As calls for President Lukashenko’s resignation resonate around Belarus, we meet some of the women marching for change.
On October 11, Belarusian security forces charged at a large anti-government demonstration in Minsk.
Mariya Shakuro did not run.
She felt she had done nothing wrong by joining the protest so there was no need to flee. The 29-year-old, who works in furniture manufacturing, was arrested, along with dozens of others.
She spent 10 days in detention before being released.
She was held in harsh conditions that impacted her health, but the experience has not dissuaded her from protesting in the future.
“I plan to continue engaging in [protest] activity. I did not suffer any major psychological effect [from the arrest]. I took it lightly, this is a small price to pay for freedom,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I think these protests will continue until the changes we have been long waiting for take place, until people feel free.”
Belarus has witnessed weekly protests since the August 9 election, which the opposition claims was rigged in favour of President Alexander Lukashenko.
While the anti-government mobilisation has persisted in the face of a heavy-handed crackdown, it has failed to achieve significant concessions from the longtime Belarusian leader, who claims the street protests are incited by “foreign forces”.
While the struggle between Lukashenko and opposition forces increasingly seems to be deadlocked, analysts told Al Jazeera that the Belarusian president is unlikely to make it to another election.
The tense situation in Belarus is also putting Russia in a difficult situation, as it pushes for political and economic integration with Belarus while trying not to alienate the Belarusian public.
‘New forms of protest’
The protest movement in Belarus has staged some of the largest anti-government demonstrations in its recent history, mobilising a wide array of social groups, including the intelligentsia, factory workers, students, pensioners and the disabled.
Hundreds of thousands have marched through the streets of Minsk and other Belarusian cities, demanding Lukashenko’s resignation and a new presidential election.
In spite of the majority of prominent opposition figures being either behind bars or in exile, leaderless protests have continued to take place on the weekends, despite repressive measures taken by the authorities.
A recent report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), cited evidence of “massive and systematic” human rights abuses in the government crackdown, including torture.
Since August 9, authorities have admitted to the deaths of three protesters, but human rights organisations believe the actual number is higher.
According to the UN, tens of thousands of protesters have been arrested and more than 500 tortured and, according to the Belarusian human rights organisation Viasna, more than 900 are facing criminal charges.
On October 13, former presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was forced to leave for Lithuania following the elections, gave Lukashenko an ultimatum – step down by October 25 or face a nation-wide strike.
On that day, more than 100,000 people gathered in Minsk and other Belarusian cities to demand the president’s resignation before they were dispersed by security forces using stun grenades and rubber bullets.
Although – in the following days – some students and workers heeded Tikhanovskaya’s call to strike, this did not happen at a nation-wide level.
Lukashenko appeared defiant, declaring later that he has “no intention of retreating”.
According to Olga Dryndova, a Berlin-based researcher and contributing editor to Belarus-Analysen at the University of Bremen, protesters may have underestimated Lukashenko’s strength.
“The whole system Lukashenko has built in 26 years is stable,” she told Al Jazeera. “We now have a kind of a [stalemate].”
In recent weeks, demonstrations have persisted but numbers have fallen amid the continuing crackdown. On November 15, thousands took to the streets to protest the death of protestor Roman Bondarenko, who passed away last week after being detained by plain-clothes security officers. Viasna reported over 1,200 people were arrested in the demonstrations.
According to Shakuro, it is likely that in the coming months, fewer people will show up at protests.
“People are not so much afraid of the coronavirus, as much as they are tired of not knowing whether they would make it home after the protest,” she said.
“But even if Sunday protests dwindle, [the protest momentum] would just flow into new forms of protest.”
Calls for various acts of civil disobedience have started appearing on opposition social media.
In September, a blacklist of companies owned by businesspeople close to Lukashenko was circulated online followed by a smartphone app that allows users to scan a product’s barcode to find out if it should be boycotted.
There have also been reports of other forms of civil disobedience, such as people painting or hanging the opposition white-and-red flag in public spaces, managers at state institutions and factories refusing to carry out orders to discipline or dismiss protesting workers, railway workers intentionally delaying freight and passenger trains, and police officers refusing to start investigations against protesters.
Looming economic crisis
Analysts agree that even if street protests dwindle in the coming months, the sentiment behind the movement is expected to continue.
“It is indeed possible that, over the winter, the protests will thin out, but still discontent will not go away,” Belarusian political scientist Alyaksandr Klaskouski told Al Jazeera.
