March of Peace and Independence, Minsk, Belarus

The protests in Belarus: How to build a democratic transition under Russia’s orbit

Anna Ohanyan

Anna Ohanyan

Anna is Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Stonehill College.

Since August 10th, mass protests in Belarus have been challenging President Lukashenko’s 26 year-long autocratic rule in Belarus. The protests have not died down despite heavy handed and violent crackdown by the government. Importantly, the protests are unfolding in Russia’s security orbit, making them vulnerable to the Russia-West geopolitical confrontation. A similar mass-based protest movement, also in Russia’s security orbit, erupted in Armenia in 2018. The successful application of Armenia’s Velvet revolution, executed via a nonviolent disobedience campaign, offers important lessons for understanding democratic transitions in geopolitically charged settings around Russia’s peripheries.
Since the fraudulent presidential elections on August 9th, mass protests in Belarus continue unabated. The scale of protests has surprised many because since taking power in 1994, President Lukashenko suppressed the nascent and short-lived democratic institutions in the country. Public spaces of political contestation have largely disappeared as a result. September 27th marked the 50th day of the protests with over 100,000 people gathered and major streets in Minsk blocked off. Lukashenko’s secretive inauguration amidst the mass protests, while lacking in legitimacy, marked the 26th year of Lukashenko’s rule in Belarus. Dozens of demonstrators are arrested and beaten up after each weekly Sunday protest, and use of force against the peaceful protesters has done little to calm and contain the demonstrations.

March of Peace and Independence, Minsk, Belarus
the March of Peace and Independence, Minsk, Belarus, 30.08.2020. Photo @ Andrew Keymaster for Unsplash

Democratic transitions from above and below

The protests in Belarus are significant because they are taking place against the backdrop of weakening Western support for democratic movements in Eastern Europe. The post-Cold War democratic consensus in Eastern Europe and Eurasia has been steadily eroding over the past two decades. According to Freedom House, an American non-governmental organization which has been tracking levels and degrees of freedom around the world since 1941, there has been marked democratic decline inside the EU countries. Long considered as democratic examples and stellar reformers in the early years of the post-Cold War period, Hungary and Poland have experienced painfully precipitous declines in the region. As members of both the European Union and NATO, the democratic degradation in these two countries offers a stark and chilling comparison to the mass anti-government protests in Belarus. The mass protests in Belarus against the backdrop of democratic backsliding inside the EU are particularly significant because they are unfolding in a country which has been firmly lodged in Russia’s authoritarian orbit. Belarus has been a key state in an alliance system which Russia has built in the post-Cold War period, mostly to regain political influence over the post-Soviet states (1).

The democratic declines in Eastern Europe, inside the EU’s democratic tent, and the mass protests for greater democratization in Belarus, inside Russia’s authoritarian tent, may seem different political stories at first glance. Indeed, they do have different drivers and causes. These political developments are occurring in states with different political systems, which many may argue defy easy comparisons. The countries inside the EU have succeeded in consolidating their democratic transition in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, largely buffered and supported by EU membership mechanisms. In contrast, Belarus has devolved into consolidated authoritarianism, with its currently embattled President Lukashenko at the helm. As such, Belarus’ hard authoritarianism is in sharp contrast to largely consolidated democratic systems in Eastern European countries that joined the EU in the post-Cold War period.

At the same time, the steady encroachment of geopolitical competition between major powers is a shared factor explaining events both inside the EU and in Belarus (2). Indeed, the geopolitical competition between major powers, such as Russia, China, the US, and Turkey, has been a significant factor fueling this democratic decline in Eastern Europe. The presence of increasingly authoritarian external powers provided populist elites in weak democratic settings with political cover and economic alternatives to liberal democracy. Early democratic declines inside the EU and its immediate neighborhood were tolerated by the EU, largely driven by the fear of losing them to Russia. Tactical and tangible support to populist and anti-systemic actors in these countries, such as extreme right wing parties, has also been significant. They have enabled criminality and state capture as in the Balkans. Deployment of corruption as a foreign policy strategy has been particularly noteworthy.

