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The Protest Movements’ Opportunities and Outcomes: The Euromaidan and the Belarusian Protest–2020 Compared

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Abstract

This paper compares the mass protests in Ukraine (the Euromaidan of 2013–14) and Belarus–2020 in the recent decade. The author tests the hypothesis that social movements successfully challenge the ruling groups if protests are sufficiently supported by Western governments, if autocratic regimes are not strong and consolidated, and if the regional tendencies are supportive of the protesters’ cause. Based on the comparative analysis of the two cases, the author concludes that the hypothesis is in general correct for Eastern Europe, but should be more nuanced: it should pay attention to the external influences of both Western states and Russia; it should note that the strength of an autocracy may create new opportunities for the challengers; and that it should take into account the changing nature of regional tendencies, which can be of democratization, autocratization, or some mixture.

Abstract

This paper compares the mass protests in Ukraine (the Euromaidan of 2013–14) and Belarus–2020 in the recent decade. The author tests the hypothesis that social movements successfully challenge the ruling groups if protests are sufficiently supported by Western governments, if autocratic regimes are not strong and consolidated, and if the regional tendencies are supportive of the protesters’ cause. Based on the comparative analysis of the two cases, the author concludes that the hypothesis is in general correct for Eastern Europe, but should be more nuanced: it should pay attention to the external influences of both Western states and Russia; it should note that the strength of an autocracy may create new opportunities for the challengers; and that it should take into account the changing nature of regional tendencies, which can be of democratization, autocratization, or some mixture.

In the third decade after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the states of Eastern European have entered a period of instability caused by internal and external factors. Internally, the post-Soviet states have developed into either hybrid regimes characterized by relatively wide spheres of political and civic freedoms but highly corrupt, weak, and deficient states, or autocratic regimes with strong state apparati, kleptocracy, and declining liberties (Hale 2014; Minakov 2020a). Externally, instability in Eastern Europe has been exacerbated by the rivalry between the West and Russia which manifests in economic sanctions, “proxy wars,” and military conflicts (Haukkala 2015; Cadier 2019). The growing social, political, and economic contradictions have largely been ignored by hybrid regimes or suppressed by the autocracies; yet none have been able to resolve the endemic post-Soviet problems of low household income, human security, access to justice, stable civic freedoms, and social inclusion (Snyder 2018). These problems have often fueled mass protest movements.

Eastern European social movements—especially mass protests—have come in “waves” in last three decades. The first wave related to the fall of the Eastern Bloc, the ussr’s dissolution, and the first years of independent national states from 1989 to 1993. For example, mass protests in Prague, Berlin, and Budapest led to changes in political systems and regimes in 1989–90 (Szabó 2000). Later, in Belarus post-Soviet conditions, socio-economic decline, intensified political competition and the state’s weakness gave impetus to a social movement demanding socially oriented policies in 1992–93; these movements played an important role in the electoral victory of populist Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 1994 (Koulinka 2012, 21ff; Marples 2013, p. 23ff). In Ukraine, the mass mobilization of workers forced elites to agree initially on a referendum regarding trust in the government, and then on early parliamentary and presidential elections in 1993–94 (Kasianov 2008, pp. 23–27). Analogous protests spread in other Eastern European countries, making a strong impact on post-communist government policies (Vanhuysse 2006). These movements were a final act of the “third wave of democratization” that profoundly changed Eastern Europe with the following results: 1) socialist states ceased to exist in Europe; 2) complex states (the ussr, Yugoslav Federation, Czechoslovakia) were dissolved into recognized national states; 3) new nations started state- and nation-building processes using the framework of post-communist transition characterized by democratization, marketization, and Europeanization (Huntington 1991; Tismaneanu 2009; Minakov & Rojansky 2021).

The second period of Eastern European mass protests is often called the “wave of color revolutions” (Beissinger 2007; Bunce & Wolchik 2009). Failures in building efficient political and socioeconomic systems in the first post-Soviet decade created new conditions for civic unrest. Between 2000 and 2006 there were many mass protest movements in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, which led to changes in government in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), and Ukraine (2004).1 However, many more protest movements failed to deliver any change of government, political order, or development model (Way 2008; Bianchini & Minakov 2018). Though none of the “color revolutions” resulted in a stable improvement of politics and economy, they did make an impact on Eastern European regimes by turning them into either “revolutionary” or “counter-revolutionary,” or else pro-Western and pro-Russian (Wilson 2010, p. 22). This division added to the region’s inter-state conflicts in the following years.

It was after this period that researchers of post-Soviet protest movements produced many studies on why the protest movements failed or succeeded (see e.g.: Hale 2005; McFaul 2005, 2007, 2018; Beissinger 2007, 2009; Way 2008). One of the results of this debate was the development of the hypothesis that authoritarian stability and the failure of mass protests are affected by 1) the strength of Western influence on post-Soviet states, 2) the strength of the autocratic regime being challenged by the protest movement, and 3) the regional context (democratization, autocratization, inter-state or internal conflicts) which can be supportive or obstructive for the protest movements.2 This study adds to this discussion by testing this triad on the latest post-Soviet mass protest movements, namely in Ukraine (2013–14) and in Belarus (2020).

