Notes from the Stanford seminar on Belarus

On August 19, Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies organized a seminar on the potential democratic breakthrough in Belarus, featuring Michael McFaul, Francis Fukuyama, Anna Grzymala-Busse, and Kathryn Stoner. These are my notes for what I see as the key takeaways.

International reactions to the 2020 Belarusian presidential election and protests

Non-violence is still the only way. State violence always pushes protests towards radicalization, but every expert on the panel urged for continued restraint. Protests that didn’t turn violent have always had much greater chance of success. Peaceful transition of power makes it much less likely that the country backslides into authoritarianism after a democratic breakthrough.

It is essential to build broad coalitions, prioritize procedure over policy, and avoid splitting into factions. At the same time, decentralization is a strength. Protest should not depend on a single leader or a handful of leaders.

Huge Belarusian diaspora (2.5–3m) and the country’s large and successful IT industry were called out as factors that created demand for democracy in Belarus. Compared to other non-democratic countries, Belarus has higher GDP per capita and a well educated population. Women in Belarus are more likely to be educated and successful than in other dictatorships, this was cited as one of the reasons Belarusian women play a key role in the ongoing protests.

While civil society in Belarus wasn’t as well developed as it was in Ukraine in 2014, Belarusians have demonstrated a remarkable ability to create new structures through mobilization for protests.

Workers are the deciding force in Belarus. For example, the 1991 coup failed in large part thanks to the miners union. A lot will depend on the ability of Belarusian workers to organize and resist state oppression.

On the other hand, Lukashenka’s dictatorship is more entrenched and more authoritarian than in other countries that had successful democratic breakthroughs.

Orban used to support Lukashenka before, but this time he backed away and EU is unanimous in support of protests.

Likewise, China may support Lukashenka, but they also strongly support sovereignty and will stay on the sidelines themselves and will not approve of an overt intervention by Russia.

This leaves Putin as the only Lukashenka’s ally. Putin is not going to be moved by his personal (and, according to McFaul, very real) dislike of Lukashenka. He won’t be limited by ODKB’s requirements that there is a foreign attack rather than internal unrest, nor by other international laws. And he won’t be provoked by any kind of statements by Lukashenka or by the West.

Putin will do what he thinks he needs to do. The primary source of irrationality in his decisions is going to be his paranoia. He is scared to death of the ongoing protests in Khabarovsk and he will do anything to prevent Belarus from becoming a positive example to protesters in Russia.

Because of all that, deciding US and EU response based on calculated outcomes (i.e. “how will Putin react”) is pointless, it should be based on principles instead. Paraphrasing McFaul: “To do nothing in the face of a wrong shows weakness. To do nothing in support of the unimaginable bravery of Belarusians undermines our own morality and the morals of the protesters who count on our support.”

That said, Belarusians can’t count on support from the Trump administration. Shockingly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo didn’t even mention Belarus in a speech he gave on August 12 in Prague on security and democracy in Central Europe. FWIW McFaul pointed at the sanctions US Congress approved almost unanimously in 2017 as a sign that in the event of an overt invasion Russia will get sanctioned regardless of whether Trump wants it or not.

If Biden becomes president, the US policy on Belarus is likely to change a lot. McFaul vouched for Biden’s decades of experience with Eastern Europe and pointed out that he has already made several statements about Belarus. Even though the next administration is going to have major domestic challenges to deal with first, they could be persuaded to see Belarus as a useful proof-of-concept for Biden’s foreign policy.

EU has learned its lessons from 2014 and is now moving much faster with targeted sanctions against those involved in vote falsifications and human rights violations in Belarus. All panelists agreed that creating very real consequences, from sanctions all the way to an arrest order from the World Court of Justice, is going to be a strong argument for many of the Lukashenko’s enablers in Belarus.

An important way to chip away at the dictator’s support among “people with guns” that worked well in other cases is “generals with daughters”: personal persuasion of decision makers within the government by their own families and friends. This, and raising and maintaining awareness of Belarus around the world, is where the Belarusian diaspora can make the most difference.

A key factor that determined the success of other countries in their attempts to break away from Russia has been national identity. The panel didn’t talk much of how it applies to Belarus, I don’t think they understand the current situation with Belarusian national identity well enough to talk about it.

Video recording of the seminar:

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