Yet, paradoxically, the democratic declines inside the EU’s democratic umbrella have been paralleled by bottom-up pro-democratic protests inside Russia’s authoritarian security umbrella. The protests in Belarus have been unrelenting. The candidate of the opposition forces in Belarus is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who, despite widespread public support, garnered only 10% of the vote, according to official accounts. As post-election protests erupted after the vote, she was forced to flee the country, and is currently trying to engage with the international community from her base in Lithuania.

Geopolitical divisions between the Kremlin and the Western democratic orbit, centered on the EU, has been a significant factor, but still fortunately remains a background rather than a driving condition in Belarus. The embattled Lukashenko has been trying to pull Russia into the crisis in Belarus, a scenario the Kremlin is not shy to advance. Joint military exercises between Belarus and Russia have been recurrent, as are statements from the Kremlin that Russia is ready to assist Belarus militarily if protesters “cross the line”. Still, direct involvement from Russia did not transpire.

Indeed, a direct geopolitical clash over a domestic push for political transition has been avoided in Belarus. This is in sharp contrast to the Maidan events in Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine’s mass protests were engulfed by geopolitics and were securitized quite quickly, after the Kremlin moved forward with the Crimea annexation while building a conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region. The emergence of separatism in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region derailed the country’s chances of membership in the EU and NATO. But it also evaporated pre existing goodwill among Ukrainians towards the Kremlin.

Armenia’s Velvet and Lessons for Belarus

Ukraine in 2014 struggled to transcend the geopolitical divisions between Russia and the West – a division which has been fracturing regions in the post-Communist space since the Soviet collapse (2). In contrast to Belarus, Ukraine’s geopolitical positioning in the post-Cold War period was much more ambiguous, with political leaders and elites seesawing between east and west, depending on where the economic resources and political rents were coming from. Largely transactional, politics in Ukraine became securitized, with corruption and oligarchy still remaining a major strategic hurdle towards consolidating the country’s democratic transition processes in the post-Cold War period.

Belarus under Lukashenko has always remained within Russia’s authoritarian orbit. The economic support from the Kremlin has played a key role in sustaining Lukashenko’s regime, thwarting civil society development in the country. Russification policies have also been consistent, translating into the suppression of Belarusian identity in this Slavic nation.

To understand the local developments in Belarus, lessons from the South Caucasus, in Armenia’s 2018 Velvet revolution, are more applicable than those from Ukraine next door. Described as “color revolutions”, democratic breakthroughs in Ukraine and Georgia have occurred largely top-down, with political elites, often with Western support, leading the way. As in Belarus, the protests in Armenia bubbled-up from below, with a nonviolent disobedience campaign as its signature (4). As such, the mass protests in Armenia allowed its leaders to shield the movement from geopolitical framing, pro-democracy/pro-West-or-anti-Russia. During its Velvet revolution, the movement leaders signaled early, clearly and consistently that the movement’s goals were domestic, directed against the then incumbent president who was trying to stay in power through orchestrating constitutional changes. Belarus’ leaders also signaled the domestic roots of their movement, while embattled Lukashenko consistently tries to create an external boogeyman, pointing to fictitious threats from NATO troops at the border. In contrast, the tactical support from the West and the top-down patterns of democratic breakthroughs made the Ukrainian and Georgian cases more vulnerable to geopolitical division between the West and Russia.

The bottom-up drivers of the movement in both the Belarusian and Armenian cases, and the practice of nonviolent strategy helped to diversify the composition of the protestors. Large numbers of women in both cases signaled the peaceful nature of the protests (5), and helped to build large numbers in the streets. The creative tactics of protest in both cases have been notable. Some women have been marching in bridal dresses with red waist belts, reminiscent of Belarus’ white-red-white flag during its short-lived independence in 1918, before its absorption into the emerging Soviet Union. In Armenia, the creativity of protestors was visible by string quartets and “stroller” Moms blocking streets and paralyzing traffic, creating a festival-like mood in the country.

