Political science in practice ‘Meduza’ examines different scenarios for the opposition movement that’s swept Belarus
The protests in Belarus have entered a new stage, and it looks a lot like a stalemate. As demonstrated last Sunday, the scale of the opposition protests hasn’t decreased significantly. Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, which initially responded to the unrest with violence, has changed tactics and is now relying on a mixture of ignoring the size of the protests, persecuting the organizers (if they can find them), and putting on theatrical performances featuring Lukashenko in an effort to mobilize his supporters. Meanwhile, the regime’s power base — the security apparatus — isn’t showing any outward signs of breaking down. In this context, where compromise isn’t an option and neither side has a clear advantage, it seems impossible to predict the outcome of the standoff. However, according to researchers studying protests, who have analyzed hundreds of movements around the world over the past few decades, even in such difficult cases it’s possible to assess the likelihood of different possible outcomes, if not the exact results of the protests. Meduza applies this theory to the ongoing events in Belarus.
Why did the Lukashenko regime reach a point of crisis?
For a long time, the events in Belarus have resembled a classic case of “democracy by mistake,” as described by the political scientist who coined the term — UCLA professor Daniel Treisman. He explains that the transition from autocracy (most often, from a personalistic autocracy) to democracy usually takes place not because of the will, death, or resignation of the dictator in question, but because of their mistakes. The leaders of personalistic autocracies — liked modern day Russia or Belarus — seek to personally control too many aspects of public life; sooner or later they miscalculate, catastrophically undermining their own popularity, which, in turn, deprives them of legitimacy.
That said, how exactly these mistakes affected Lukashenko’s popularity remains unknown: the country has virtually banned independent sociology for several years. According to a leak from the state sociological service, in April 2020 — the start of the coronavirus epidemic, — only 24 percent of Belarusian citizens living in Minsk supported the president. Therefore, the scale of the protests in response to the rigged elections, which saw election officials “issue” more than 80 percent of the ballots to Lukashenko, shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Does that mean Lukashenko’s overthrow is inevitable?
Not necessarily. The concept of “democracy by mistake” doesn’t explain the differing results of protests in different countries with similar initial conditions.
In the last few decades alone, revolutions in different countries have taken a variety of different forms and led to differing results:
The situation in Belarus vaguely resembles that of Venezuela: it’s close to a stalemate. Despite its loss of legitimacy — from the point of view of a significant portion of the population, as well as many foreign governments that don’t recognize the results of the elections, — the regime can still rely on the loyalty of the security forces and hope for external assistance — primarily, from Russia. However, there’s clearly some holes in this analogy. The security forces supporting Lukashenko and the stubbornness of the opposition (which mobilizes tens and even hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrate in protest, but can’t offer them an effective mechanism for overthrowing the regime), doesn’t mean that the confrontation in Belarus will be dragged out for years.
How can you predict the course of a revolution?
Political science models, built on the basis of studying thousands of protests in dozens of countries over the last 25 years, offer assessments of the likelihood of different scenarios based on the “cost” the opposition puts forward for the authorities to “pay.”
There’s the cost of an “agreement,” which depends on the opposition’s demands and the perseverance with which it defends these demands. Obviously, a higher price means the regime or the members of the “coalition” that supports it will be less likely to compromise.
Then there’s the cost of the “damage” that the opposition can inflict on the authorities with its actions. The higher the cost, the more incentives the regime (or its allies) have to negotiate. “Damage” can mean very different things — from economic damage that occurs when the protests interrupt the normal functioning of enterprises, the financial system, and transportation, to social damage, which can include violent actions. However, in the latter case, the authorities are often inclined towards repression, rather than an agreement.
Here’s how different combinations of these factors can play out:
But what does this mean in practice?
The regime is left with a difficult task — to try and reduce the scale of the protests, as well as the costs, which would allow them to move on to the “targeted” persecution of the opposition’s coordinators and the organizers of the strikes. The alternative — to try and soften the protesters’ demands, for example, by offering them a compromise in the form of new elections without a preliminary change of power — no longer seems achievable. However, no one can say with certainty that the regime is absolutely monolithic and that there’s no one within the government who could do their own calculation of the “costs.”
If the protesters really want to achieve their goals, they need to increase the difference between the two “costs” — to make sure that the cost of an agreement is lower for at least some of the members of the regime than the scale of the “damages” that threaten them. The opposition has two options for its response: 1) prepare for counter-violence, in other words, increase the “damages” (the Euromaidan option), or 2) ease their demands for at least part of the “ruling coalition” (that is, the security forces).
The opposition doesn’t seem to be on board with the violent confrontation option: this idea is unacceptable to a significant segment of the protesters. In addition, the protesters taking violent action can partially legitimize the violence of the regime — if not within the country, then among some foreign sympathizers, for example, in Moscow and Beijing.
The “easing demands” option assumes that the opposition (it’s not yet clear on whose behalf) will abandon the idea of total lustration and stop ridiculing Lukashenko as “The Riot Police’s President.” This option worked in Bolivia in 2019, for example, when the police refused to support then-president Evo Morales, and he was forced to flee the country. There was no such option in Venezuela, where in all other respects — from the economy to electoral support — the regime was much weaker than in Bolivia. In order to negotiate with the security forces, the opposition needs an effective political structure that can speak on behalf of the protesters. The opposition leaders failed to create such a body — both before the elections and after, once the protests began.
That said, abandoning lustration poses a greater problem. According to economist Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the University of Chicago, the main issue is that lustration would form the basis of the opposition’s most reasonable economic program in the event that it comes to power. Without changes to law enforcement agencies, which have thus far interfered in private business, neither foreign, nor domestic investment is possible.
However, time is still working in opposition’s favor: according to researchers studying protests around the world, the longer the protests go on, the higher the cost of the damages inflicted upon the regime. In Belarus, this means the authorities’ financial situation is systematically deteriorating: the state budget was already running a deficit, while the country, after the start of the protests, effectively lost the opportunity to borrow from abroad. An increase in the deficit could (in quite some time) lead to Lukashenko simply having no money to pay the security officials for their “work.”
That said, Lukashenko can still hope for external support (as in the case of Venezuela’s President Maduro): Russia can always cover some of the losses the regime incurs from the protesters’ actions. It’s possible that, in theory, Moscow could refuse to support Lukashenko (political scientists close to the Kremlin have hinted at this), but this would require an alternative — a political structure in Belarus with which the Russian authorities could discuss a common future.