A Tormented History of Conflict
The fall of 1989 saw the collapse of the Iron Curtain between Eastern and Western Europe and the end of the Cold War. What started as a worker’s movement challenging the government for authority in Poland sparked a series of uprisings, culminating finally with the collapse of the Soviet Union itself two years later in 1991. Even as Belarus declared independence from the Union, renaming itself from Belarusian SSR (BSSR) to the Republic of Belarus, it’s watershed moment of 1989 never fully materialised. Having elected Alyaksandr Lukashenka as the President in 1994, the newly independent republic saw an immediate return to old Soviet symbols as well as close integration with Russia. As Lukashenka completes 26 years in office as the only post-Soviet president that Belarus has known, we take an in-depth look at the history of Belarus and it’s continued struggle with authoritarianism in light of the ongoing protests.
Sandwiched between Poland, Russia, Ukraine and the Baltics, this young nation began to develop a national identity only in the 19th century, along with several other nationalist movements picking up all over Europe. In the 19th century, Belarus came under the Russian Empire who outlawed the notion that Belarusians were distinct persons from Russians. The first instance of an assertion of unique identity happened under the leadership of Konstanty Kalinowsky, a writer, journalist, and lawyer who led the Polish, Lithuanian and Belarusian national revival during the January Uprising of 1863. While he was able to achieve some initial success against the Russian armies, the revolt was crushed and Kalinowsky was sentenced to death at age 26. Of course, this failed to invalidate the Belarusian claims of a unique identity, which continued to exist, whether or not the St. Petersburg government liked it.
With the beginning of World War I in 1914, the status of Belarus changed massively in quick succession in a short period of time. With boundaries being redrawn and ownership transferred between Germany, Poland and Russia several times before World War II, modern day Belarus took shape after boundaries were drawn post USSR’s annexation of Poland. While BSSR enjoyed its own seat in the UN after WWII, the country never really enjoyed independence in any way as a part of the Soviet Union. Considered as the most ‘Russified’ of all the Republics, notions of national revival were limited even during the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Even then, a small nationalist tendency in the new government led to reforms such as Belarusian becoming the only official language and the re-adoption of the flag and coat of arms of the Belarusian People’s Republic (declared in 1918) for the new nation.
These policies did not last very long as 1994 saw the rise of Alyaksandr Lukashenka to the highest office and a renewal of close economic links with Russia, under the promise of economic prosperity. In the years to follow, Russo-centrism became official ideology as Russian was restored as one of the official languages in 1996 and a version of the Soviet-era flag was reinstated. With the establishment of the “Commonwealth of Belarus and Russia” on 2nd April 1996, economic and military ties with Russia were cemented, paving the way for a future Russia-Belarus federation.
This bond can be understood easily if one looks at the leaders at the helm of both nations. In ways more than one, Belarus and Russia have witnessed a similar trajectory under authoritarian leaders. Both Lukashenka and Putin have shown remarkably similar traits when it comes to governing their states and maintaining their hold on power. Promises of stability and restoration of a glorious imaginary past from the Soviet days have been the cornerstone of the state rhetoric. Both leaders have made changes to the constitution so that they can effectively stay in power forever and have shown through repeated incidents that they are not afraid to use violent suppression in order to protect their regime.
As they deploy similar techniques of oppression and seem to learn from each other’s experiences, their shortcomings are also eerily similar. While both leaders command complete control of state structures, they have utterly failed to bring about economic or cultural renewal. Neither has a plausible successor; with Mr. Lukashenka presenting his 15-year-old son in combat gear; and Mr. Putin attempting to delay the problem by allowing himself to stay in power until 2036.
Discontent has been building up in Belarus for years, with the new generation becoming increasingly disillusioned with Lukashenka’s promises to restore Soviet-style order and pride. The leader’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic by refusing to impose lockdowns and denying the existence of the virus, has led to thousands of citizens taking over the functions of the state to protect and inform the public. This form of civic activism has transformed into political activism with the country’s citizens undergoing a national awakening.
However, this isn’t the first uprising that Belarus has seen since Lukashenka came into power. Protests against the authoritarian government have cropped up time and again, with citizens opposing the rigged elections, oppressive laws and celebrating the anniversary of Belarus’ short-lived independence from Russia in 1918.
While both Russia and Belarus have been so far successful in crushing any form of dissent, through violent means or otherwise, the latest series of protests in 2020 have invoked a stronger reaction from the government. While protests raged in Belarus, another movement began to take shape in the far-east Russian city of Khabarovsk with demonstrators on the streets since July, protesting against the arrest of a popular local governor, Sergei Furgal, who was elected against the Kremlin’s wishes. As the revolution in Belarus gained momentum, slogans of “Long Live Belarus” could be seen in Khabarovsk.
It is this connection between the two movements that has struck a nerve and has led to strong reactions from both governments, as they continue to rely on propaganda and persecution to maintain their hold over an increasingly frustrated society. While the result of this latest wave of protests in Belarus remains to be seen, it is increasingly becoming a turning point for the most enduringly Soviet of the former Soviet nations, and one that takes us all the way back to 1989.
This article is part of our Special Report on the crisis in Belarus. You can view the complete catalog of articles on this subject here.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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The author is a PGP student at IIM-Indore, India, and a graduate of Hansraj College, University of Delhi, India.