In the second decade of the 21st century another period started with a wave of mostly unsuccessful mass protests. Out of many protest movements in Belarus (2010, 2015, 2020), Moldova (2015–16, 2020), Ukraine (2011–12, 2013, 2013–14, 2017–18), and Russia (2011–12, 2018, 2019), only the Euromaidan protests (Ukraine, 2013–14) led to a change of government as a result of public action; but the protests’ impact was minimal in terms quality of democracy.3 Other movements— even if those involving hundreds of thousands of protesters for a prolonged period of time, such as Belarus in 2020— were unable to affect any democratic change. This limitation of the democratic effect of social movements might relate to the hypothesis that since approximately 2009–11, global political development is defined by “the third wave of autocratization” (Lührmann and Lindberg 2019; Boese et al. 2021; Hellmeier et al. 2021). “Autocratization” signifies the democratic back-sliding in democratic of hybrid regimes or/and the tendency toward increasingly repressive autocracy in authoritarian regimes (Hellmeier et al. 2020; Boese et al. 2021). It is too early to claim that “the third wave of autocratization” is supported by stronger empirical evidence than the “the third wave of democratization”, but this paper lends support to the hypothesis.

So why have contemporary Eastern European protest movements not been able to repeat the results achieved in the first and second periods? Have the post-Soviet states and autocrats become stronger? Has Western influence decreased in Eastern Europe?

In this article, I address the above questions by testing the autocratization hypothesis through a comparative analysis of the Euromaidan protest movement and the 2020 Belarusian protests. As two of the biggest post-Soviet mass protests in the last decade, both of these cases are connected to internal and external political contradictions characteristic to the Eastern Europe. Moreover, both movements had very limited impacts in terms of democratic change.

Following these prerogatives, this article begins with a review of the methods of the social movement analysis. Second, I analyze the macro-level factors conditioning the Euromaidan and the 2020 Belarusian protests. Following this, I analyze the outcomes of the Euromaidan and the Belarusian protests in the first year after their initial mobilizations. Finally, I draw conclusions from this comparison to help answer the key questions of this article.

1 Measuring Factors for and Outcomes of the Social Movements

In contemporary studies of social movements, researchers look at political opportunity, mobilizing structures, and framing processes as factors correlated with the outcomes of these movements (Mayer et al. 1996; Kulakevich 2014). As these scholars argue, all three factors are interrelated and mutually enforce a movement’s challenging force, efficiency, mobilization scope, and the strength of its competitors and opponents. However, these factors represent different levels of the preconditions for the social movements. Political opportunity relates to the macro-level prospect of a political movement to challenge the political regime whereas mobilizing structures and framing processes are meso- and micro-level factors respectively, which mobilize social groups, political parties, and individual actors to participate in the collective action (McAdam et al. 1996; Kriesi & Rucht 2016). Even though mobilizing structures and framing are as important as the political opportunities, in this paper, I focus only on macro-level factors and their correlation with the outcomes. This choice stems from the aim mentioned above to test the triad of factors preconditioning the success or failure of a protest.

Political opportunity is one of the key factors behind the success of a social movement. Political opportunity was initially defined as “the degree to which groups are likely to be able to gain access to power and to manipulate the political system” (Eisinger 1973, p. 11). Craig Jenkins, Charles Perrow, Hanspeter Kriesi, Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly later developed a new approach to the study of social movements using the lens of political opportunity (see, e.g.: Jenkins & Perrow 1977; McAdam et al. 2003). These scholars demonstrated that political opportunity can either facilitate or constrain the possibility of collective action. Political opportunities are factors (groups, institutions, organizations, larger socioeconomic transformations) that “provide incentives for people to undertake collective action by affecting their expectations for success or failure” (Tarrow 2011, p. 80). Political opportunity mainly offers chances for a core group to attract other groups to join in a political action and challenge the existing political order or regime (Castañeda & Schneider 2017, p. 90ff). Yet political opportunity relates mainly to the macro-level of a social change that influences the meso-level processes of elite divisions and mass mobilization (Jenkins and Perrow 1977; Skocpol 1979). Finally, the political opportunity approach conceptualizes these opportunities as a “cluster of variables” in the institutionalized politics of different nations which provides an opportunity for comparative analysis of different national contexts of social movements (Rucht 1990).

