Lisa May is a Fellow at the ERA Institute. She holds M.A. degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Belarus 2020 and Ukraine 2013-2014 Protests: Similarities and Differences
- The political contexts, in which the protests in Ukraine and Belarus took place, were drastically different. In 2013-2014, Ukraine had a robust opposition and had experienced several transitions of power, while Lukashenka has been in power in Belarus since 1994, and the political opposition in the country has been virtually non-existent due to constant repression from the regime.
- Despite the overall similarities in the forms of dissent, it is important to note that thus far, the demonstrators in Belarus have not resorted to violence against law enforcement.
- Broadly, the protests in both countries were caused by the authorities’ failure to respect the will of the people.
- The authorities of both Ukraine and Belarus responded to mass demonstrations with violence. In Ukraine, over 100 people were killed during Euromaidan protests that lasted 3 months. In Belarus, 4 deaths have been reported so far, but the number might be higher.
- When it comes to international reactions to the protests, it is noteworthy that, unlike in case of Ukraine in 2013-2014, the United States has not been actively engaged in attempting to resolve the current political crisis in Belarus.
For nearly two months, Belarusians have been taking to the streets to protest the results of the fraudulent presidential election of August 9. According to Ales Bialiatski of the Human Rights Center “Viasna,” close to 12,000 people have been detained since the night of the election. As of September 1, UN experts have received reports of 450 documented cases of torture and ill-treatment in detention. International human rights organizations raised concerns over the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades by riot police.
The photos and videos of violence against demonstrators in Belarus bring back bitter memories of Ukraine from 6 years ago, when riot police first brutally beat student protesters on November 30, 2013 and later fired shots killing over a hundred people and injuring more than a thousand on February 18-20, 2014. Although there are clear similarities between the current protests in Belarus and the Ukrainian Euromaidan, there are also striking differences that should not be overlooked. This article seeks to compare and contrast the ongoing protests in Belarus to those in Ukraine that took place in 2013-2014. It is important to note that since Belarusian protests are still taking place, the data is not as robust as that on Euromaidan in Ukraine. However, some parallels between the protests in the two countries can be drawn already.
Before comparing and contrasting demonstrations in Ukraine and Belarus, it is important to understand the political context of the two countries in question. Both declared independence in 1991. However, unlike Ukraine, Belarus has never experienced a transition of power. Alexander Lukashenka won the election in 1994, the year when the Constitution of Belarus was adopted, and the office of president was created. During his 26-year long presidency, Lukashenka consolidated his power by subjugating the existing bureaucracy, removing potential challengers, and bringing in loyalists. The security services in Belarus have been one of the main sources of top executive appointees. Members of civil society and independent media in Belarus faced consistent harassment and arbitrary arrests by authorities. Freedom House has repeatedly rated Belarus as Not Free and deemed it one of the world’s most repressive states.
When it comes to Ukraine, it has mostly been rated as Partly Free, even under Viktor Yanukovych’s rule. In its 29 years of independence, the country has seen several transitions of power, albeit of varying degrees of election freedom and fairness. Ukrainian society is more pluralistic than Belarusian, as it has different centers of power with checks on the President’s power. Unlike Lukashenka, Yanukovych failed to establish a functioning power vertical, and because the power was not concentrated exclusively in his hands, there was less incentive for Ukrainian elites to stay loyal to Yanukovych and more reasons to defect once the regime became unstable.
The causes of the protests
Broadly speaking, the authorities’ failure to respect the will as well as violations of the rights of Belarusian and Ukrainian people served as the underlying reasons of the protests. In Ukraine, then-President Yanukovych unexpectedly decided to walk away from the Association Agreement with the European Union. On November 21, 2013, once the news of Yanukovych’s decision broke out, the protesters started gathering in Independence Square in Kyiv. However, what really mobilized the Ukrainian people was police brutality against peaceful student protesters on November 30. According to a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), 69% of demonstrators in December 2013 cited the events of November 30 as the primary reason for joining the protest. Interestingly, there was no clear consensus on the Association Agreement with the EU within the Ukrainian society. According to the survey conducted by the Ukrainian office of IFAK Institute in October 2013, 50% of Ukrainians favored the deal with the EU, while 33% opposed it, and 17% responded “hard to say.”
When it comes to Belarus, the protests erupted after it was announced that Lukashenka won the election securing 80% of the vote defeating his opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. No international election monitors were present during the election in Belarus, and the poll workers recounted being pressured to falsify the results in favor of the incumbent as well as instances of ballot stuffing. Belarusian people denounced the election results and took to the streets demanding a new election.
Who are the protesters?
Current protests in Belarus, similarly to those in Ukraine in 2013-2014, are not led by any specific opposition party or politician. In the case of Belarus, the power has been concentrated in Lukashenka’s hands for such a long time that opposition has been virtually non-existent. And even though Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – who was forced into exile – emerged as a main political rival to the incumbent, she is not solely responsible for mobilizing the protesters. Although the opposition in Ukraine is significantly more developed than that in Belarus, the opposition parties and leaders there were highly irrelevant during the 2013-2014 protests. Surveys show that in February 2013, only 3% of the respondents joined the protests because of solidarity with the opposition.
When it comes to the sociodemographic profiles of demonstrators, no survey data is available for Belarus yet. However, some insights have been provided by media coverage of the situation in the country. For instance, women have been playing crucial role during the protests. Belarusian students have also been active during the demonstrations. For instance, on September 30, students and professors of major universities across Belarus held sit-in protests. Workers of major state-owned enterprises have resigned or gone on strike to protest the fraudulent election of August 9.
