By Dzianis Melyantsou
When campaigning, most of the opposition presidential candidates called for their supporters to come to the square on December 19 to support their votes and protest against fraud, however, neither the objectives nor the scenario of the rally were specified. It was emphasized that the protest would be peaceful, although Mikalai Statkevich hastily assumed responsibility for anything that would happen in the square.
The demonstration itself failed to reveal any elements of what could have been called a thought-out scenario. It looked like the organizers had no idea what to do with the huge number of people who came to October Square. Almost one hour into the protest, it was decided to move people toward the Presidential Administration building to demand that Lukashenka “vacate his residence”. On the one hand, it was a fine tactical move, because the protesters now had a goal and there was hope that the demonstration would not be dissolved, like it happened in 2006. On the other hand, the calls to storm the Presidential Residence or the Government House invited the danger of clashes with the police or army, which would clearly go far beyond the framework of a peaceful action. The organizers could not have neglected this possibility, but they needed to show that they had a well-crafted agreed plan.
Since the attempt to move closer to the Presidential Administration was unsuccessful, the plan was changed again and the organizers directed people to Independence Square along Independence Avenue, already crowded with protesters. The march along the main street added a few thousand people, mostly onlookers, to the rally and gave a little more confidence to the protesters and their leaders.
The demonstration continued in Independence Square around 21:30, and it was at that time that protesters attempted to storm the government building, where the Central Election Commission was working at the moment. According to the organizers, specifically, Vitali Rymasheuski (this is proved by photos and videos), the storm was initiated by provokers who started smashing windows and breaking into doors using the equipment that someone had brought to the square. Some of the protesters tried to stop them, but that was an uneven confrontation, and many demonstrators soon joined those who tried to breach the government building. This initiative was eventually backed by the idea of the presidential candidates to negotiate with the authorities and hand over their petition. However, the Charter-97 chronicle of events available on Facebook proves that the Andrei Sannikau HQ fully supported the idea of storming the Government House, and that protesters themselves made attempts to storm the building, not some instigators, contrary to what journalists and other presidential candidates said.
Anyway, the attempt to breach the Government House was reason enough for riot police to disperse the rally using force – the demonstration ended in mass beatings and arrests of many activists, including the presidential candidates present at the square. The protesters lost their guides and riot police managed to split the crowd and drive smaller groups off the square.
There is more evidence for the absence of any detailed plan of actions (to say nothing of specific plans to seize government buildings), though: there were serious problems with sound-amplifying equipment, there were no steering groups with megaphones who were supposed to direct people and inform them, there were no alternative means of communication to coordinate the protesters (cellular communication fails during mass actions and there must be a backup of radio sets), there were no guards protecting the key actors (Nyaklyaeu was easily neutralized as soon as he left his office), there was not enough information about the maneuvers of riot police (it is normally provided by those who monitor the radio frequencies of the special services). The conclusion is evident: the opposition action of December 19 had no scenario and was complete and utter improvisation. The opposition presidential candidates failed to manage the masses whom they had invited to the Square, they were guided by the situation, which resulted in clashes with the police after a number of provocative acts, which the organizers were unable to prevent.
What objectives did the organizers of the rally have? Officially, the alternative presidential candidates were preparing a peaceful protest action against the allegedly rigged vote count. The protest against the improper ballot procedures and for calling of a new election was supposed to start after the official announcement of the election results. The square was to have become the high point of the candidates’ campaigns, as it was the Square rather than the official results of the election that was meant to build the hierarchy of the opposition and identify its leader. The original plan was to select a new opposition leader – the one who was expected to lead people and negotiate with the authorities.
The minimum goal for the organizers of the Square was to gather masses for a huge protest action and display their ability to mobilize significant human resources for protests against the regime. It was also important to ensure that the action would have some result (negotiations with the authorities, clashes with riot police, election of the opposition leader in the square, etc.), in order not to repeat the mistakes of March 19, 2006, which became the reason why the new presidential candidates criticized Alyaksandr Milinkevich.