In addition to the opportunities themselves, threats constitute an important factor in the political opportunity framework. It was Charles Tilly who made this addition to the political opportunity approach. Tilly defined opportunities as “the extent to which other groups, including governments, are vulnerable to new claims which would, if successful, enhance the contender’s realization of its interests”, while threats are the “extent to which other groups are threatening to make claims which would … reduce the contender’s realization of its interests” (Tilly 1978, p. 133). This means that “threat tends to generate more collective action than the ‘same’ amount of opportunity” (Tilly 1978, pp. 134–35). Since Tilly’s intervention, threat and coercion have been seen as important factors of the protests’ political opportunities (Goodwin 2001). In both the Euromaidan and the 2020 Belarusian protests, the threat of violence and state repression as well as resistance to such violence and repression were very important for the mobilization and persistence of the protests.

Finally, analysis and comparison of mass protests should take their outcomes into account. Social movement outcomes are usually defined either as successes or failures based on how much the movement managed to challenge the political order and the extent to which its adherents obtained positions of power and implemented the protest agenda (Tilly 1978; Amenta et al. 2010). This metric, however, is timebound: both systemic and individual changes are not stable and may develop further in course of political competition after mobilization wanes. The study of outcomes should therefore pay attention to the time-perspective while the comparative study of social movements should use comparable timeframes. Since the Belarusian protest movement is a very recent— and to some extent ongoing— event,4 I will assess the outcomes of the Ukrainian and Belarusian cases after one-year of mobilization, specifically the end of 2014 for the Euromaidan case and July 2021 in the Belarusian case.

Based on these conceptual considerations, in the following sections of this paper I will describe factors that contribute to the mobilization of mass protests and influence their outcomes in terms of political change. This adds to the ongoing study of political opportunities for mass demonstrations, the outcomes of the social movements, waves of democratization waves, and autocratization. Further, this study contributes to the debate on the outcomes of Euromaidan and the 2020 Belarusian protests.

2 Political Opportunities for the Euromaidan and 2020 Belarusian Protests

The political opportunities for and the threats posed by the mass protest movements in Ukraine (2013–14) and Belarus (2020) can be understood in terms of the macro-level features of the region and the individual states. The common regional feature stems from processes of transnational political development that first manifested as democratization and later as autocratization. The national context shaping political opportunities for the Euromaidan included: 1) cyclic political development of Ukraine, 2) increased competition between the EU and Russia for Ukrainian integration by 2013, and 3) threats associated with the Yanukovych regime’s autocratic attempts to maintain power. The set of political opportunities for the 2020 Belarusian protests included:1) the 2020 presidential election as a chance for change, 2) a long history of electoral fraud and elections-related protests, 3) the influence of covid–19 and socioeconomic insecurities, and 4) unusual reaction to the threat of mass repressions after the first protests in August 2020.

2.1 Democratization and Autocratization in Eastern Europe

The Soviet Union’s dissolution and the post-Soviet transition for the new Eastern European states are usually seen as an important part of the “third wave of democratization” (Huntington 1991; Diamond et al. 1997). Indeed, democratization—together with marketization and Europeanization— was one of several long-term trajectories in the political development of the post-Soviet states (Sakwa 1999, p. 13ff). Yet democratization was only one shift in a much more complex process of political development in Eastern Europe: this period also saw the loss of political freedom, the spread of nationalism, increased anti-Westernism, increased conservatism, higher levels of patronal politics, and the implementation of “mafia state” models (Hale 2014; Magyar 2016; Fisun 2016). The Varieties of Democracy database shows that Eastern European states reached a maximum of political freedom by the mid-1990s and thereafter slowly began losing first liberal and then later electoral and participatory models of democracy (see: Chart 1, Chart 2, and Chart 3; V-Dem 2021).

Chart 1
Chart 1

Liberal democracy index for Belarus and Ukraine (in comparison with the world’s average and average for Eastern Europe and Central Asia)

Citation: Protest 1, 2 (2021) ; 10.1163/2667372X-01020004

Chart 2
Chart 2

Electoral democracy index for Belarus and Ukraine (in comparison with the world’s average and average for Eastern Europe and Central Asia)

Citation: Protest 1, 2 (2021) ; 10.1163/2667372X-01020004

Chart 3
Chart 3

Participatory democracy index for Belarus and Ukraine (in comparison with the world’s average and average for Eastern Europe and Central Asia)

Citation: Protest 1, 2 (2021) ; 10.1163/2667372X-01020004

These three charts show that Ukraine and Belarus have indeed experienced democratization in all three key manifestations of contemporary democracy—liberal, electoral, and participatory. Post-Soviet democratization reached its peak in the first half of 1990s and in most instances retained better democratic quality than the world average. However, the country-specific developmental paths demonstrate that Ukraine, despite a decline from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, managed to restore its liberal achievements from 2005 to 2009 and, after another decline, has seen an improvement since 2019. From 2005 to 2009 and since 2019, Ukraine has been a post-Soviet leader in terms of electoral and participatory democracy. Unlike Ukraine, Belarus has not managed to restore its pre-1994 democratic status. The sharp democratic decline from 1997 to 2003 in all areas made Belarus one of the least free Eastern European countries.

