya the key political figure), the protests have steadily decentralised and diversified with no apparent “oppositional organisers” within the country. One can observe many localised forms of protests: from performances to graffiti art, from “thematic” marches to women’s protests, from strikes to neighbourhood solidarity initiatives. The ways people in Belarus frame their demands outside the normative rhetoric of “human rights” and “democracy” when it comes to the choice of words and discourses. Protesters often use a famous poetic line (“To be called human”) by national writer Yanka Kupala to frame their sentiments and demands. They still unanimously demand fair free elections, freedom for political prisoners, the end of the state violence, and accountability for the perpetrators.
There is no explicit anti-Russian or pro-western/pro-European rhetoric, and there is no explicit preference for the use of Belarusian or Russian language, with people using the language they use in their everyday life – be it Russian, Belarusian, the fluid shifting ways of using both or trasianka (the various regional creole mixes). The people reclaim their land by making use of the local trope of “tuteishyia” (also borrowed from a Kupala poem), which refers to another form of belonging beyond the narrow idea of the nation state.
Tuteishyia means “those who live here”. The localised and contextual character of this form of collectivity, which is rooted in the protests, is significant. Because of it, it has become possible to create a broader alliance and engender solidarity. As performed in the ongoing resistance, this positioning encompasses diverse political ideas, visions of Belarus, ways of constructing one’s own political identity and, importantly, community identity. This experience when a society, usually dispersed and divided, starts functioning as a whole is precisely the change that has already happened. Not in terms of “the awakening of the nation”, but in terms of people coming together in times of great uncertainty, horrendous state violence, and the sense of urgency, solidarity and mutual aid.
These bonds and networks, this new sense of meaningfulness - as well as a shared experience of living through grief and pain - cannot be undone in Belarus. In this respect, the framework of a revolution with a desired projected outcome - against which success is so often measured - could be too narrow to truly grasp the importance and the transformative power of what is happening and what has already happened in Belarus.
Get our weekly email