In August 2020, a revolt broke out in Belarus, nearly toppling Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator who has ruled the country since 1994.
In the following analysis, anarchists who participated in the revolt discuss the ways that it succeeded and how both the regime and its liberal opposition were able to undermine the movement before it could topple the dictatorship.
The result is an invaluable resource for those seeking to understand the mechanics of revolution, repression, and cooptation, not to mention post-Soviet politics in the region.
Their conclusions will be familiar to those who have participated in revolts elsewhere around the world over the past few years. To succeed, a revolutionary movement must immediately pursue its aims through concrete action, rather than symbolic gestures or appeals to authority.
The lure of “peaceful” protest, respectability, and legitimacy serves to incapacitate movements, sapping their strength and undercutting their leverage on those who hold power.
Those who desire profound social change should develop decentralized networks based in robust relationships, setting long-term goals that can address the needs of those who suffer under the prevailing order.
These are hard-won lessons, developed in the course of open struggle against a brutal dictatorship. As governments around the world become more and more authoritarian, the experience of the fighters in Belarus will become increasingly relevant elsewhere.
An earlier version of this text appeared in Russian here. For more background on anarchist organizing in Belarus, you can consult the interviews we published discussing the movements of 2017 and 2020. This collection of documents is also a useful reference for the 2020 revolt.
Anarchists participate in a spontaneous protest against the inauguration of Lukashenko. The banner reads “Self-organization, not self-coronation.”
When We Rise
A year has already passed since the beginning of the electoral campaign of 2020, which was the starting point of the uprising of the Belarusian people against the dictatorship.
For many months, we resisted the regime in the streets, in our neighborhoods, and in our workplaces—employing creative forms of civil disobedience and engaging in full-fledged clashes with the forces of the regime in the streets of the country. In some places, we were victorious, but elsewhere, the regime managed to respond quickly to spontaneous organizing.
By the approach of New Year’s Eve, the big protests fell silent, and only small underground actions continued to shake the capital. We went from a feeling that “we have already won” to the current situation of depression, when it seems that spring will not come for the Belarusian people.
In order to understand how we should move forward, it is necessary to analyze the situation constantly, to learn from mistakes in order to avoid them in the future.
This text is an attempt to engage in such a critical review. It is not intended to inspire new participants or to maintain morale, but primarily to understand what is happening in the streets here and now and where we should go from here.
Critique is welcome!
Many people remain in prison from the revolt.
Decentralization as a Core Strength of the Belarusian Uprising
The mobilization against the dictatorship in 2020 took place throughout the country. The united initiative groups that formed around the headquarters of [opposition candidate] Svetlana Tikhanovskaya did a great job of activating the population.
Most Belarusians already knew the results of the elections in advance, but this political agitation was based primarily on participation in the democratic process and attempts to protect their votes.
Anarchists had few expectations in this regard, and therefore, most of the collectives called for a direct boycott of the election, with calls to take to the streets on August 9.
Because of this lack of illusions about the re-election,1 local resistance groups formed even before August, with the aim of participating in protests after the “counting” of the votes. The efforts of the liberal groups, which were working in the cities of Belarus with a semi-legal status, increased the potential of this mobilization.
It is difficult to say whether Tikhanovskaya and her team understood the scale of the storm that had begun even before the presidential campaign. Dissatisfaction with Lukashenko’s policy in fighting COVID-19 had already mobilized a significant part of the population. Self-organized mutual aid groups were active in various regions.
Tihanovskaya’s political campaign, like the coronavirus, affected the whole country. The plan for election day was not based on a huge protest in Minsk, but on participation in rallies throughout the country. The Lukashenko regime did not expect such a high mobilization throughout different regions.
As a result, we approached August 9 with prepared groups (including anarchists) not only in Minsk, but also in other cities and towns of the country. Although the authorities tried to extinguish the growing fire in various regions by means of a few targeted detentions of prominent politicians and activists, on election day, tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the country, demanding the fall of the regime.
The forces drawn into Minsk that evening were ultimately able to disperse the protest. But after protesters forced the police to flee in some small towns, the damage to the reputation of the supposedly indestructible “punishers”2 was enormous.
The flight of the riot police filled Belarusian society with momentum that carried us forward for months to come. Social networks played a huge role in demoralizing the regime in the early days: despite the regime’s attempt to shut down the Internet, it was easy to find videos, photos, and personal accounts of clashes with the regime in which people came out victorious.
In small towns, people celebrated their victory over the dictatorship after the local punishers fled.
Protesters built barricades for first time in the modern history of Belarus during the first days of the protests.
At that point, decentralization outflanked and temporarily defeated the centralized Belarusian state. It was the decentralization of the movement that made it possible to continue the protest until November.