It is worth mentioning that the 2005 democratic improvement in Ukraine was the result of a mass protest movement known as the “Orange Revolution.” However, the more recent Ukrainian protest movement, the Euromaidan in 2013–14, did not have the same impact on the political system. This discrepancy needs deeper study. Today it can be said that the Crimean annexation by Russia, the outbreak of the Donbas War in 2014, and the post-Maidan behavior of Ukrainian elites in the context of military conflict undermined any potential democratizing effect the Euromaidan may have had (Kasianov & Kudelia 2021; Minakov & Rojansky 2021). The democratization effect of successful social movements correlates with the union of local political and social groups with Western countries, as was the case with the 2005 Orange Revolution.

After 2010, there was a global decline in democracy— though this process was not as rapid as the democratization of 1989–91—which has recently been referred to as the “third wave of autocratization” (Lührmann & Lindberg 2019). This term refers to the increase in number of fully autocratic regimes (from 20 in 2010 to 25 in 2020) and electoral autocracies (from 55 in 2010 to 62 in 2020) as well as the decrease in the number of fully liberal democracies (from 41 in 2010 to 32 in 2020); as a result, 68% of the world’s population lives under authoritarian rule (Lührmann et al., p. 5).5 This global wave of autocratization can also be seen in the deterioration of liberal democracy in Central and Eastern Europe.

Democratization in Eastern Europe was a macro-level trend that provided post-Soviet mass protest movements with somewhat bigger political opportunities for success. However, global autocratization, the consolidation of Eastern European autocracies against revolutionary movements, and the entrenchment of autocracy in Belarus and other states have decreased the possibilities for mass protest success. In 2018, Brunkert et al. (2018, pp. 8–9) argued that in Eastern Europe there was a considerable decline in democracy after 2008 financial crisis. Yet, from 2010–2020, the data shows that Eastern Europe was politically diverse: there were “democracy advancers” (Armenia and Georgia), “democracy decliners” (Hungary and Poland), and hybrid regimes (Moldova and Ukraine) (Lührmann et al., p. 8). So it is more accurate to describe today’s Eastern Europe as a region with the coexistent “authoritarian belt” (consisting of increasingly repressive autocracies, namely Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, and Turkey),6 “illiberal belt” (consisting of democracies losing their liberal institutions, namely Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland), and a group of states run by hybrid regimes (such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) (Minakov 2020b). Such a regional constellation means greater tension between the different groups of Eastern European states and increased interest from the United States and the European Union states in influence over national elites, which may manifest in support for the mass protests or support for the governments suppressing them. Autocratic tendencies in the region have been promoted by “counterrevolutionary” regimes, especially Putin’s, since 2004. These complex influences contributed to the success of the Euromaidan, which occurred when the democratization trend was still significant in the region. However, regional context worked against the 2020 Belarusian protests, which occurred during a time of intensified regional autocratization.

2.2 Political Cycles in Independent Ukraine

The competitive situation in Eastern European is especially visible in the case of Ukraine. Political development in Ukraine seems to occur in cycles. Since 1991, this state has gone through two full cycles: from a political crisis and revolutionary situation to a post-revolutionary period of reforms led by the winners in the crisis, then to a period of heightened competition between parties and informal power groups (oligarchic clans), followed by an autocratic attempt by one of the clans, then another political crisis (Hale 2005, p. 133; Minakov 2018, p. 18ff; Fisun 2020, p. 106). The first cycle stretched from the crisis of 1993–94 until the “Orange Revolution” in 2004. The second cycle began with the 2005–6 revolutionary reforms period and concluded with the Euromaidan protests during the winter of 2013–14. It remains a matter of debate whether this cyclical pattern continued after 2014 (Minakov & Rojansky 2021, p. 357). The periods of autocratic growth provided challengers of the regime with the support of opposition parties while marginalized oligarchic clans got the chance to consolidate against a common enemy. In 1993, 2004, and 2013–14, this shift in dynamics provided social movements with the political opportunity to change the government which in turn allowed the movements’ leaders to take powerful positions in the post-revolutionary government.7

2.3 Increased Geopolitical Competition for Ukraine

During these cycles, one can also see the growing influence of Western countries and Russia in the internal politics of Ukraine. In the period of protests in 2004 and in 2013–14, Western governments supported the protesters while Moscow supported the ruling group. By by 2014, however, the conflict between the West and Russia was so deep that it facilitated the radicalization of the protests and the government’s harsh suppression methods (Wolczuk 2019, p. 737). This increased geopolitical contestation provided Euromaidan leaders and activists with additional political opportunity.

