CEU Democracy Institute Event Explores a Possible Future for Belarus

An online roundtable on February 1 brought together distinguished experts who sought an answer to the question: Is there a winner six months after the 2020 elections in Belarus?

The roundtable discussion, moderated by Gabor Toka (Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives) brought together Kateryna Bornukova (BEROC Economic Research Center), Anaïs Marin (Chatham House), Artyom Shraibman (Carnegie Moscow Center), Kenneth S. Yalowitz (Georgetown University) and Miklos Haraszti (Central European University) to explore what kind of political stabilization or destabilization may be awaiting Belarus, what the realistic options and constraints are for the regime, the opposition, Russia and the international community concerned over the state of human rights in Belarus.

Gábor Tóka asked first Artyom Shraibman to describe the situation and how it looks from the perspective of various actors concerned. “Nothing is certain now,” summarized Shraibman of the Belarus situation, referring to the unprecedented protest movement in the country that is the harshest and toughest crackdown in Belarusian history. He also mentioned that some scholars would call it a reaction.

“Now the protests are not regular, organized and centralized and cannot be seen as a real threat to the regime,”

he added. According to Shraibman, we cannot compare the protests to the oppositional leaders but furthermore, he emphasized that there have to be other triggers for the protesters – an economic situation, new violence from the regime and moves by Moscow –  as a new wave of movements is expected during the spring months. “We cannot underestimate the mistakes of the regime and consider that they learned from their mistakes. As there is a growing international pressure, their legitimacy is questioned and the economic situation is getting worse,” he argued. 

Kateryna Bornukova also highlighted the uncertainty in terms of the economic situation in Belarus:

“The protests also caused a huge economic shock on top of the COVID-shock.”

According to the expert, the complete trust lead to a huge downturn in investment sentiments and one of the most vulnerable points of the Belarusian economy is the serving of the public debt as the currency devaluated. It is hard to forecast what the outlooks of the economy are, and there are different scenarios. “The external demand was growing, and the Belarusian economy is sensitive and opened. If there will be sectoral sanctions from the European Union, the dependence towards Russia will be higher as the country came in with loans. Belarus has no access to international financial markets and organizations,” said Bornukova.

Kenneth S. Yalowitz, former U.S Ambassador to Belarus, has drawn a line creating an effect on the Belarusian and the Russian protests. He suggested that this situation will bring Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin closer:

“Russia supported Belarus economically despite the conflicts and that kept Lukashenka afloat and we can think that he will manage through this year,”

Yalowitz said, adding that even more support, statements and sanctions will come from the US thanks to the new Biden administration and the EU. The president can stay in power and delay what is worse for him.

“Never been good, but never catastrophic,” summarized Anaïs Marin the situation of human rights in Belarus during the past six months. The expert turned the light on the main political limitations of accountability of the oppressors as Russia has a veto right at the Security Council that makes it difficult to move towards the law infringements to Criminal Court.

“The most serious human rights abuses are tortures and allegations, there are 2000 claims of mistreatment. But no steps were taken in Belarus,”

she argued. Even if the international community reacted strongly, identifying missions is challenging as there is no entry to Belarusian prisons. According to Marin, the international initiatives and the support towards human rights defenders can give hope, but it will take time and effort in the long term.

Bornukova also emphasized that Belarus is dependent on Russia financially, keeping the regime does not require a substantial amount of money. The country has to solve the political problems first. “We don’t see what Russia can benefit economically from the support, but Putin’s aims are different to understand as it is not the best time for integration since Lukashenka has lost his legitimacy.”

Neither Yalowitz nor Marin are optimistic in terms of the regime change and the states of human rights. Yalowitz also thinks that Lukashenka would do anything to keep his seats and no external factor can disturb it. According to Marin, these issues and the politicization of human rights are also divisive for the international community as some countries consider these as domestic affairs and claim sovereignty over universality. “There is a need for supporting the civil society and humanitarian aid.

The Belarusian society is in post-traumatic shock and it also has to be considered that the regime can use the financial support against the beneficiaries.

It is important to support those who stayed in Belarus because it is the question of legitimacy in the eye of the voters as well,” she argued.

Then Artyom Shraibman brought more positive outlooks in terms of the Belarusian public opinion and the political climate. “All of the aspects of Lukashenka’s system are not supported by the people. The previous six months were also a huge exercise in nation-building, civil society-building and trauma as well for hundreds, thousands if not millions of people,” he claimed. And despite being painful for the society, it also creates a healthy attitude to the politics of the post-Lukashenka era and drives better pro-democratic forces – Shraibman described the ongoing situation as an ’anti-authoritarian vaccine.’

“If the victory would be easy, a return and a revenge would be easier,”

he noted. Furthermore, even if there are ambitions of Moscow, there is no guarantee that Belarusian society will accept any movements and parties as Putin supported Lukashenka and being affiliated with Russia is considered toxic. “Unfortunately, as long as this situation is going, there is harm and agony, and the immigration is also huge”, he added. 

Discussant Miklós Haraszti then reminded the audience of the cyclic nature of Lukashenka’s role and raised the parallel between the Chernobyl disaster and the Covid-19 pandemic. “As the government underreported the number of cases and deaths that are 15 times higher, it was a huge reminder for middle-age people and elders how deadly it can be if they cover the numbers. It was a direct implication of living in an authoritarian state,” argued Artyom Shraibman, adding that the tortures, the oppression and the political crisis overshadowed the pandemic in Belarus. Mentioning the role of Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, he also said that she is more of the symbol of the movements. According to the polls, she is not seen as a full-scale political leader but they suggest the possibility of a united opposition:

“As the history shows, opposition parties and leaders can drop their disagreements and the opposition can be united if the victory is feasible.”

Article by Emese Dobos

Watch the full discussion here:

The CEU Democracy Institute strives to enable the renewal and strengthening of democratic and open societies through world-class research, collaboration across academic and professional disciplines, the free exchange of ideas, and public engagement on a local, regional, and global scale. The Institute is based at Central European University’s campus in Budapest, Hungary.

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