Protestors took to the streets to oppose the fraudulent election of “Europe’s Last Dictator” Alexander Lukashenko in the 2020 Belarusian presidential elections. Their defiance of the Lukashenko regime and the call for political reforms represent a shift in Belarusian civil society. The protests are still ongoing, with former opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya calling for a 2nd organized wave of protests from political exile in Lithuania. The movement to see a change in leadership in Belarus comes at a time of civil society expansion and coordination to provide organization, funding, and legal protection for activists on the streets. The integration of the movement into civil society increased the durability of the movement to continue through the winter and resist the repression of the Lukashenko regime. The movement against Lukashenko strengthens itself by using virtual civil society to generate growth and solidarity in conventional civil society.
The Summer of Freedom
The demonstrations immediately after the August 9th election centered around the fraudulent election of Lukashenko, the swift crack down of peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrests of citizens outside polling stations . These protests were largely leaderless lacking strategic planning and were organized online, through Telegram. The movement swelled to hundreds of thousands of protestors in the street weekly, almost 80% were motivated by the violence of the Lukashenko regime. This connective apparatus was beneficial for linking different groups of people who held a diversity of political opinions. However, Mark Beissinger warns that “while virtual civil society injects a high degree of volatility, when it is combined with a weak conventional civil society there are a series of consequences”.
For the case of Belarus, the protestors themselves were united in having Lukashenko step down and organize new elections but differed in secondary goals like the want for a fully democratic Belarus, and for better living conditions. In the beginning days of the protest serious holes existed in the movement: there was no organized leadership, there was no collective identity, and with growing political repression there was concern that the movement wouldn’t last. The change came when Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya created a new civil society group, the Coordination Council, to formalize leadership, create new working groups to satisfy the needs of the community and collaborate with existing Belarusian civil society. This hybridized effect, Beissinger writes, allows movements to “use electronic networks to tap into groundswells of citizen opinion.”
The Coordination Council: the link between protest and civil society
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya created the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power to represent the entirety of Belarusian society seeking to institutionalize leadership in the movement against Lukashenko. In order to accomplish this, the council is open to any citizen of Belarus who believes that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and comprises itself of wide range of political activists, former government ministers, members of other opposition parties, as well as fellow NGO chairs. The consolidation and support of the private sector, NGO sector, and activism sector allow for a unified message and the creation of shared goals : ending violence, release all political prisoners, and conduct new elections. These shared goals sought to create a collective identity across all groups by recognizing the Coordination Council as the primary negotiator between the movement and the government. The unification of the Coordination Council with other civil society organizations allows for an interconnected web of support that otherwise would not be available to protestors. The Coordination Council provides a centralized location online, for getting medical, legal, and even economic help for protestors.
The Coordination Council has tried to facilitate the growth of a collective identity by creating working groups to address collective action problems. For example, some protestors wanted to focus the movement on the investigation of violence committed against protestors and the release of all political prisoners, to formalize their wants, the Coordination Council created the political prisoners and human rights violation working group. The group consists of a media group, legal group, and creative team for protestors to be apart of and contribute towards change, providing alternative ways to help the movement overall. Additionally, the Coordination Council created local discussion boards across all regions of Belarus so activists can find local groups to coordinate and plan for future demonstrations. The online resources are extensive, but Beissinger warns that without conventional civil society growth to accompany virtual expansion, the movement could “reinforce the fragmentation and weakness of conventional civil society”. In order to properly grow civil society, the movement needed solidarity and moral obligations between protestors to continue to apply pressure against Lukashenko.
One of the great achievements of the protest movement so far has been increasing the rights and roles of women in the fight against the Lukashenko regime. In his campaign for his sixth term, Alexander Lukashenko stated that Belarusian society “was not ready to see a female leader” and believed that the burden of the presidency would cause her to “collapse, poor thing”. The opposition wanted to highlight the link between Lukashenko and patriarchy, and in response the top three opposition parties merged to support Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to “show what female solidarity is”. The unification of female solidarity in Sviatlana’s campaign for presidency, linked her movement for president to the larger network of feminist groups in Belarus struggling for gender equality.
The Coordination Council actively incorporated these feminist groups into their leadership as well as creating its own feminist group for the movement. Leadership on the ground has also been led by women, during the Summer of Freedom thousands of women formed solidarity chains in support of one another against the Lukashenko regime. Even beyond the Summer of Freedom, in October women continued to march in defiance of the regime. The rise of female solidarity seeks “to express political demands considering themselves a political subject” in Belarus, rather than an equal. The fight against Lukashenko becomes a fight for equality politically, culturally, and morally. Beissinger notes that “virtual society does not seem capable of sustaining a sense of solidarity beyond specific windows of contention,” but the incorporation and growth of female solidarity by Sviatlana and the Coordination Council shows a positive trend in getting protestors to think about larger collective goals rather than individual grievances, a sign of collective identity growth.
While the movement was able to create a leadership structure around Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and continue demonstrations, it is unknown if the Coordination Council and its civil society partners can mobilize hundreds of thousands of people who came out in the Summer of Freedom. During the winter of 2020, the Coordination Council has worked towards creating solidarity identities to strengthen the collective identity of the protest movement and has renewed calls for protests in the spring and summer. While the movement has yet to fulfill its collective goals of changing the government, it has already generated positive change by making a lasting impact on what it means to be Belarusian and planting roots for the movement in civil society.