2.4 Yanukovych’s Autocratic Threat

Finally, it is important to mention that President Yanukovych (2010–2014) had been establishing vertical power in Ukraine since his first year in office. In 2010, the ruling group won local elections, gaining control over 90% of local councils in Ukraine. That same year, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine repealed the constitutional amendments that were introduced after the Orange Revolution in 2004 and allocated more powers to the parliament than to the president. In 2011, opposition leaders Yulia Tymoshenko and Yurii Lutsenko were imprisoned. And in 2012 the pro- presidential Party of Regions won a relative majority in the parliamentary elections; the pro-presidential faction at this point consisted mostly of Yanukovych clan representatives as other core clans of the party were marginalized. In 2012–13 the Yanukovych clan was consolidating power in its hands while other oligarchic clans—including the one that belonged to Presidential Administration head Serhiy Lyovochkin—were looking for an opportunity to overthrow the regime (Kudelia 2014; Kasianov & Kudelia 2021). Just prior to the start of the Euromaidan, the Yanukovych clan had created a vertical power structure that informally controlled executive, judiciary, legislature, and local administrations. However, this success was achieved at the expense of creating many rivals who saw a threat in the vertical power construction. The threat of an autocratic regime deconsolidated the hold of the ruling party and increased informal competition between the power elites, which provided opportunities for the protesters to get support from oligarchs and bureaucracy by November 2013.

2.5 Belarusian Presidential Election in 2020

The major political opportunity for the mass protests in Belarus in 2020 was the presidential election. Looking back at the Belarusian mass protests in the preceding fifteen years, there is a correlation between elections and mass protests. Since the presidential elections of 2006, waves of protests were mainly connected to the presidential and parliamentary elections. Out of the five biggest mass protests in 2006 (“The Jeans Revolution”), 2010 (The Ploshcha/Square protest), the “Silence” protest of 2011, the political protest of 2014–15, and The Non-Spongers Marches (Marshi netuneiadtsev) of 2017, only two were not connected with the prospects or the results of elections (Kostenko et al. 2006: 12; also see reports of Spring-96 group from 2011 through 2020).8 Additionally, according to Tatsiana Kulakevich (2014, p. 896–7), the number of participants in successive protests has increased since 2006.

2.6 Regime’s Control over Elections

In an established autocracy, elections inspire protests for two reasons: elections remind the citizens of the possibility to change the ruler and they simultaneously demonstrate the brute reality of autocracy (Trejo 2014, p. 333). Elections in an autocracy, therefore, present both political opportunity and a threat. The Lukashenka regime left almost no room for legitimate civic participation in decision-making apart from peaceful protest. So, elections, even though widely perceived by citizens as falsified, were period of high civic emotionality and sensitivity towards their non-free status (Marples 2007, p. 60; Jost et al. 2018, p. 87). Thus, electoral periods are understood by many citizens as period for protest and by elites as a period to launch suppressive measures.

President Lukashenka and his entourage knew this very well. For example, in 2015, Lukashenka organized early elections to keep the opposition from being able to mobilize supporters and limit Russia’s meddling (osce 2016, p. 12ff). In 2019 Lukashenka decided to space out parliamentary and presidential elections, so that the parliamentary elections would be a “rehearsal” for the security forces and discourage the opposition. The results of the elections showed everyone in Belarus that President Lukashenka controls the electoral process and only certain permitted opposition figures could become mp s (Wilson 2021, p. 348).

Before the presidential elections on August 9, 2020, the government took all possible precautionary measures to decrease hope and increase fear. Out of 15 prospective candidates only 5 (including the incumbent) were registered. The most self-sufficient and popular candidates were imprisoned (Siarhei Tsikhanowski and Viktar Babaryka), though Valery Tsapkala managed to escape abroad. Simultaneously, from November 2019 to February 2020, most of the important government positions were given to security officers: Ihar Siarheyenka from the kgb took over the Presidential Administration, the technocratic government of Siarhei Rumas was converted to a cabinet headed by Raman Halowchenka and constituted of security officers and military industry managers. Finally, in June and July of 2020, the government made harsh arrests of around 700 opposition activists to set an example (Wilson 2021, pp. 349–353). In this way, the regime was planning to decrease the perception of election-related political opportunities for the opposition and demonstrate the threat inherent participating in any protests in Belarus.

2.7 Socio-Economic and Epidemic Hardships

In the early period Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule, he managed to establish an authoritarian social contract where political freedoms were exchanged for relatively high and stable household income (Marples & Padhol 2020; Wilson 2021, p. 300ff). In the long-term, the Lukashenka regime provided Belarusians with better socio-economic conditions than, for example, Ukrainians (see chart 4). However, the economic model of the being “bridge between Russia and the West” lost its profitability as relations between the West and Russia began collapsing after 2013. Lukashenka had to change socio-economic policies and make them less socially oriented, which soon translated into the Non-Spongers Marches. In 2019, the change of government from technocrats to security-providers decreased the regime’s ability to respond in a timely manner to socioeconomic issues.

