A blog article by BISS intern Odysseus Kalantaridis
As a result of the mass Belarusian protests that have been catching international headlines since mid-2020, Belarus’s position has most notably been compared to the Ukrainian movement in 2013 and 2014, otherwise known as Maidan. This is a somewhat optimistic comparison, as of course, regardless of how the outcome may be seen since 2014, it is indisputable that Maidan was a situation where the protesters’ goals for government change were met, Yanukovych was out and Poroshenko was in.
Unfortunately for those seeking change in Belarus, this comparison simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Firstly, Ukraine was never as repressive or dictatorial as Lukashenka’s Belarus, Yanukovych himself was elected in an election which was described by the international observer OSCE as ‘transparent and honest’. This automatically meant that the chances of success of peaceful protest were far higher and even if they didn’t work, there was the possibility they may have the chance to fight a fair election a few years later. Furthermore, the issue of Maidan was much more of a tug of war between the EU and Russia, whereas Belarus is far more focused on the removal of Lukashenka as Russia will remain Belarus’s key partner regardless of the outcome.
Belarus’s political situation is not most comparable to Ukraine, but instead Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan, much like Belarus has had the same regime in place since its independence from the Soviet Union which gained some popularity in the earlier phases of its reign but has since become widely unpopular.
In Turkmenistan, the regime allowed for free water, gas and electricity for everyone in the country. In Belarus, Lukashenko gained praise in his presidency’s early years for avoiding the mass unemployment and the ‘chaos’ seen in some other post-Soviet states.
The regimes have always been known for their contempt for democracy and cult of personality of the dictator, with both sitting in the bottom five for democracy scores according to Freedom House.
In both countries, as time has passed, the acceptance of a dictatorship with reasonable policies has been replaced by wider contempt for regimes whose disastrous policies have led to crises. A major policy that both countries have in common is they have both denied Covid-19 at least at some point and refused to address the crisis. Furthermore, both countries have economies on the verges of collapse, with Turkmenistan having 300% inflation and having banned queues at subsidised food stores due to such high demand. Belarus similarly has become so isolated by Lukashenka that it is heavily reliant on Russia and the economy would collapse without the $2-3 billion per year it is receiving from its neighbour.
With much of the population in both countries discontent with both the way the government holds its power and what it does with that power, they have tried to start movements to make change. The similarity even goes so far as Turkmenistan having its own Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya style figure. Although the movement in Turkmenistan hasn’t yet reached the scale of that in Belarus, they ultimately are already at the same dead end as their Eastern European counterparts.
That dead end is this: those wanting change are up against dictators who have been in power for decades, who have set up establishments based on cults of personality and brutal dictatorship. These regimes are built to not care about popular movements and hold such a monopoly on violence, culture of fear and cult of personality that means that if you were to look at either country's situation from the outside, you would rate their chances of regime chance at almost zero.
Peaceful protest causing one of the most undemocratic and well-established dictators in the world to fall would be completely unprecedented.
As a result, there is one final similarity between these two contexts. This similarity is in both contexts, those that seek change must opt for new tactics.
The most likely alternative tactic would be to for people to stop working in their jobs or other forms of civil disobedience, things which may genuinely make the position of a dictator untenable if the country simply stops running. The unfortunate fact is in these two countries, the simple will and support of people both domestically and internationally simply isn’t enough to disrupt the power dynamic the dictators have established.
This is why this comparison between Turkmenistan and Belarus is ultimately an uncomfortable one, with both countries stuck in an authoritarian stalemate.