Uncomfortable Lessons from the Belarusian Political Crisis
The former Soviet police state and the Caribbean nation are as different as the citizen alliances challenging their autocracies. Here’s an informed comparison from the ground
September 10th, 2020: at the time I write this, Belarus has seen its fourth straight weekend of mass scale protests. Maria Kolesnikova, one of three women part of the troika challenging Lukashenko and the only one still in Belarus, has been detained. The UN Security Council met on Friday, September, 4th, to discuss the human rights situation in Belarus. There are several accounts of women being repressed after participating in women’s marches in Minsk.
The resolve of the people of Belarus is inspiring and it’s reported that some members of the Venezuelan opposition see it as an example to follow. The comparisons between Venezuela and Belarus abound; the last example of such arguments came during a UN Security Council session, when the Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN, Ambassador Dimitry Polanskiy, sarcastically compared Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to Juan Guaidó: “We hear claims that [Svetlana Tikhanovskaya] won the elections, but who has verified it? Is this a new reality when anyone could claim he or herself (sic) is an elected President? Is this a new Guaidó-type scheme applicable to all electoral situations in which the outcomes are not acceptable to certain countries?”
Certainly, there are multiple parallels that can be drawn (something that my wife, a Belarusian native, and I always discuss), yet there are fundamental differences to look at, as well. I will focus on two: 1) The nature of the regimes and 2) The nature of the oppositions.
On the Regimes
Alexander Lukashenko is the head of an old-fashioned dictatorship and a police state, period. While there’s no doubt that Venezuela is a dictatorship, Maduro is the head of a conglomerate of alliances with sometimes competing interests where the military predominate, along with the leadership of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), other figures of the public administration and a new wealthy class of political origin. Venezuela is part police state, part oil state, and part kleptocracy operating in populist structures and narratives.
Still, in both countries, elections take place. The only free and fair election in the history of Belarus took place in 1994, which Lukashenko won. In Venezuela, the last presidential election of 2018 was neither free nor fair, a trend established since Chávez. Ask a Belarusian, what’s the likely outcome of a presidential election? The answer will be consistent. Ask a Venezuelan, what’s the likely outcome of a presidential election? The answer will also be consistent. If elections are not competitive, and there’s a widespread consensus, both internally and internationally, that they do not hold up to democratic standards, why do both regimes keep holding elections? Is it that both regimes need to keep the façade of a democratic system to the international community? That’s only part of the answer.
The main reason why both regimes hold elections is that they “purge the system.” For Lukashenko, elections serve the purpose of identifying rivals that may otherwise operate underground to eliminate them, either by pushing them into exile or detaining them. In the case of Venezuela, opposition leaders are already visible, but for Maduro, elections serve the purpose of fragmenting the opposition further. There are concrete examples of this; in Venezuela, with parliamentary elections around the corner, another split has occurred in the opposition, based on fractions who favor participating in the election versus those that don’t.
The weaponization of elections as a strategy to either neutralize or fragment the opposition is in some ways similar to the ethos by which both regimes aim to control the protests. During the protests in Belarus, there have been instances of indiscriminate use of force not only against protesters but also against passers-by and people observing but not participating in the protests, as indicated by Ms. Anaïs Marin, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus: “Unable to find the leaders of this new type of popular uprising, police used excessive and unjustified force to indiscriminately arrest demonstrators, journalists, passers-by, women and even children.” Several videos circulated via Telegram of people being arrested as they were waiting for public transportation. Another one showed a man shouting that he had voted for Lukashenko while he was being detained.
This strategy compares roughly with the one employed by the Maduro regime, where the regime security forces act in coordination with “colectivos” to terrorize protesters. If Lukashenko aims to instill fear in protesters, Maduro aims to employ fear through colectivos, but in repressing every protest, even peaceful ones, he also uses despair to demobilize. In Lukashenko’s case, the expected outcome is for people to not protest simply out of fear. In Maduro’s case, people don’t protest because there’s simply no point. Fear sometimes emboldens people, particularly if they’re coming out en masse, as we have recently seen in Belarus. Despair, as we currently see in Venezuela, is worse than fear as it corners people into believing that protesting has no value as it won’t lead into the most desired outcome, which is to force Maduro’s departure.
