This article by Elena Spasiuk was originally published on Naviny.by and appeared on Transitions Online on December 2, 2021. It is republished as part of a content-sharing partnership and has been edited to fit the GV style.
The August 2020 presidential election in Belarus triggered unprecedented street protests against Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s official victory. What has been happening in Belarus since the summer of 2020 and why? Was it a revolution? Political analysts shared their thoughts with independent Belarusian news outlet Naviny.
Why did the Belarusians rise up?
Belarusian society stepped into 2020 in the midst of a dramatic transformation of values, Pavel Daneyko, an economist and administrative director of the Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC), said at an online meeting organized by theCenter for New Ideas think tank.
About 50 percent of the economically active population in Belarus is currently employed in the private sector. According to Daneyko, this was one of the reasons behind people’s activism during the 2020 election campaign.
Positive attitudes among people toward private business also played a role, he said. This can be largely attributed to the fact that many businesses in the country were established from scratch, with a significant number of them in the manufacturing sector, so many people, especially those not employed in the government sector, “had the feeling that they themselves shape their future,” he said.
He cited the findings of the World Values Survey that a significant portion of Belarusians are willing to take responsibility for their lives instead of shifting it to the state, and many support private property ownership.
“As for the distribution of income, the Belarusians, like the Swedes, believe that the state should support vulnerable groups. Overall, our configuration of values is similar to that in Sweden or the Baltic states. Its essence is about taking responsibility for your own life as well as assuming social and individual responsibility,” Daneyko noted.
An important driver of this mindset was a reduction in government spending on social programs, including education, health care, and social support, coupled with tax policy changes in 2005 and 2006, said Gennady Korshunov, a sociologist and senior researcher at the Center for New Ideas. At the same time, he said, those changes prompted the government to allow private entrepreneurship to develop, which coincided with the digitalization of society accompanied by the rise of social media networks and growing accessibility of digital infrastructure. On the whole, in Korshunov’s view, the government relaxed restrictions for business and society.
Belarusians also began to travel abroad a lot, seeing different ways of life, while the internet made communications easier. As a result, many people underwent a change of values, the sociologist said.
The transformation of values that began 15 years earlier because of many factors reached its climax. This happened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the government demonstrated its ineptitude or even refused outright to deal with the crisis. The politicization of social processes also played a role, with everything possible set on edge.
Who backed change?
According to Korshunov, supporters of change and their opponents vary little by education, age, or the population of their home city. “This is a civilization gap, a mindset difference. Some people want to be responsible for themselves, their family or the country, while others just don’t.”
In psychological terms, we can speak of locus of control. Some people have an internal locus of control. They themselves determine their lives. Others have an external locus, giving somebody else the right to control their lives. From the point of view of large-scale social change, a part of the people with an internal locus of control is the most progressive part of society and they have now in fact transformed into a digital society.
However, Korshunov said, the policies the government has pursued in the past 25 years have stimulated a movement back to traditional social models. Chiefly, this came about because one person fills the leading role in public life, and “the rest are his subjects, vassals. Everything depends on the will of this person in this rigidly structured authoritarian system,” he said.
Growing number of undecideds
Apart from supporters and opponents of change, there are also people who stay neutral and declare themselves indifferent to what is happening in the country. Unlike in 2020, when their number was insignificant with the majority clearly divided into government supporters and opponents on the side of the protesters, this cohort now “forms a third vertex of the triangle, and this is a natural process,” Korshunov said.
Those who weren’t sure which side they should take have now joined a neutral group. The Belarusians have been living with extreme stress for more than a year, and this cannot last for long. Fear is another factor. According to one poll, 60 to 70 percent of the population in large cities are concerned about their safety, meaning that going neutral is a self-defense mechanism.
Finally, the sociologist said, there is an economic factor as prices are increasing much faster than wages while the variety of products in stores grows smaller, forcing people to “think about their survival.” “You and your children should first have enough food. Only then will you be able to think about some strategic, lofty things.”
Can TV propaganda have an influence on those still undecided? According to Korshunov, the viewers of Belarusian TV are mostly government opponents rather than supporters or undecideds. They watch “for information or fun,” he said. “Propaganda fails to reach its intended audience.”
Overall, state propaganda doesn’t have a profound impact on the minds of the masses. It may only cement the views that those who are watching Belarusian TV channels already have. However, one should remember that if you pull a pendulum too far to one side, it will go the same distance when swinging back. Propaganda is a very subtle art where you should know how to switch back and forth from softness to roughness or extreme caution. There is no subtlety in the Belarusian authorities’ propaganda.
Fundamental social changes
Belarusians have undergone a major transformation, Daneyko said. They have begun to openly express positions, something they had never done before. “Opinions were not voiced in the passive society. The government had passive support from people, but it is gone now.”
Korshunov agreed. Politically speaking, he said, a revolution takes place only when the government is overthrown, but this is a narrow viewpoint because essentially, “a revolution is a system’s transition from one state to another, which is about a change in quality.”
This is what has happened in Belarus, he said.
All the people cannot change completely at once, he added:
Usually, it is 5-10 percent of the population who determine the country’s development path. What is remarkable about Belarus is that more than half of the population is now ready for change, working in this direction. The Belarusians have re-envisioned their national identity, giving birth to a new civil society and reformatting social processes that generate new patterns of behavior. New economic practices have emerged. It’s indisputable that the processes that took place in Belarus were revolutionary in essence.
There has been a “digital social revolution” in the country, and now, “Belarusian society is spread everywhere on the planet where there are Belarusians,” he said.
Though living on different continents, the Belarusians are acting as a collective force, Korshunov noted, citing a demonstration staged by Belarusians outside the headquarters of Czech carmaker Skoda, the main sponsor of the 2021 World Ice Hockey Championship, demanding that the company withdraw its sponsorship if the event took place in Minsk.
“The Belarusians spontaneously joined forces to tackle their problems using their strong human capital, newly born social capital, and high intellect,” Korshunov said.
They have started to lobby for their interests all over the world. It’s phenomenal. Our horizontal connections and shared pain from the collective Akrestsina [a detention center in Minsk where anti-Lukashenka protesters were severely beaten] have built strong and partly painful ties triggering processes that are still unfolding and God knows where they will take us.