Unrest and Popular Protest in ex-Soviet states (Part II): What Belarus Means for Putin’s Future

Belarusian police guard government building during protest (Getty Images)

Since the turn of the 21st century, Russia has been seen as the primary rival of many democratic countries worldwide. Despite China’s rapid rise in recent years, much attention remains focused on authoritarianism and democratic backsliding in Russia and other ex-Soviet countries. Ironically, however, it is at the moment when Western countries pay the least attention to foreign affairs that these countries see the most opportunity for change. As protests consume countries like Belarus and Russia, we take a look at whether they stand a chance of reforming the government. We’ll first analyze the demonstrations in Belarus and then examine Russia’s recent protests. Finally, for the last issue, we’ll discuss how these protests might impact their country leader’s grip on power and what it might mean for the world at large.

It has been a while since the protests in Belarus made headlines in America. However, despotic leaders around the world are still looking to Belarus—and its president Alexander Lukashenko—for its failed approach to silence widespread opposition. More specifically, protests in the wake of a rigged election in early August demanding electoral accountability have persisted despite repeated police violence, upsetting the delicate balance of Russian politics. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin is further tightening his grip on power—although this show of force will further restrict democratic expression and opposition in Russia, it exposes the fragility of Putin’s rule and presents the potential for increased political resistance in the future.

Since the first edition of this three-part Regional Focus series in early October, election protests in Belarus have continued despite government oppression. A further 18,000 protesters were arrested by the police, though that has not quelled their fervor. Rather than backing down as a result of repeated police violence, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya restated her dedication to election accountability and declared in early December that a “book of crimes” detailing independently verified instances of police abuse would soon be published. While international response remains lackluster, the European Union has sanctioned nearly fifty senior Belarusian officials (including Lukashenko himself). It has stopped short of placing sanctions on state-owned companies (which inflicts heavier economic damage and tends to be a more serious response), although it promised to do so on November 19. As the standoff between protesters and police continues, foreign allies remain extremely influential due to their ability to place economic and political pressure on the Lukashenko administration. 

Lukashenko, however, is not the only one fretting about the outcome of the demonstrations in Belarus. Because Belarus is structurally and ethnically similar to Russia, the movement has affected Putin’s own political stability. Over the last twenty years, he has maintained his vise on power thanks to a brutally efficient mixture of intimidation, oppression, and state-sponsored violence. However, dictatorial regimes only succeed so long as citizens are legitimately intimidated by threats of violence. Most citizens are unwilling to air their private grievances for fear of retribution, meaning that they will be emboldened once the aura of state invincibility fades and they start to believe in their own solidarity.

Unfortunately for Putin, this is precisely what is happening around the country—and most notably in Khabarovsk, a city in Russia’s Far East. In September 2018, Sergei Furgal—an opposition candidate—won the gubernatorial election despite President Putin’s backing of Furgal’s rival. Furgal’s success was generally regarded as a massive upset, and the Moscow Times wrote that “Protest-minded voters in the region back then were ready to vote for anyone in order to defeat the candidate backed by the regime.” In July 2020, Furgal was arrested on charges of involvement in multiple murders. Furgal has vehemently denied the allegations, and an anonymous employee of the Russian presidential administration has since revealed that the arrest was “only about the politics” and “not about the murder. In response to what many felt was a wholly political protest, tens of thousands showed up to protest in Khabarovsk. On their own, the protests simply marked the gradual deterioration of Putin’s power, especially in the Far Eastern region of Russia. However, once the protests in Belarus began to take shape after its sham election in August, protesters in Khabarovsk started chanting slogans such as “long live Belarus.” For oppressive regimes, which rely on creating the illusions that dissenters are alone in their beliefs, this is worrying. 

With this understanding, Russian opposition candidate Alexei Navalny’s poisoning on August 20 of 2020, can be interpreted as a frantic attempt to prevent democracy from gaining any more ground in the Russian sphere of influence. Many view Navalny as the candidate with the most considerable chance of ousting Putin; Navalny has rapidly risen in popularity over the last few years due to his anti-corruption work within the Russian government. To attempt such a high-profile assassination is a risky political gambit (to say nothing of its moral abhorrence). Putin has shown his hand and revealed his fears of usurpation by attempting to silence Navalny—that Navalny survived means that he will likely gain more supporters as the government receives more backlash. 

However, all this is not to say that a popular revolution in Russia looks imminent or even likely. Although dictatorships may seem on the verge of collapse, it is difficult to predict when they actually dissolve. What’s more, the destabilization of neighboring Belarus may even offer Russia an opportunity to take control. In mid-September, Russia agreed to loan 1.5 billion dollars to Belarus—although it is unclear what Belarus provided in return, some have speculated that Russia may have demanded political compliance. 

Conjectures aside, civil unrest remains a growing concern for Lukashenko and Putin. As their economies slump (oil, whose demand has fallen sharply due to reduced travel and industrial output from the pandemic, makes up nearly 30% of Russia’s GDP) and voices of opposition grow louder, they will find that they can no longer appease their citizens. The outcome may be uncertain, but it is clear that the next few months will be a tumultuous time for politics in the region.