Indeed, in Belarus, the role of women, whether in leadership or among the protestors, has been most significant and striking. Defying violence from the security forces in Belarus, women have been coming out in large numbers in Belarus’ protests. As in Armenia and many post-Soviet states, women were excluded from formal political institutions and newly formed legislative bodies. Many of them moved to civil society instead. In both cases of democratic mobilization, civil society actors have been driving the change, with women leading the way. Indeed, in the post-Soviet countries women emerged as the Trojan Horse for authoritarian forces and political elites, pushing for democratization. And such tactics of mass mobilization played a critical role in mobilizing large numbers of people on the ground, thereby constraining options for direct military intervention from Russia. The strategic application of people power in both Armenia and Belarus only adds to the large body of evidence pertaining to the effectiveness of nonviolent disobedience as a political strategy of social change.

While comparisons between the two countries are important, particularly for movement leaders in Belarus, the differences between the two cases are also significant. In contrast to Armenia’s “soft” authoritarianism, Belarus’ brand of authoritarianism was one of full consolidation. The softer authoritarianism in Armenia created several openings for civil society. The shallow and often sham democratic institutions, such as opposition parties in parliament, became important levers of change when the mass mobilization started. Regular elections, while fraudulent, also elevated the democratic habits and expectations of the population. In contrast, a harsher authoritarianism worked to suppress Belarusian identity. Civil society in Belarus was the weakest in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, by some accounts. European foreign assistance programs directed for civil society development were regularly diluted by the Lukashenko regime (3).

In its economic dimensions, Belarus has been heavily reliant on Russia, of which oil and gas subsidies are only one form of aid. Belarus has also been less dependent on Western aid than the Armenian economy. Importantly, and in contrast to Armenia, which underwent economic privatization in the immediate period following the Soviet collapse, Belarus has largely maintained the Soviet-era structures and foundations of its economy. This meant a larger share of the public sector in the economy, which translated into concentration of political power in the hands of Lukashenko. Armenia’s privatized economy, while creating large income inequalities, also decentralized political power in the country, making mass protests politically more likely.

The most important factor, however, is the drastically different regional neighborhoods in which Belarus and Armenia are located. Armenia’s chances of a democratic breakthrough were much weaker at the time, in 2018. Armenia was engulfed in an armed conflict with Azerbaijan over the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), which sought secession from Azerbaijan in the twilight years of the Soviet collapse. The NK conflict created the familiar security-versus-democracy trade-off: calls for democratization were silenced by the existing security challenges from next door (4). In addition, aside from the largely democratic Georgia, Armenia’s neighbors were, and remain, fully authoritarian. Authoritarianism in Azerbaijan and Turkey has been mutually reinforcing and deepening over the years. In contrast, Belarus is in a regionally more resilient neighborhood. It is surrounded by countries that are relatively democratic, despite significant democratic decline in Poland and the merely nascent democratic institutions in Ukraine. Its proximity to the Baltic states, exemplars of regional resiliency, translated into strong public diplomacy support for the protesters in Belarus.

In conclusion, the golden age of Western-backed democracy promotion is ending. And this can be good news for building bottom-up and more sustainable democratic change, as Armenia’s democratic, Velvet breakthrough has demonstrated. Recognizing the existing reserves and capacities in such states for pushing towards democracy from the bottom-up is a lesson powerfully demonstrated in Armenia and reinforced in Belarus. People power, organic, grass-roots protest, with women at the frontlines, is a crucial political mechanism for building and sustaining such bottom-up democratic change in this new and uncertain geopolitical environment. Lastly, such a bottom-up push for democratic change can correct the dangerous detour in democratization that has been emerging inside the new democracies in the EU.


Anna Ohanyan



  1. Sakwa, R., “Russia Against the Rest: The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order”, 2017
  2. Ohanyan, A., “Russia Abroad: Driving Regional Fracture in Post-Communist Eurasia and Beyond”, edited, 2018.
  3. Lenzi, M., “. “Lost Civilization: The Thorough Repression of Civil Society in Belarus.” Demokratizatsiya, 2002.
  4. Broers, L. and Ohanyan, A., “Armenia’s Velvet Revolution: Authoritarian Decline and Civil Resistance in a Multipolar World”, edited, 2020.
  5. Chenoweth, E. and Stephan, M., “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, 2011.
  6. Levitsky, s. and Lucan, W., “Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War, 2011.
Received: 28.09.20, Ready: 09.10.20, Editors: Federico Germani, Alexander F. Brown.

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