Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Belarus Awakening, as Seen from Georgia

Even the dim hope of democracy defeating Russian domination excites our own future prospects.
By Ghia Nodia
  • Anti-government rally in Minsk on August 27, 2020. (Photo: Misha Friedman/Getty Images)
    Anti-government rally in Minsk on August 27, 2020. (Photo: Misha Friedman/Getty Images)

Georgians are watching the Belarusian drama with great interest. Values and geopolitics are inseparable in our neighborhood, and any important regional event affects us too. In Georgia, we feel that if more countries choose the path of democracy over the authoritarianism Russia promotes, it will increase our chances of success in this field too. If Belarus becomes truly independent and more European, this will give us confidence in our own ambitions, while a victory for dictatorship and Russian domination will make Georgia’s prospects a little darker.

Nonetheless, the Georgian authorities have stayed resolutely silent over the protests in Minsk. All they have done is to dispatch a special plane to bring the Georgian ambassador back home as apparently he was deemed to be unsafe. Our government is not, of course, as autocratic as Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s, but it sees pro-democracy street protesters as a natural adversary.

Last June, the government had to deal with two months of continuous public rallies, triggered by the sight of Russian lawmaker Sergey Gavrilov chairing an international event from the seat of the speaker of the Georgian parliament. The government made some important concessions to the protesters but refused to meet many of their demands; Putin punished the Georgian people for humiliating Gavrilov by cancelling direct flights between the two countries. Both before and after that particular crisis, Tbilisi has strenuously avoided saying anything that might annoy Russia, unless felt absolutely necessary.

Those who are pro-democracy and pro-western (in Georgian society, those two things are synonymous) want the Belraus protesters to succeed, however uncertain this may yet seem. Some express envy: Georgians, as compared to Belarussians, appear dormant. The opposition has a chance to win our upcoming parliamentary elections in late October, though everything is up in the air. Public mobilisation against the semi-autocratic regime of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s ruling Georgian Dream party might help, but most people prefer to be passive.

Georgians presume that if people take it to the streets against autocracy, they will also be against domination by Putin’s Russia. Sometimes they are right – Ukraine being an obvious case in point. However, it is not always that straightforward. Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution clashed with this assumption: Armenians rebelled against their ruling oligarchy, not against Russia.

Quite a few Armenians also dislike Russian domination, but they understand that the unresolved conflict over Nagorny Karabakh and being squeezed between two hostile countries, Azerbaijan and Turkey, left them no option but to depend on Russian protection. The current large scale hostilities over Karabakh demonstrate just how precarious Armenia’s situation is. So however much Moscow disliked the way Armenians changed their government, it could afford to be cool: Armenians had nowhere else to go for political support.

There are obvious similarities here with the Belarusian experience. Their leaders stress that the protests are in no way like those in Ukraine.  This insistence may be tactical, as a means to avoid Russian wrath, but the protesters also do not see themselves in a geopolitical struggle for a European rather than Russian Belarus. They are angry at blatant electoral fraud and sick and tired of their dictator. 

But the very act of claiming their democratic rights has put Belarusians on a collision course with Russia. Whatever problems Putin might have had with stubborn Lukashenko, he is now his chief supporter, while solidarity with the people of Belarus comes from the West. For Russia, losing control of Belarus to pro-democracy forces is much more dangerous: Belarus, unlike Armenia, has options. Nothing prevents it from taking a more pro-European course if its people and its government so decide.

But not everybody thinks that is what they will choose, even if Lukashenko goes. 

This question is linked to that of Belarusian identity. Many Georgians feel common cause with Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles and other nations for whom European aspiration and commitment to democratic norms goes hand in hand with opposing Russian neo-imperialism. The case in Belarus is less clear-cut.

When Lukashenko overwhelmingly won his first presidential elections in 1994 – which happened to be free and fair - he took credit for having opposed the break-up of the Soviet Union. His main promise was to reunite Belarus with Mother Russia. Today, we are used to populists being nationalists. Lukashenko was a successful populist when the term was not yet in vogue, but he played an anti-nationalist card: pernicious liberal elites want to take Belarus away from Russia and we, the common people, will not allow it.

The project of a union with Russia never took off, with Lukashenko’s personal ambition standing in the way. Continuous bickering between the huge egos of himself and Putin turned geopolitical, with Belarus increasingly trying to play a game between Russia and the West.

The current movement looks like a simultaneous democratic and national awakening. The national component is often played down, not least by the movement leaders and participants. But we cannot fail to notice that the two parties in this stand-off mobilise behind two different flags. The protesters hold the red-white flag of the short-lived Belarusian National Republic of 1918, briefly reintroduced soon after the Soviet breakup. The regime rallies behind the green-red flag which is a modified version of that of Soviet Belarus, reintroduced in 1995, soon after Lukashenko was elected president.

This does not mean that Belarusians are rejecting their cultural affinity to Russia or are developing any kind of ethnic animosity to them. But by claiming the right to define their fate, they also uphold their status of a nation distinct from Russia. As numerous Russian tourists that traveled to Georgia before the Covid-19 pandemic know, Georgians express no ethnic hostility towards them on a person-to-person level. Nonetheless, Georgia’s resolve to follow a pro-Western course make normalisation of Georgian-Russian relations impossible.

Does this mean that the protest will bring Belarus closer to Europe? It is too early to say. Quite a few commentators, including in Georgia, believe that the political crisis may strengthen Russia’s hand in the short term. Lukashenko may still survive; if he does, he will be even more estranged from the West and more dependent on Putin. It will be much more difficult for him to resist Russian pressure.

Any Russian success in its “near abroad” becomes a matter of concern for Georgians: a more confident Russia may become more assertive towards its other neighbours. But, as recent history has shown, there is a price to pay for such assertiveness. Russia has a chance to win this war, but only at the expense of alienating a large section of the Belarusian public. It is currently losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Belarus, as it has lost such wars in Ukraine – and certainly in Georgia - before now.

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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