Chart 4
Chart 4

Belarus and Ukraine’s gdp per capita, ppp (constant 2017 international $)

Citation: Protest 1, 2 (2021) ; 10.1163/2667372X-01020004

source: international comparison program, world bank | world development indicators database, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.PP.KD?locations=BY-UA&name_desc=true

Social contradictions grew in 2020 when Belarus became one of the “deniers” of the covid-19 pandemic (Laruelle & McCann 2020). First, Lukashenko and his administration denied the existence and/or danger of covid-19. This gave impetus to a resistance movement among citizens and medical staff who witnessed the worsening health situation in the country. Attempting to create a parallel to official medical services, Belarusians started crowdfunding campaigns, demonstrating solidarity, and using social media to spread epidemiological information (Wilson 2021, p. 349). Thus, right before the presidential elections, Lukashenka positioned himself as a threat to the health security of Belarusians which created new networks of resistance.

In these conditions, the paternalistic autocratic social contract lost even more of its legitimizing force in Belarus. This opened some political opportunity for mass protests right before the elections.

The fragility of post-Soviet social contracts can be seen in Ukraine and Russia (Balmaceda 2014; Konitzer-Smirnov 2016). President Yanukovych’s rule is remembered most prominently for the destruction of his regime’s legitimacy by refusing association with the EU (Wilson 2016). However, the Yanukovych regime was more than a year away from elections when it made the decision to postpone signing off on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and marginalized the previously allied clans.

2.8 Threat of Mass Repressions

After the rigged elections on August 9, 2020,9 protesters were met with harsher than usual repression. The Lukashenka administration’s zeal in suppressing protests changed the usual dynamics of Belarusian elections: instead of dissipating, the sporadic protests against dishonest elections turned into lasting mass protests against rigged elections and government brutality. According to the available data, the protests before election day involved up to 5,000 participants; over 700 people were detained, and 25 persons were recognized as political prisoners (many of them had attempted to run as candidates in these elections).10 From August 9 to 12, the protests were concentrated in the biggest cities and ranged between 10,000 and 15,000, with at least 6,500 arrested. During this time, the riot police launched the so-called “three nights of terror,” which was much more repressive than the “Berkut hunting night” (November 30, 2013) that was the impetus for the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv. All of the protesters attempts to set up a Maidan-like camp in Minsk were suppressed by the end of August 11, 2020. Police actions provoked a huge emotional response that galvanized over 200,000 participants in the Freedom March on August 16, and over 100,000 participants in marches on August 23 and 30. By the end of August, mass protests were held throughout the entire country as purely peaceful civic manifestations using “water” tactics, meaning protesters gathered in public spaces, dissolved whenever riot police appeared, and re-gathered in another space sometime later. From September to early November, the mass protests involved up to 100,000 participants. Since November 15 (the “I am coming out” March), protests were limited to 10,000 participants gathering in the biggest Belarusian cities. By the end of 2020, over 33,000 Belarusian citizens were detained, making the Belarusian protests more violent than the repressions against Solidarność in socialist Poland in 1980–82.

The threat of mass repressions was very important for the consolidation of political activists and social groups that usually avoided direct participation in the political action or social movement. This was the case in both Belarus and Ukraine. This factor has also provided grounds for the merger of mass civic protests with political groups. In Ukraine, the Euromaidan protests were initially organized in two camps, “civic” and “political”. However, the brutal police attacks on protesters on November 30 and December 10–11, and the need for financial resources forced the civic camp to join the partisan camp, create a common agenda, and establish self-defense structures (Fedorenko 2015). Yet, until the tragic days of February 18–21, 2014, the role of political leaders was rather limited as protesters tried to self-govern through different committees and groups.

Similarly, in the Belarusian case, the civic, non-partisan peaceful agenda was important from August 9 onward. However, by the end of August 2020, the Coordination Council of the protests was becoming more and more politicized and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s role as political leader aiming at a power position was growing. Later, in October 2020, protesters created “People’s Anti-Crisis Administration” which was even more partisan. Unlike in Ukraine, Lukashenka did not negotiate with the Council leaders, so they were forced either to leave the country or wind up in prison (Wilson 2021, p. 59–60; Mudrov 2021, p. 6–7).

In both cases, the growing role of political parties in the protests diminished the number of participants but increased the possibility of concrete political outcomes of the protests. The partisanship of protests increased the challenging force of the movements vis-à-vis the ruling groups. Yet, if political leaders did not manage to translate mass participation into political change in a timely manner, the masses abandoned active participation in the protests, thus decreasing their force.

3 Outcomes of the Euromaidan and 2020 Belarusian Protests

A year after of the beginning of the mass protests, the outcomes of the Euromaidan and 2020 Belarusian protests were very different. In Ukraine, the Yanukovych regime was displaced by a new hybrid regime oriented toward European integration. In Belarus, the regime became much more repressive and much more dependent on Russia.

