November 23, 2023

Peoplehood in Belarus: from Democracy to Dictatorship and Back

Vladimir Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenko visit the Valam monastery on Lake Ladoga, July 24, 2023.
Vladimir Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenko visit the Valam monastery on Lake Ladoga, July 24, 2023.

The democratic opposition in Belarus is still fragmented. While they do share a common vision of a post-Lukashenko free Belarus, there is a lack of specificity. Until there’s a united front, no one is likely to overcome the current authority. Fragmentation also hinders the strengthening of the support of the European Union, Professor Elena Korosteleva found in an interview given to Diplomaatia magazine at the Riga Conference.

TF: There is a regional tradition to always ask the two main questions: who is to blame and what shall we do about it? So, how did we end up with Lukashenka, how did the country slide down towards a dictatorship, and what to do about it?

EK: There are several reasons, especially from an academic perspective, as to how we ended up with Lukashenka in the first place. First, a country that was back then newly formed, with independence and sovereignty gained in 1991, inherited the Soviet elites – they became the establishment in Belarus. Meanwhile, the people, of course, wanted something new, particularly in the early 1990s when we were all experiencing hardships amid an economic downfall. The whole system was collapsing and, naturally, people were blaming it on everything and everyone, especially on those who used to belong to the Soviet system and its establishment.

What happened next was that Lukashenko appeared to have come out of nowhere – he was actually from outside the system. He seemed to belong to the masses and to have come out of the masses. His image appealed to the people. And so did the way he designed his electoral campaign. He rallied against corruption, although he actually manufactured a lot of the corruption stories himself, including the accusations against the then-members of the parliament. It clearly appealed to the people and, in a way, ushered in the decision to move towards the presidential system. Lukashenka came to power through the first and only relatively democratic election in Belarus. What happened since then was the slide towards dictatorship.

Belarus was a young democracy. It was quite difficult for people to even understand how democracy should really work, especially in the context, as I mentioned, of how difficult it was to handle while everything was falling apart. Therefore, people were looking for some order or a semblance of order. That semblance of order, in the best Soviet traditions, they saw in somebody with a strong hand. This is why, in a referendum, people voted for the presidential system in the first place. This is how the system emerged. People were looking for somebody who could actually put the country together and lead them in a very authoritative – not authoritarian – way. And this is how Lukashenka engineered himself. Once in power, he immediately started reducing freedoms and liberties on different levels and in separate branches of government, thus consolidating his grip. He changed the Constitution through a referendum. He built a system that would only serve one – i.e., the president. And he has been the only president ever since.

There were other mistakes, too. It was not just the desire of the people, I think. The guardrails of a democracy were not there, so people easily fell into a trap. The problem with Belarus was that, as Belarusians, we did not really have a clear idea of what our nationhood should all be about. We were just forming as a nation. The national movements especially in the Baltic states were rather powerful. They were able to rally people around their ideas, which helped countries to free themselves from the Soviet legacy. In Belarus, however, when the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) came up, if anything, it frightened people. For example, the BPF and its leader Zianon Pozniak insisted on imposing the national language, meaning that only the Belarusian language could be used in civil service. Such actions alienated many, and the BPF struggled to win enough supporters to sort of counterbalance Lukashenka. Whereas Lukashenka used it, as well as sentiment of nostalgia, to his own advantage. People were longing to go back to the “better times,” which was basically the route towards Lukashenko’s success, plus all the institutional powers he had and the Constitution he had changed. We did not really have a strong political system to counteract his power grab.


Professor Elena Korosteleva, Professor of Politics and Global Sustainable Development, IGSD, University of Warwick, Co-Founder of the Oxford Belarus Observatory

Elena Korosteleva is Professor of Politics and Global Sustainable Development and Director of the Institute of Global Sustainable Development (IGSD). She is also Jean Monnet Chair of European Politics. Before joining IGSD in 2022, she was Professor of International Politics and a Founder of the Global Europe Centre (Professional Studies) at the University of Kent for ten years. Prior to that, Prof Korosteleva worked as Senior Lecturer in International Politics and Director of the Centre for European Studies at Aberystwyth University. Prof Korosteleva is presently a Co-Investigator on the Horizon Europe project SHAPEDEM-EU (2022-25) and the co-founder of the Belarus Oxford Observatory (2021-23). She has recently published Belarus in the Twenty-First Century Between Dictatorship and Democracy which talks about “peoplehood,” and 2020 as a watershed year for the Belarusians and the country’s future future.


People were lost back then. Is it different now? Is there a nationbuilding idea today?  

There is. And the situation is different in many ways. I think that the year 2020 was, of course, kind of a learning curve and a culmination. Yet, much had already been happening well before 2020. That year served as a watershed moment, and not because of the rigged elections, which has always been the case in Lukashenka’s system. In fact, what triggered the Belarusian people, I think, was the way the authorities responded to the first movement when protesters first came out to challenge Lukashenka. That level of brutality and violence mobilised literally everyone to take to the streets.

It was the idea of peoplehood: when everyone came together and suddenly realised that they were not alone, that everyone else around them felt exactly the same. Their motivation was the sense that they all deserved a dignified living. Just as in Ukraine, there was a revolution of dignity in Belarus. What happened in 2020 was a “Revolution of Indignation.” Belarusians were so appalled by the way they were treated and the names they were called, such as bydlo [быдло, cattle], prostitutes, and drug addicts. If they were the people in their own country and they were being abused in this kind of way, they would mobilise, rise up, and stand up to Lukashenka.

