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What’s driving the Belarus protests?

Our survey reveals some clues, as well as generational divides

Belarusian opposition supporters protest in front of the government building Tuesday at Independence Square in Minsk. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
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Belarus is in turmoil after the Aug. 9 election, when the country’s 65-year-old leader Alexander Lukashenko, president for the past 26 years, claimed to have won with more than 80 percent of the vote. Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, 37, contested the election results and thousands of Belarusians have protested the disputed election. The European Union and the United States have also stated their concerns that the elections were “not free and fair.”

Police and security forces cracked down on the protesters, arresting and beating thousands of people. But rather than snuffing out protest, the government’s violent response only intensified opposition. An anti-Lukashenko rally on Aug. 16 was the largest gathering in the history of independent Belarus. As strikes and protests against his rule continue, Lukashenko has vowed to stay in power.

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To understand what’s happening, it’s helpful to have a sense of what people in Belarus believe. Our nationally representative poll in Belarus, fielded in early 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic, offers some critical insights. Here’s what we learned:

Respondents said Belarus was moving in the wrong direction

A slight majority of respondents (51.8 percent) felt that things in Belarus were moving in the wrong direction. (17.5 percent said “don’t know.”) We asked respondents to tell us the three biggest problems facing the country. All were economic. More than 60 percent of respondents mentioned rising prices and inflation as their top concerns, followed by low wages and unemployment.

Asking respondents directly what they thought about Lukashenko was not possible in the survey. Given the sensitivity of the question and the likely unreliability of the results due to possible fears on the part of respondents, we used a list experiment as a way to indirectly but more accurately measure his popularity. Our results revealed that only one-third of respondents approved of Belarus’s president.

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Soviet nostalgia is powerful, but waning as the population ages

Belarus, a former Soviet republic, shares close ties and a 770-mile border with Russia. Lukashenko has long cultivated Soviet nostalgia as an ideology of legitimation. Our survey results reflect this but also suggest the Soviet past has a waning grip on younger Belarusians. In Belarus, a majority of respondents viewed the dissolution of the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago as the wrong step.

However, when asked which political system is best, only 31.9 percent said the Soviet system. A nearly identical number (31.8 percent) named the democratic political systems in the West. Only 14.5 percent said the current political system in Belarus, while 13.9 percent said the current system in Russia. Crucially, 52 percent of those 18 to 40 prefer the Western democratic system, while 56 percent of the over-60 cohort prefer the Soviet one.

Here’s where Belarusians position themselves between Russia and the West

We asked respondents to position where their country was along a numbered continuum that featured the West as the zero point and Russia as 10. We then asked the same respondents to position where they would like their country to be positioned.

Overall, Belarusians in early 2020 appear content with their country’s slightly pro-Russian geopolitical position. The median value (7) on the scale does not change from the perceived actual placement (where Belarus is) to the preferred one (where Belarus should be). As some moved their preference to the West, an equal number wanted to link their country closer to Russia. What these numbers disguise, however, is a generational divide. Of the sample aged 18 to 40, 50.4 percent want to move toward the West on the scale and 23.3 percent want to move toward Russia. But for the over-60 sample, 14.7 percent want to move toward the West and 62.0 percent want to move Russia’s way on the geopolitical scale.

Belarusians want good relations with the West

Lukashenko has floated dark conspiracy theories with statements like “NATO is at our gates” — an apparent effort to scare Belarusians and re-legitimate himself in the eyes of Russia. But his regime has long cultivated better relations with the West and in February hosted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk. Over 63 percent favor establishing full diplomatic relations with the United States.

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Nearly half are in favor of good relations with NATO, though a clear majority do not want to join the alliance. More than three-quarters agreed that it was best to stay neutral and outside any military alliance. Only three in 10 respondents view Western culture as a threat.

Belarusians aren’t inspired by Ukraine’s 2014 revolution

Lukashenko has accused his opponents of being agents of foreign “puppet masters” plotting a “Maidan” revolution against him (a reference to Ukraine’s 2014 revolution). But there is no evidence for this. Indeed, our survey asked Belarusians whether they agreed with the statement that Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution was a positive development for Ukraine. Nearly two-thirds of Belarusians disagreed.

The 2014 Maidan protests, which had a strong pro-Western edge, in other words, do not inspire Belarusians. Rather, the scenario in Belarus reflects dissatisfaction with Lukashenko’s 26-year dictatorial rule.

What our research reveals is fairly consistent with what academic research reveals about Belarus. Belarusians have their own distinctive sense of identity, and also important internal differences, especially generational, over the past, present and future. Belarus is nobody’s client state. While remaining culturally close to Russia, the country remains open to the West but does not want to join NATO. Discontent has been building for some time and different constituencies are now aroused in opposition to Lukashenko — but what happens next remains an open question.

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Gerard Toal, professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech’s campus in Arlington, is the author of “Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus” (Oxford University Press, 2019), which won the ENMISA Distinguished Book Award in 2019.

John O’Loughlin, college professor of distinction at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is a political geographer with research interests in the human outcomes of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa and in the geopolitical orientations of people in post-Soviet states.

Kristin M. Bakke is a professor of political science and international relations at University College London and associate research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Her current research focuses on postwar state-building and wartime legacies, as well as geopolitical orientations in post-Soviet states.

The authors acknowledge funding for this work from a joint National Science Foundation/Research Council UK grant (NSF award #1759645; ESRC award # ES/S005919/1).