According to a survey conducted between November 2013 and January 2014, an average protester during the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine was a middle-class male between 35 and 45 years old. Although the news reports initially cited students as key participants of the rallies, the findings show that 67% of respondents in Kyiv were above the age of 30, and nearly 25% were older than 55. Furthermore, the average protester in Ukraine had higher education and a full-time job. It is likely that the sociodemographic profile of Belarusian demonstrators will be somewhat similar to the Ukrainian one.
Forms of protest
Ukrainians and Belarusians have used various forms of protest. It is, however, important to underline that thus far, the demonstrators in Belarus have not used violence against law enforcement officers. In Ukraine, after months of protests with demonstrators’ demands not being met, the situation turned increasingly more violent. On January 16, 2014, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) passed tough anti-protest legislation, which exacerbated outrage among Ukrainians. On January 19-22, protesters clashed with the police, using Molotov cocktails, stones, and fireworks. As a result, at least 5 demonstrators were killed, and dozens of people injured.
Belarusians have been very creative in their dissent. Besides workers’ strikes and students’ sit-ins, the protesters have formed human solidarity chains, Belarusian veterans have posted videos dumping their uniforms in the trash, drivers have blocked traffic, etc. Software developer Siarhei Kastrama created an app called Krama (Крама), which helps determine whether a manufacturer of a particular product is connected to Lukashenka or state-owned companies by simply scanning the barcode of the item. The app is available on Android and iOS and has been downloaded over 60,000 times in just one week. Multiple women’s marches have been held across the country, with thousands of women of different ages and occupations protesting holding white red and white flags, flowers, balloons, and placards.
Overall, Ukrainians employed similar methods of protest during the Euromaidan protests. In addition to marches, strikes, and sit-ins, the demonstrators set up a tent camp in Kyiv’s Independence Square and occupied several buildings located nearby the square. In December 2013 alone, 83 tents were set up. The tents served various purposes, ranging from food storage to a place of worship. Another interesting form of protest in Ukraine was Automaidan, whereby the car owners organized rallies outside the houses of high-ranking government officials with Ukrainian and EU flags flying from their cars and set up barricades protecting encampments on Independence Square. Automaidan drivers also brought hundreds of people to Kyiv from nearby cities for free and helped mobilize the protesters.
Belarusians, similarly to Ukrainians in 2013-2014, have been actively using social media as a mobilization tool. According to a recent MOBILISE survey, Belarusians see Telegram as the most trusted news source, and 85% of interviewees who participated in the demonstrations reported using the app. In Ukraine, Facebook was the primary social media platform used for the organization and coordination of protests. According to research conducted by Olga Onuch, 37% of interviewees identified Facebook as the most useful source of information during the protests in Ukraine. Notwithstanding these findings, it is important to recognize that overfocusing on the role of the social media during protests might minimize the role of the people who are the ones creatively employing the tools at their disposal in the first place.
Government responses to the protests
In both cases, the authorities have not shied away from using violence against demonstrators. In Belarus, over 7,000 people were arrested in just the first week of the protests. Today the number of arrests is close to 12,000. Hundreds of people have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. According to Human Rights Watch, the victims described being beaten, tortured with electric shocks, and – in at least one case – raped. The interviewees had suffered serious injuries, such as skin wounds, electrical burns, broken bones, and in some cases kidney damage. At least 4 people were killed during the protests, and dozens of people are missing.
In Ukraine, the first occurrence of violence against peaceful protesters happened on November 30, 2013, as it was already mentioned above. Dozens of people – primarily students – were injured. The most violent clash between the riot police and the demonstrators was that of February 20, 2014, when between 70 and 100 people were killed by the special police. In February 2014, more than 750 people were injured in Kyiv alone. Similarly to Belarus, the international human rights groups raised concerns about kidnappings, beatings, and torture of protesters by Ukrainian riot police over the course of the Euromaidan protests. More than 6 years have passed since the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, yet investigations into the 2013-2014 events are still ongoing, with the perpetrators of violence against the protesters still not punished for their heinous crimes.
When it comes to the international responses to the protests in Ukraine and Belarus, the most striking difference thus far has been a lack of strong condemnation of the Belarusian regime’s atrocities by U.S. leadership. Although the State Department issued a statement on August 11, expressing deep concern over the conduct of the election, President Trump has remained silent on the issue. On October 1, members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a Belarus Democracy, Human Rights, and Sovereignty Act of 2020, calling for new presidential elections, the immediate release of political prisoners, and further strengthening the current human rights sanctions regime on Belarus among other things. For comparison, then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Kyiv in December 2013, and then-Secretary of State John Kerry issued a strong statement of condemnation, expressing the United States’ “disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest … with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.” Additionally, the U.S. imposed a travel ban on 20 officials in Ukraine who were directly responsible for ordering the crackdown in Kyiv.
On October 2, the European Union imposed sanctions against 40 Belarusian officials accused of political repression. The list, however, does not include Lukashenka yet. According to EU officials, should the Belarusian dictator refuse to enter into negotiations with the opposition, he will be added to the list. The United Kingdom and Canada also imposed sanctions against Belarusian officials, and Lukashenka is on their lists. The EU acted in a similar manner during the Ukrainian protests: on February 20, 2014, the foreign ministers of the European Union agreed to impose travel bans and asset freezes on the officials responsible for violence in Ukraine. Yanukovych was not personally included into a sanctions list in 2014.
The Kremlin in both cases has supported the autocrats in power. In December 2013, Moscow initially offered Kyiv a bailout package that would include $15 billion in aid as well as lowering gas prices. Later, the Russian authorities condemned the EU and U.S. sanctions. When it comes to Belarus, on September 14, 2020, during a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenka, the Russian President reiterated his recognition of Lukashenka as the legitimate President of Belarus and committed to provide a $1.5 billion loan to Minsk.
The protests in Belarus are about to enter into a third month, but it still remains to be seen whether the demonstrators will achieve Lukashenka’s resignation and new elections.
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