That was the first popular movement. After that, people started using all sorts of symbols, which helped them to self-identify. There was this sudden revival of Belarusian national symbols like the white-red-white flag and the vyshyvanka embroidery – everything that would allow people to associate with each other and simply counteract that statehood identity. And it worked. At this stage, people were literally pushed to see that they were Belarusians. Suddenly, we remembered the words of Yanka Kupala that we were the people[i] – and we wanted to be called the people. It really was a very powerful moment – almost like the birth of a nation.

These were the grassroots movements and transformations from the inside. What role did the external actors – primarily, the EU – play in these processes? What helped and what hurt?

Well, I think that within the country, it is self-organisation and resilience, to which many factors contribute. For example, during the COVID pandemic, Lukashenka dismissed the very existence of the virus, while people were dying with no help available to them. So, Belarusians came together, as a starting point of the mobilisation, forming these self-help communities, which then resulted in this massive solidarity.

What also helped, of course, was that before 2020, Belarus had, in fact, been moving closer to the EU in many ways, although it was not a member of the Eastern Partnership. The late Foreign Minister, Vladimir Makei, started engaging with EU institutions and was himself welcomed in the EU member states as well as the UK. It allowed building inroads into the Belarusian establishment, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, paradoxically, being the most pro-European at that time. It thereby facilitated, first of all, procuring funding and assistance, with multiple projects happening, which allowed for the development of civil society.

The free press started building up, in a way, because of those links. Similarly, business connections started to take shape. There was a lot of learning; for example, delegations from Belarus were invited to observe the functioning of the European Parliament and so on. Educational exchanges – not just between the capital-based universities but across the country – were essential. In terms of opening up and development, Belarus was burgeoning. In that sense, the EU’s assistance has also contributed to the moment of 2020.

However, I remember being there in August, prior to the election, and speaking to many European ambassadors. The EU and the UK expected neither the level of brutality nor the degree of popular mobilisation. It really caught them unprepared, and this is why it took them such a long time to respond properly. If that moment had been seized earlier, we might have had a very different country by now.

In hindsight, what could have the EU done differently?

Well, first of all, I think that, in response to the violence unfolding in Belarus, there could have been – there should have been – a much earlier statement. Next, it took several months to put out the first package of sanctions, which could have had a different effect on the economy. Finally, given the partnerships built with neighbouring countries, there could have been a bit more effort from them to put collective pressure on Lukashenka.

If anything, that kind of procrastinated response on the part of the EU pushed Belarus closer to Russia. Because of this, Lukashenko thought that import substitution would be possible with Russia’s help and essentially ignored the first packages of sanctions. And those sanctions were not particularly smartly designed to cut all the economic links between Belarus and the European market. Basically, they have failed to hurt Lukashenka or his so-called koshelki [кошельки, wallets] who continued to supply and financially support the regime, bypassing sanctions and finding loopholes. Those sanctions are still far from being effective – for example, the Central Asian transportation system is being used to sell goods to Europe.

Can the EU be a positive actor now? What can it do now to influence the situation?

It can and should, in a way, treat both Putin and Lukashenka very similarly. At the moment, Europe and the world obviously have quite a united stance against Russia, even in terms of sanctions. And yet they do not seem to be reacting in the same manner to Belarus, although in full knowledge of the fact that Lukashenko’s regime is a co-aggressor. Not having directly invaded Ukraine from the north, it has lent its territory to Russia by allowing it to be used to station weapons, train troops, and fire rockets from Belarus and has continued nuclear blackmail. Therefore, Lukashenka should be bundled up with Putin. The international criminal court should issue exactly the same order for him as there is an abundance of evidence that he has committed crimes against humanity. There should be no way out for Lukashenka. He must go down together with Putin, and the world will be a better place without them.

With multiple crises unfolding in Europe and globally, how do the Belarusian opposition forces remain relevant?

There are all kinds of Belarusian democratic forces, and they have all gone through a long process of learning and transformation in an effort to consolidate themselves into one. But they are not there yet. They have different branches, too, including the military. There is, of course, the Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, but there is also the so-called Democratic Forces Cabinet in Brussels and the Coordination Council. They are all different branches, but they all work towards the same goal of developing a strategy for a Free Belarus of today and post-Lukashenka.

What, I think, is still missing at this moment is kind of a united single front that will strengthen their voice and offer a clear alternative vision. There are cracks within the system, within Belarus, but until that one single alternative centre of power has emerged, there will be no defections from the establishment. The elites need to see the road ahead and know whom to align with. There also needs to be the EU’s support for Belarus, which is not there yet either. Not because the EU is too busy, though, but because there are too many different factions and no consolidated approach, which makes it difficult for the EU to engage with just one centre and develop a strategy for Belarus.

Is it possible for them to unite?

Well, I hope so. There is a massive bottom-up swell at the moment that will, hopefully, lead to some of consolidation. Otherwise, all these efforts are going to be lost.

[i] “We, the People” [Людзьми звацца], 1905–07

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for the ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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