It looks like the maximum goal the organizers had in mind was a kind of a “color revolution”, provided sufficient numbers of people were ready to take to the streets. In this case, the opposition leaders would have led the protest and made use of its results. We have to repeat that the opposition had no detailed scenario of organized actions whatsoever; we describe individual expectations and the objectives that could have been reached in the best-case scenario.
It is to motivate the mobilization of masses (while the official results of the election were still unknown) that the opposition used web media resources to disseminate information about “alternative independent” exit polls and interviews, which indicated that Lukashenko did not win in the first round. The opposition referred to the exit poll findings of the Russian Agency for efficient communications INSIDE as of 14:00 (later data were not available) and claimed that Lukashenka had polled only 37.8%, whereas alternative candidates had polled a total of 42% of votes. The information was posted on the web page of Radio Liberty with reference to Hanna Krasulina, the spokeswoman for Yaraslau Ramanchuk. The report was reprinted by Charter-97 and used at the Square later that day. However, INSIDE Director Anna Nesmeyeva denied being involved in the conduct of exit polls in Belarus.
The same holds for other “alternative” exit polls, allegedly conducted by Ukrainian and Russian companies: there are either no facts proving there were exit polls at all, or serious doubts whether the methods or coverage of the polls were adequate. Independent satellite TV channel Belsat, for instance, declined to reveal the name of the organization from which it had ordered an exit poll. The difference in objectives split the candidates into three clear groups: the first one included those who used the election as a personal promotion campaign and did not call people to the square (Uss, Tsyareschanka, Mikhalevich), the second group includes Kastusyou and Ramanchuk, that is, those who invited people to take part in a peaceful protest, but did not contend for leadership in the opposition; and the third group of the main contenders for leadership (Nyaklyaeu, Sannikau, Statkevich and Rymasheuski).
This last group needed dynamic actions and a major confrontation with the authorities, which would help legitimize them as street leaders and identify their status in the opposition layout for the post-election period. It was that third group that was most active prior to the rally and during the protest action (except for Nyaklyaeu, who never reached the Square). It was that group that initiated and led the march to Independence Square, it was those politicians that demanded negotiations with the government, and it was their fault that the storm of the government building was not prevented. However, they managed to attain one of their objectives – they created an image of street leaders capable of dynamic actions. The imprisonment will only consolidate that image. The separation of leaders’ roles is a replica of the Milinkevich-Kazulin model of 2006 (Milinkevich was trying to disband the rally, while Kazulin led people to Akrestina Street (the police detention centre) and provoked the dispersal of the demonstration.
The protest of December 19 and its consequences have a potential to roll the internal and external political situation around Belarus to the 2006 framework, when sanctions had been applied to the Belarusian authorities, and the opposition enjoyed the absolute monopoly on contacts with the West. However, we do not know for sure whether the presidential candidates, especially the most radical ones, had this objective in mind.
It should be noted that neither analysts nor observers managed to gauge the degree of activism and protest moods in society properly. The protest of December 19 gathered more participants than it had been projected the day before (according to various estimates, from 15,000 to 30,000 people were involved).
One reason behind the large number of people in the square was the relatively liberal (by Belarusian standards) election campaign, which dispelled the fear of the authorities and fear of being involved in unsanctioned protest actions. The free collection of signatures, open canvassing, debates of candidates broadcast live and numerous western observers monitoring the election created an atmosphere similar to that observed in Kyiv in 2004. Many of the participants simply came to the square to watch the “color revolution”, just like they enjoy watching fireworks on July 3. Back in 2006, those in the Square were ready for any consequences (they were even told they would be shot), whereas in 2010, almost no one expected a violent dispersal of the rally.
It is also worthy of note that the opposition cannot take all the credit for the unexpectedly large number of people who came to the square (some claim the opposition is capable of mobilizing huge human resources despite its hard luck). The alternative candidates only triggered the mass protest action of December 19: people came to the square in order to express their protest against the system – for deceit, distortion of election results, and contempt for those who traditionally oppose the existing regime and its policy – rather than back the opposition.