The macro-level external political outcomes of the Euromaidan for Ukraine consisted in a formal return of the parliamentary-presidential model and an informal return to the multi-pyramid regime at end of February 2014 (Hale & Orttung 2016, p. 12ff). Political leaders of the Euromaidan and oppositional oligarchs consolidated their efforts in establishing their rule through Oleksandr Turchynov, Petro Poroshenko, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk in spring 2014 (Konończuk 2015). Groups of activists increased their control over parliament, the cabinet, law enforcement, and the judiciary through civic councils within government bodies, ngo coalitions, and acts of “direct democracy” (Burlyuk et al. 2017, p. 3ff). Because the change of government in February 2014 was done in a way not envisaged by the Constitution, new and old elites, as well as influential oligarchic and civic informal groups agreed on a plan to re-legitimize the government through early presidential (May 2014) and parliamentary (October 2014) elections. By November 2014, a year after the Euromaidan had begun, Ukraine was governed by a legitimately elected president, Petro Poroshenko, and a parliament controlled by a pro-European coalition (ceip 2015).

Also, Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity was challenged by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the secessionist and irredentist movements supported by Russia in the spring of 2014. The latter movements evolved from the Ukrainian Anti-Maidan movement, socially marginalized groups of deindustrializing regions, and paramilitary groups and military staff from the Russian Federation (Kudelia 2016). By November 2014, after suppressing revolts outside the Donbas and Crimea, the Ukrainian government controlled about 93% of its territory. However, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast turned into breakaway areas. The military campaign of August-September 2014 against the separatists was unsuccessful and the Ukrainian leadership had to agree to the conditions of the Minsk Agreement, which offered peace in exchange for wide autonomy of the Donbas with its influence on Ukraine’s foreign policy. As a result of these processes, Russian influence in Kyiv has diminished while Western powers have become a major source of support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and security.

The external political outcomes of the Belarusian protests are mainly connected with the regime’s shift from relatively “soft” autocracy to highly repressive. Presidential Administration, Security Council, kgb, and an informal “inter-agency committee”11 have managed to ensure security and the bureaucracy’s loyalty to Alyaksandr Lukashenka. They have also targeted activists and leaders of the protests, minimizing the movement’s activities by July 2021. Under the influence of protests and agreements with the Kremlin, Lukashenka started the process of constitutional amendments; however, this process has been repeatedly delayed by the ruler (Wilson 2021; Mudrov 2021). Lukashenka ended up as the temporary winner in his fight with the opposition and protesters, yet his legitimacy has been damaged beyond repair by repressions, economic problems, and partial recognition of his presidential status by Western states (Moshes & Nizhnikau 2021).

Before the 2020 protests, Minsk played on economic cooperation with the US, the EU and China to diminish Russian influence in Belarus (Mrachek 2019; Murphy 2019). In 2014–15 Lukashenka cleansed pro-Russian ngo s and officials, diminishing chances for a repeat of the Crimea scenario in Belarus. By July 2021, the pro-Russian political and social groups were safer, with Lukashenka in negotiation processes over further integration with Russia. Between August 2020 and July 2021, there have been five meetings between Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin and there are at least three intergovernmental commissions working on the issue of integration (Dragneva & Hartwell 2021).

Due to fraudulent elections, violations of human rights, and the unlawful grounding of a Ryanair flight on May 23, 2021, Belarus has been the target of multiple sanctions from Western states by July 2021. The US placed sanctions on Belarus in 2006, then tightened rhem in 2008 and expanded them in October 2020 to include 24 individuals (bbc 2021). By the end of June 2021, the EU imposed restrictive measures against 166 persons and 15 entities (ec 2021). Today, the US and the EU member states provide support to the political work of different opposition groups and social media activists who have emigrated westward.

The macro-level internal political outcomes of the Euromaidan movement was mainly connected with the de-consolidation of political and social groups. During the Euromaidan protests, the movement itself was supported differently: in December 2013 protests were supported by approximately 50% and opposed by 43% of population (Bekeshkina 2017, p. 7); in February 2014, 40% of Ukrainians supported the Euromaidan and 23% of them supported President Yanukovych (kiis 2014). After the victory of the protesters, their support increased so that in the presidential and parliamentary elections, the pro-Maidan political figures and parties were leading. Maidan-related political groups cooperated among themselves in the parliament until March 2016.

Another part of the Euromaidan groups reorganized themselves into volunteer battalions that were among the first to fight the Russian aggression and secessionist revolts in southeastern Ukraine (Puglisi 2015; Hunter 2018). By November 2014, the role of formal Army units had grown so some of the volunteer battalions joined the official army units, while their chiefs joined the parliament and/or entered into stable cooperation with oligarchic groups (Minakov 2018, p. 129ff). Still, some battalions existed as separate groups until 2021.

Civil organizations that were either connected to the Euromaidan or organized there played an important role in influencing post-Maidan central and local governments. The pro-Maidan ngo advocated a liberal reforms agenda and anticorruption policies (Burlyuk et al. 2017). ngo coalitions, like the “Reanimation Package of Reforms,” were influential platforms for public advocacy of reforms and policy solutions especially from 2014–16. However, this involvement of some ngo s in decision-making coincided with societal fragmentation and the exclusion of other civil groups (Samokhvalov & Strelkov 2020).