On the Oppositions
Political parties in Belarus exist, but only nominally. They don’t have real power or are allowed to hold any more than a handful of seats in the parliament. Political parties in Venezuela exist and hold some power, just enough to back up the claim that Venezuela is a democratic country, but not enough to mount a real challenge. The regime also focuses a substantial effort into seriously undermining them through legalistic means while poaching their leadership. As indicated before, while Lukashenko controls opposition political parties through coercion, Maduro controls them through fragmentation.
Maximalist demands simply show a Venezuelan opposition out of touch with reality.
Another fundamental difference in both oppositions is that the Belarusian opposition is largely women-led. Pictures of the troika composed by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova have been seen in smartphones and laptops all around the world, and it’s not uncommon to see the ratio of women surpassing that of men at the protests in Minsk. The heads of the main opposition political parties in Venezuela are men and while there are a few prominent female opposition leaders, they’re the exception to the rule. This feature has practical consequences, as Belarus is fundamentally a patriarchal society. Sexism, Tikhanosvaya argues, played an important role in being allowed to become the opposition candidate: “They were sure that nobody would support me because it was my husband who was famous, not me. I was just a housewife.”
Yet, the most important difference between both oppositions, and at the same time the biggest success of the Belarusian political opposition, was to consolidate and amplify the voice of a Belarusian civil opposition that didn’t exist before. As one family member in Belarus put it to me, “we saw the light for the first time in 26 years. We don’t fear anymore. Because nothing again will ever be like before.” Lukashenko has tried to suppress the protests by cracking down on opposition leaders without any success, because the protests are not coordinated by any of the known opposition leaders. They’re spontaneous and self-organized.
The Belarus Bottom Line
This article isn’t trying to support a position on the participating vs not participating debate now present in Venezuelan politics. Its aim is to provide nuance to the argument that the Venezuelan opposition should participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections, because Belarus has shown that participating doesn’t legitimize a dictatorship. But taking part in the Venezuelan context, however, is very different from doing so in the Belarusian context.
No political leader in Belarus ever thought that they would beat Lukashenko at the polls. Yet, they ran in the elections because it helped them consolidate a civil opposition. Six months ago, contemplating that thousands of Belarusians would gather at Liberty Square in Minsk to call for Lukashenko to step down was unthinkable. To think that the parliamentary elections in Venezuela could be the spark to initiate protests again in Venezuela is naïve at best. Venezuelans have protested, participated in elections, participated in consultations, participated in strikes, protested again, in repeat, for 22 years. The greatest challenge the Venezuelan political opposition faces is overcoming the prevalent exhaustion and despair in the Venezuelan civil opposition.
This is not an easy task but I posit a couple of recommendations that, I hope, can contribute to this debate:
- The Venezuelan opposition would be better served by reframing the struggle of Venezuelans as one against the brutal and repressive dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro, instead of engaging in a narrative that frames it as a fight between the Left vs the Right. The reason why the resolve of Belarusians is so inspiring is that we see them committed to a path that will hopefully allow them to choose their own destiny.
- During her address to the UN Security Council, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya defined Lukashenko as “a man desperately clinging onto power and refusing to listen to his people and his own state officials.” In a single phrase, Tikhanovskaya not only demonstrates that this desire for change encloses Lukashenko’s trusted circle but that members of his own administration could play a role in a transition towards a democratic Belarus. Maximalist demands simply show a Venezuelan opposition out of touch with reality. The absolute refusal of members of the Venezuelan opposition to a negotiated outcome with the Maduro regime pushes the aspiration of a transition to a democratic Venezuela further and further away.
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