The main question that remains unanswered is why the authorities chose to use brutal force to disperse the rally. Violence would never encourage the West to recognize the election results and would not improve Belarus’ relations with Brussels. One of the few rational reasons behind the choice of unwarranted violence is the necessity to restore the atmosphere of fear, which had been seriously undermined during the election campaign. If you fail to show power and decisiveness now, tomorrow a hundred thousand or even half a million people will take to the streets, should the economic situation deteriorate or in case of any other emergency. This scenario was additionally supported by a truce with Russia, which protected, albeit temporarily, the “rear areas” of the Belarusian administration.
Furthermore, after striking the deal with Moscow, Lukashenka was able to get back to his pet strategy of taking political hostages who can later be “sold” to the West for concessions and loans.
The neutralization and split of the opposition after the Square may also aim at mopping up the political field with a view to creating a “constructive”, manageable opposition before the parliamentary election and building Lukashenka’s own ruling party. If Belarus decides to enact the scenario of transformation of the existing political model into a presidential-parliamentary system (Lydzia Yarmoshyna mentioned this possibility a few times), these arrangements may prove relevant and timely.
Belarusian security officials also profited from the cruel finale of the election, as it put an end to the campaign to improve relations with the European Union, and, consequently, increases the role of security ministers in the management of the country, making them the main pillar of the regime. Therefore, we should not rule out the version that it was the chiefs of the Belarusian national security and law enforcement agencies that presented the situation to the president in such a way that he had to order a brutal dispersal of the rally.
There is one more detail: the picture of “disturbances” and “attempted coup” filled the television time leaving no room for discussions of the number of votes and the voting process itself. Neither the state-controlled nor opposition media referred to the results of the vote count in the few days after the election. The simmering resentment of those not involved in politics, which could have escalated into a broad public protest (not necessarily a street protest), was channeled into the discussion of the revolt and condemnation of radical ruffians. Paradoxically, the dispersal of the rally and “recognition” of opposition politicians were transformed into “information noise”, which howled down the problem of the rigged election. It could have been a ruse to distract the nation from the results of the vote.
And again, the authorities proved very well ready for any initiative of the opposition. The lessons of Square-2006 must have been learnt well, and the authorities took preemptive measures in good time. It looks like the entire protest action orchestrated by the opposition was conducted according to the script written by the authorities and under their complete control. The presidential candidates involved in the events of December 19 were not even close to creating the coveted negotiating positions and failed to use the high turnout of protesters and protest moods of society as a whole.
1. The events of the Square-2010 once again proved the weakness and dissociation of the opposition, its inability to organize and control mass protest actions. The actions of the Belarusian authorities (specifically, their forcing oppositionists to repent, which aggravates the split amid the opposition) may lead to a complete marginalization of opposition parties and pave the way for the creation of “His Majesty’s constructive opposition”, which will be demonstrating a competitive political process without impeding state policies (especially if the government makes up its mind on economic liberalization while preserving the authoritarian political model). In this new environment, the most uncompromising part of the opposition may choose to turn even more radical and take up illegal forms of political struggle.
2. The protest potential of society appeared to be more considerable than expected, however, the protest is targeted against the administrative system and the ballot-rigging machine rather than the incumbent president. The deep changes in Belarusian society are also manifested in an increase in solidarity and capacity of self-organization, which was proved by the joint efforts to aid the prisoners. This transformation could give birth to new generation leaders and new type of opposition, built on internal resources and internal legitimacy.
3. The regime keeps demonstrating a high degree of adaptability to the situation and readiness to protect itself by all means. The expectations of some opposition leaders that the nomenklatura would be split under the pressure of the conflict with Russia and proposals coming from Brussels were not realized: the authorities once again showed their monolithic manageable nature. The hopes of negotiating with the government through the use of the “square factor” never came true, either. The opposition candidates proved unable to create relevant negotiating positions to coerce the incumbent president into engaging in a dialogue with them as an equal. On the contrary, Alyaksandr Lukashenka managed to show (the opposition, voters, nomenklatura and external actors) that he has absolute control over the situation, he is prepared for any scenario and, if necessary, he is ready to use force.
Square 2010: Scenario and Preliminary Results
By Dzianis Melyantsou