ARCHIV - 18.10.2020, Belarus, Minsk: Demonstranten mit historischen belarussischen Nationalfahnen nehmen an einem Protest der Opposition gegen die offiziellen Ergebnisse der Präsidentschaftswahlen teil. Trotz neuer Gewaltandrohung haben Zehntausende Menschen gegen den Langzeitpräsidenten Lukaschenko demonstriert. (zu dpa "Putins Helfer: Lukaschenko gerät im Ukraine-Krieg unter Druck") Foto: AP/dpa +++ dpa-Bildfunk +++

As the war in Ukraine rages on, the stability of neighboring Belarus, which supported the Russian invasion, appears to be crumbling. Is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression weakening the regime in Minsk, which is effectively a remote wing of the Kremlin?

In August 2020, President Alexander Lukashenko remained in office after election fraud, although Svetlana Tikhanovskaya almost certainly won the elections. This sparked months of protests. The regime responded with terror and mass arrests, leading to even larger protests. After the election, Lukashenko’s power began to wane as workers, public media, doctors, students, pensioners and many others publicly opposed the security services.

The whole country went on strike, but Lukashenko stayed in the post he has held since 1994 with brutal interventions by loyal special forces. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Belarusians will not return to their old passivity. “We have all changed, forever,” said opposition leader Masha Kalesnikova, who has been in prison for the past 23 months. During this time, the Belarusians turned to independent media and got used to them en masse due to the lack of official information on the corona pandemic. Despite the threat of imprisonment, they still use it today.

The fact that the Belarusians were able to astonish the world in 2020 with their ongoing protest and demands for democracy is also due to the fact that their country – like Ukraine – has remained culturally foreign to Russia despite centuries of Russification and Sovietization. Belarusians have always pretended to live in a democratic, liberal society, because that’s how they see themselves (although older cohorts are heavily influenced by Russia and Lukashenko).

Comparing the Belarusians to the Ukrainians and expecting the same kind of resistance would be unfair. They don’t have opposition members in parliament or in local governments like pre-invasion Ukrainians had. The comparison with Poland is more appropriate: the Poles protested peacefully against the imposition of martial law at the end of 1981, which was the only way to make themselves heard.

The Solidarnosc union had shrunk after 16 months of activity, but the myth remained. A million people left Poland, but the rest stayed and didn’t forget how to take to the streets. The Polish experience offers a preview of what Belarus could face. Poles got their shot at independence in 1989 by taking advantage of a brief moment of insecurity in the Kremlin. It was similar with Ukraine, which collapsed in 1991 when the

Soviet Union seized the opportunity and gained its sovereignty (although Russia has repeatedly threatened that sovereignty ever since). Russia’s failing war in Ukraine could offer Belarus a similar opportunity. Since 2020, Belarusian society has articulated its values, learned long-term resistance and created free media based abroad. And now, for perhaps the first time ever, Belarusian dissidents involved in the fight against Putin in Ukraine are getting their hands on guns.

On the second anniversary of the Minsk protests, a Belarusian government-in-exile headed by Tichanovskaya was formed. It includes its Vilnius office, the National Crisis Management headed by Pavel Latushka, the Warsaw-based BYPOL initiative of ex-servicemen, the opposition initiative, which includes the cyber-partisans, and Pahonia, which is fighting in Ukraine -Regiment.

The Coordination Council, set up during the protests two years ago and of which Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexeyevich is a member, is being repurposed as a substitute for parliament.

A clear change is that the government-in-exile already has its own armed detachment, for which more than 200,000 Belarusians have registered, ready to rise up against Lukashenko at the first opportunity – even with violence. Until recently, Belarusian soldiers and government officials had no alternative. But now they have the choice between the illegitimate government in Minsk and the government under Tichanovskaya, which was elected by a majority in 2020. That choice will be made when the opportunity arises, which could be the case if Russia’s humiliation in Ukraine throws the Kremlin into chaos.