But it was in those first days that the first problem of the Belarusian protest became apparent: the absence of concrete goals for street protests.
Almost no one had any understanding of the mechanics of bringing down authoritarian regimes. Yes, there was a hope, fueled by liberal myths, that if enough peaceful people took the streets, the regime would become frightened and collapse. But the reality was much less romantic.
After the nighttime clashes with the riot police and internal troops,3 when protesters fled to their homes, there were some people stayed awake: the regime strategists who were actively continuing to work and plan their next steps.
The symbolic victories in Pinsk or Brest failed to win back space for further protest; the squares and buildings were neither occupied nor destroyed. And although several dozen punishers were injured during the clashes, no serious damage was done to the infrastructure of the dictatorship.
We could discuss at length whether it makes sense to seize the administrative buildings or the main post office, but in any case, people did not do this.
Clashes with riot police in Pinsk on the night of August 9, not far from the center of Minsk.
Still, the symbolic victory of the first days was a heavy blow to the morale of the authorities. Until then, they had been able to count on complete impunity for their deeds, and most of them had never felt the wrath of the people. After this, an exodus began from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the KGB (in Belarus, the secret police are still called the KGB). Some of the KGB officers tried to join the protest structures; some of them lay low, waiting for the dictator to flee.
It was the fear of being massacred, not their high moral values, that made the majority of the officers flee.
In Minsk, the decentralization gave rise to neighborhood initiatives. In some places, local communities held joint festivals for children and grownups. Elsewhere, groups engaged in rapid politicization. For example, in Uručča (Minsk), local initiatives united and even adopted a political program.
The same kind of political declarations and formation of political groups took place in other parts of the capital. Although neighborhood initiatives were more engaged in cultural work or subbotniks, the movement, for the first time in the long history of the region, brought political organization back to the grassroots level.
The lack of political parties and clear leaders rallying activists made it difficult to suppress the protests. For a long time, the state apparatus could not figure out how to adapt to the decentralized format of the actions in Minsk. Numerous lectures, rallies, and open political meetings were held without the danger of repression. This level of political freedom was simply unfamiliar to the majority of Belarusians.
Unfortunately, the movement of neighborhood assemblies only spread in the capital. In Brest, Grodno, and several other protesting cities, there were attempts to organize local groups, but the wave of activism reached these regions only by the time the authorities learned how to cope with the local movements successfully, and the number of protesters continued to fall.
After weeks of intense street marches and decentralized actions, the regime once again adapted to what was happening and consistently cleared neighborhood after neighborhood.
Although numerous groups on Telegram continue to exist, most neighborhood initiatives are now in survival mode and rarely hold any kind of action. The significant decline in activity has also made it much easier for the regime to control what happens in the neighborhoods and to respond to small marches or outdoor events.
Working with neighborhood assemblies also brought some challenges to the movement against Lukashenko. In many of the organized neighborhood groups, there were people who put themselves in the role of leaders.
These same people were actively engaged in pushing a certain agenda within their networks. This meant that some chats deleted any messages calling for direct action, while other chats deleted any attempts to call for peaceful protests.
This kind of separation occurred throughout the democratic movement in general, but the presence of moderators, who became the de facto chiefs of their respective areas, often reproduced the dynamic of dictatorship in miniature, so that people were forced not only to fight Lukashenko, but also to fight against local activists who had more power within the neighborhood initiatives because of their technical knowledge.
This is quite in line with Belarusian society as a whole, which has been in the hands of one dictatorship or another for many generations. The authoritarian dynamic of the state manifests itself in our society in many ways, from education to the workplace. It is logical that the same problems began to arise with small ringleaders within neighborhood initiatives.
Discussions about decentralization and neighborhood assemblies led to an increase in the influence of ideas about decentralized social organization from Swiss liberal federalism to anarchism, which gained new meaning for some participants in the democratic movement.
At some point, the agenda of decentralization became so important that even liberal political parties and groups began to try to promote it in various formats, ranging from using fictitious institutions of self-government within the dictatorship4 to lectures on Swiss cantons and the possibilities of civil control of the state apparatus.
In the current context of repression and the necessity of political survival, conversations about different formats of decentralized organization have receded into the background, but we hope that this political agenda will return in future attempts to overthrow Lukashenko. After all, Belarusian society saw the example of Russia, which tried to escape its Soviet legacy of state capitalism in the 1990s and ended up with Putin’s dictatorship.
Ukrainians were forced to revolt again in 2014 after the peaceful Maidan protests of 2004, touching off another round of struggle against authoritarianism in the region. We believe that these sprouts of decentralization will survive this wave of repression, and also—the regime itself.
In Minsk and some other cities, Molotov cocktails were used in the clashes against the police…..
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