The Future of Belarus: In Conversation with Katsiaryna Shmatsina

Julie Luebken 18 September 2020
Image Credits: Wilson Centre

The popular movement of discontent in Belarus shows no signs of slowing down. The streets are full every week, with 100,000 people showing up on September 13th in Minsk. Is this a sustainable trend? Can mobilization continue during the harsh Belarussian winter? European Horizons, in partnership with the Europe Desk, hosted an interactive, forward-looking conversation with Belarussian policy analyst, Katsiaryna Shmatisna.

Shmatsina is currently a research fellow at the German Marshall Fund. She recounted her experience as a law student in Minsk, remembering a repressive academic environment where professors’ careers were at risk if they criticized the government. Some students were more outspoken: they openly condemned the authoritarian regime only to be expelled or blackmailed by government officials. The rise of anti-governmental opinion from Belarussian universities is, for Shmatsina, a sign that people are no longer afraid. It is the reflection of a society-wide trend of exhaustion and desperation for change.

Students are by no means the only group to have seen an increase in involvement. Much of the footage of the protests shows an impressive amount of women. For Shmatsina, it is high time that this was the case in Belarus. For decades, women have fought for equal political representation and access to higher office. Unsuccessful bids for party leadership succeeded one another as women became discouraged from even attempting to break through a masculine-oriented political scene. The opposition movement has swiftly broken this status quo. All the main figureheads are women, standing their ground as strong defendants of their population’s plight. Tichanowskaya, the Belarussian opposition leader, has attracted international attention by calling on the United Nations, the European Union and even neighbouring Lithuania where she is now in exile. With this expanding visibility also comes tactical bravery. Women are the main participants in mass gatherings in Minsk. Shmatsina outlines an advantage: they are less likely to be targeted by the violent dispersions of the riot police. This is not to say that they are safe, far from it. Shmatsina highlights detention centre reports where women have spoken of sexual harassment. Prime female political figures and organisers have also been threatened by government officials. They say social services are actively trying to take away children – considering the women as a threat to their families. Shmatsina remains confident in the continuation of this courage. Women like Maria Kolesnikova, who ripped up her passport to avoid exile to Ukraine, have shown an unwillingness to back down that has re-energised Belarussian women.

Shmatsina’s view on international responses paints a picture of an authoritarian leader that stands alone. The European Union has slid into the role of shy bystander. When asked whether the Union needs to take a harsher stance and defend its cherished values, Shmatsina acknowledges its limitations. “There is only so much they can do”, she says. Condemning Lukashenko and regarding him to be an illegitimate leader is an appreciated sign of support. Besides, in the past, sanctions against Belarus have proved ineffective. Economic instability triggers unhappy citizens which leads to brutal responses from the government.

Lukashenko has never relied on the European Union. Instead, he finds comfort in Putin’s arms. Or rather in the 1.5 billion dollars allocated to the Belarussian autocrat on September 14th. Shmatsina points out a comical fact – Putin really dislikes Lukashenko. He, however, seems to be biding time with the issue as there are fears that popular protests could spill into Russia. Appeasing them with money seems like a logical Russian step for Shmatsina. She continues to explain that Putin’s real position is unknown. He could, in fact, support the democratic transition but is unwilling to express this until Lukashenko has stepped down. It is clear to all parties that Belarussians will never cut ties with Russia, even in the case of a democratic system. Their history is too intertwined and Belarus is economically dependent on Russian aid. Citizens want relations with Russia as well as with the West, a change that could certainly improve Russia’s international image.

For the opposition, the next few weeks will be most decisive. The protests are set to continue, persist and hopefully strengthen, with the fear that they may lose momentum as the winter months creep up slowly.

What next? Is there a predictable timeline? Shmatsina paints the perspective of both sides. From the government’s perspective, another year in power is envisaged. Lukashenko has hinted at this – to be taken with a pinch of salt. For the opposition, the next few weeks will be most decisive. The protests are set to continue, persist and hopefully strengthen, with the fear that they may lose momentum as the winter months creep up slowly. The anger and motivation of the population should be channelled in this short amount of time. Shmatsina said something that summed up the situation clearly: neither side has anything to lose and will fight until they get what they want.