“I think in a few months, people will come out for an ever larger-scale protest, likely triggered by the looming economic crisis and the inevitable foolish moves by the authorities.”
Belarus was already facing an economic slowdown before the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, when the protest wave hit.
Last year, the economy experienced a significant slump in growth after Russia announced it was reconsidering the preferential energy prices it has been giving Belarus for decades.
Since November last year, the Belarusian ruble has lost almost a quarter of its value against the US dollar.
In September, Lukashenko sought assistance from his main backer, Moscow, which pledged a loan of $1.5bn.
Later, the Kremlin made it clear that a large chunk of the sum would go to refinancing Belarusian debt to Russia, which itself is facing economic difficulties due to the slump in oil prices.
In October, $500m of the loan was disbursed to the Belarusian government, $330m of it went towards paying off debts to Russia’s energy giant Gazprom.
“I do not believe Russia would be able to support Lukashenko for another five years because it would cost too much money. We are expecting another economic crisis coming to Belarus very soon,” Dryndova said.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko is also facing a challenge from within state institutions and political elites.
Although there has been no major wave of desertions among high-level officials and members of the elite, there are signs of tension.
The Belarusian president has reshuffled people in leadership positions at various security agencies twice.
In September, he appointed a new head of the KGB security agency and new security council chief.
In October, he sacked the interior minister and replaced him with Ivan Kubrakov, who oversaw the crackdown on protests in Minsk.
“The reshuffles indirectly indicate that there is simmering discontent within the security agencies,” Klaskouski said.
“This is not a collapse but erosion, a process that may continue for a long time.”
Lukashenko is also feeling pressure from the West. Earlier this month, the European Union imposed sanctions on him, his son and a dozen other officials accused of involvement in post-election violence.
Various Western countries have also refused to recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus after his hurried inauguration in September.
Some Western leaders have met his opponent, Tikhanovskaya, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Rejected and sanctioned, Lukashenko has been forced to seek support from Russia and has, to an extent, received it.
Apart from the $1.5bn loan Moscow pledged, it has also expressed readiness to provide the Belarusian president with military assistance if the security situation deteriorates.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has also recognised Lukashenko as the winner of the August 9 elections and backed him in his claims that the West is interfering in his country’s internal affairs.
But the Kremlin has not thrown its full weight behind the Belarusian leader.
It has not changed its position on cancelling energy subsidies for Belarus, which could provide a much-needed economic stimulus.
A recent request from Minsk to be allowed to acquire a Russian oilfield in order to help satisfy the country’s energy needs, as Russian supplies of oil have decreased, was not met with an enthusiastic response from Moscow.
Putin is said to dislike Lukashenko, irked by his past attempts to leverage possible rapprochement with the West to secure economic benefits from Moscow and his reluctance to embrace a political and economic union with Russia, which the Kremlin has been pushing for.
According to Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political analysis firm R Politik, the Kremlin does not see the Belarusian president as “electable” any more, but is sticking with him for lack of an alternative, given its distaste for the opposition and Lukashenko’s repeated purges of possible competitors within the political elite.
That is why Russia is pushing Lukashenko to introduce constitutional changes that would devolve the powers of the presidency, Stanovaya said.
The move could not only reduce street protests, it could also pave the way for pro-Russian political forces to make it into a more empowered parliament, which could accelerate a transition to the union.
But Moscow’s plans may be undermined not just by a president unwilling to give up power to an integration project but also by Belarusian society.
“Moscow is underestimating the lack of readiness among the Belarusian people and elite for such a step. If I have to evaluate real chances [for the union to happen], I would say they are low,” said Stanovaya.
Recent polls have reflected low support for the move.
According to a 2019 survey, just 13 percent of respondents approved of a union with Russia and 4 percent were in favour of full accession. In a 2020 poll conducted online for British think tank Chatham House, about 10 percent supported a political and economic union and 4.5 percent – joining the Russian Federation.
The opposition has also rejected integration.
Some observers have floated the idea that Moscow may resort to the use of force in Belarus, similar to what happened in Ukraine in 2014, but according to Stanovaya, such a scenario is unpopular with the Russian ruling elite and therefore rather unlikely.
Shakuro is also not worried about such a possibility.
“Putin does not need a country where the majority of citizens are against their political leadership… I think [the deployment of] the Russian military is completely out of the question,” she said.