Staunton, VA, February 19, 2017 – One of the most curious characteristics of revolutions is that they often begin when something happens that ordinarily would be quickly dealt with and contained but then capture the mood of the population of the moment and quickly grow into a fundamental challenge to the existing system.
That happened in Petrograd in February 1917 and in Kyiv in 2013, among others, and it now appears to be happening in Belarus where anger about a foolish effort by Minsk to tax those without jobs has prompted not just the largest protest in Minsk since 2010 but also demonstrations in other cities of that country over the last 24 hours.
It is of course possible that the Lukashenka regime will manage to suppress this popular rising or that Vladimir Putin will exploit it to achieve regime change or even annexation there, but it is absolutely clear that the Belarusian people have had enough of their incumbent dictator and are prepared to go farther and faster than even opposition figures had thought possible.
The demonstrations in the Belarusian capital on Friday were the largest and the most vocally anti-Lukashenka of any there since at least 2010.
But what is perhaps even more important is that similar protests are taking place in the Belarusian cities of Mohylev, Homel, and Hrodno as well, attracting far more people than even their organizers expected and with participants expressing far more radical and anti-regime views than many had ever done before.
The reason this spread of protest activity is so important is that Lukashenka, like his fellow dictator Vladimir Putin, has always relied on the support of people outside the often restive capitals. If the Minsk leader has now lost that – and the protests outside of Minsk suggest that he has – then he is in a far weaker position than many have assumed.
What happens next will depend not only on how Lukashenka responds but also and perhaps even more importantly on how Moscow decides to react. In February 19’s Komsomolskaya Pravda, commentator Aleksandr Grishin provides some clues as to how Russian officials now view what is happening in Belarus.
In a lengthy article, Grishin argues that the situation in Belarus now is proceeding in exactly the same way it did in Ukraine in the lead up to the Maidan; and he places the blame on Moscow’s favorite usual subjects: the West for stirring the pot, the intelligentsia for politicizing that which shouldn’t be politicized, and Lukashenka himself for his “playing” with the West.
In short, the Moscow commentator says, Russia and the world are seeing in Belarus what they have seen so many times before, “in Yugoslavia, Serbia, Georgia, Armenia, Georgia [again], Ukraine and in Egypt,” Western efforts to promote a color revolution and the need for “healthy forces” to do something about that.
Moreover — and this may be especially indicative of how Moscow is evaluating the events of the last 48 hours — Grishin says that after trying to work with Lukashenka, Western governments and NGOs in recent weeks have been urging their Belarusian counterparts in Minsk to expand their contacts with people in other cities and regions of that country.
The Komsomolskaya Pravda commentator writes: “It was even said at one time that those NGOs who shift from work with the capital intelligentsia to efforts at influencing the young in the Belarusian provinces will have the best chances to receive Western grants.”
And Grishin continues by observing that “the fruits of such work already are in evidence. On social networks, ever more young people from Belarus” are becoming anti-Russian, pro-Kyiv and pro-European,” a trend that those behind all these demonstrations in Belarus are planning to extend with more marches in the future.
The message from Moscow would seem to be clear because it is the same one Vladimir Putin delivered to Kyiv three years ago: Lukashenka must restore order quickly before the situation truly gets out of hand or Moscow one way or another with him or without him will take steps to do so.