Friday, March 24, 2006
The Belarussian opposition let Lukashenko off the hook. By reducing the protests, they killed the enthusiasm for joining them. They also left an opening for Lukashenko to use reasonable force to bring the demonstration to an end without looking like a brutal dictator. Instead of facing tens of thousands of entrenched and joyous demonstrators, they rounded up a couple of hundred isolated and ineffective, though brave, people in a standard raid.
I think this misunderstands the nature of the color revolutions in the xUSSR. The comparisons between Belarus' nascent opposition and the Orange Revolution next door completely misses the history of the Orange Revolution, which took years to create. The Orange Revolution was the culmination of an effort started by mass protests of "Ukraine without Kuchma" (UBK), which came from the grisly murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in September 2000. UBK eventually got protests going in December of that year, which lasted well into 2001. These groups too were relatively small and were attacked repeatedly, though Kuchma was smart enough not to use uniformed police. By the end of 2001, it appeared, Kuchma had solidified power, sent Yushchenko from the prime minister's office into opposition, and was contemplating constitutional changes that would keep him in power indefinitely.
And that's the point: The breakup of protests was not the end of the opposition to Kuchma. It was the beginning of another phase in the development of a real opposition.
The success of UBK was a series of small steps, starting with one television station in Kyiv revolting against its own management that wanted Gongadze's widow kept off the air, the transformation of UBK from street protests to political party (Our Ukraine, headed by Yushchenko). Natalka Zubar explains:
Throughout 2001 a process was underway on �Maidan� of analyzing and making sense of the experience gained from �Ukraine without Kuchma� which was first recorded on 18 May 2001 in our manifesto. In this document of doctrinal significance there is a key phrase: �� we have one current objective: Ukraine in which it�s a buzz to live. Our Ukraine.�
The Name of Viktor Yushchenko�s bloc �Nasha Ukraina� [�Our Ukraine�] appeared two months later, on 15 July 2001.
It would be another three years before the Maidan filled again with people, who by then had been formed into workable groups with a network that would operate even with harrassement by the police. Arresting any group would not have had any effect; even for the OMON to have descended on the Maidan would have not led to the defeat of the movement, though it might have delayed it for a time and would have caused far more bloodshed.
One has to hesitate in drawing parallels between Belarus and Ukraine. The ethnic and cultural distinctions between them, and between each and Russia, are quite different. A substantial share of Ukrainians had seen Russians as oppressors for centuries, so aligning Kuchma with Putin rallied support; there are few in Belarus with this feeling. The role of the independent media that did exist in Ukraine in 2000 (Channel 5 TV, Gongadze's internet paper, diaspora publications) cannot be understated; these do not exist in Belarus.
If the protests were disorganized and unmoving, why did Lukashenko react as he did? Do not discount the timing of this, just before the start of the weekend. He did not wish to risk the possiblility that the protests would be large, would demonstrate resolve. This attack was not an act of strength but of weakness.
Maybe this time it peters out because it's disorganized. Or maybe it's the start of something bigger. I'm not in the political prediction business. But it's really quite preposterous for people to think that color revolutions are easily set off by a simple spark of a stolen election. It takes time to lay down enough tinder for a fire to catch. Just because this will go off the evening news for awhile now is not a sign that the opposition has blown it in Belarus. I'll throw in with Lenin on this one: This is just the beginning. They've got the stomach, Ed, but they also have the brains to keep their powder dry.