One of the key internal political outcomes of the 2020 Belarusian protests is the division of the movement into several groups. One group consists of activists who are now imprisoned or under surveillance by the security services. The core of this group constitutes 269 political prisoners (May 2021). Over 33,000 activists went through police beating, detention and court hearings. An entire generation of student youth has had first-hand experience participating in the protests and dealing with security forces or with university administrative pressure. It is also worth mentioning that women played an especially visible role in the protests as leaders and activists (Douglas 2020, p. 3). Altogether, the number of people who participated in the protests constituted approximately 14% of the adult population, which amounts to 700,000 persons (Krawatzek 2021). Of those protesters, 70% had never participated in a protest before (Onuch 2020). This large group of demonstrators participated in peaceful protests for over 100 days, which is unusual not only for Belarus but for anywhere in Eastern Europe.

The second group consists of people who did not directly participate in the movement but found its cause to be just. By the end of 2020, over 40% of the non-participants were considered strong critics of the regime (Krawatzek 2021). Over 70% said they believed the presidential election “was a sham” (Astapenia 2020). However, as the protest wave decreased, in February 2021 this group (over 70%) became critical of the movement as well (Belyaiev 2021). In contrast, according to recent polls, 13% of Belarusians are strong supporters of the regime and 17% express moderate support (Krawatzek 2021). Only 20% stated that they voted for Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Astapenia 2020).

There is also a small but influential group of those who were forced to emigrate from Belarus for political reasons. The core of this group is formed around Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her office in Vilnius. Most of her supporters are dispersed across Poland, Lithuania, and Germany. Seen by Western governments as a leader of the democratic opposition, Tsikhanouskaya is a symbolic figure for all pro-democracy groups with decreasing influence. Another part of this group consolidates around Pavel Latushka, ex-ambassador of Belarus to Poland. More experienced in politics than Tsikhanouskaya, Latushka is trying to create a political party aimed at establishing Belarus as a parliamentary democracy. Acting from abroad, these groups are not influential in Belarus now, but they could be a decisive force for change should the possibility arise.

4 Conclusions

The above data, comparison, and argument demonstrate that the social movements of the Euromaidan and the 2020 Belarusian protests had different political opportunities and outcomes. This study supports the first part of the hypothesis that authoritarian stability and the failure of mass protests are affected by the strength of Western influence on a post-Soviet state. Growing influence of the US and the EU on Ukraine, preparations for the EU–Ukraine association, and growing pro-Western sympathies within Ukraine were important in creating the political opportunities for the protesters to succeed. In Belarus, the Western influence was minimal and this correlates with the failure of the 2020 Belarusian protests. Additionally, this study supports the idea that since 2013, the geopolitical antagonism of the US, EU, and Russia has been an important factor in supporting the radicalization of the conflict between protesters and governments as well as deeper external involvement in national politics during periods of protests. Both analyses of these cases provide additional support to the first part of the hypothesis.

Also, this paper’s analysis of the Euromaidan and the 2020 Belarusian protests proves that the stronger the autocracy, the less chances it has to be successfully challenged by a protest movement. In the Ukrainian case, the emerging autocracy of Yanukovych was still fragile in November 2013. It did not have time to destroy the political and independent economic force of rival political groups and clans or diminish their influence in the security agencies, and thus the government was more vulnerable to internal and external pressures. In the case of Belarus, the Lukashenka regime is well-established and produced a high level of loyalty in the security agencies and bureaucracy. In 2020, the regime was ready for heavy-handed suppression of protests; this readiness, however, was one of factors behind the massification and prolongation of protests in Belarus. Consequently, I propose to refine the hypothesis in the following way: autocracy has a chance to remain stable if its coercive actions against protesters are adequate and do not create incentives for greater participation among citizens worried about unjust violence.

The regional context, as this paper shows, also influences the outcome of protest movements. Long-term transnational political tendencies create a regional environment and modular behavior that can be either supportive or obstructive for social movements. Democratization in Eastern Europe increased the efficiency of protests as well as their influence on regime quality in the countries where they succeeded. At the same time, strong autocratization tendencies add to the regional consolidation of autocratic regimes and exacerbates their violent behavior, as was demonstrated above. The Euromaidan case further shows that if a social movement rejects peaceful protest tactics, it stands the chance of successfully challenging the government; however, due to the autocratization pattern of political actors, the influence on regime quality is minimal even if the movement takes over the government (at least in its initial stage). This means that as the autocratic tendencies in Eastern Europe have grown stronger, protest movements have fewer opportunities to succeed; and if they succeed, it is due to more radical action and a less consolidated regime. However, even in this case, the Ukrainian protests of 2010–13 and 2016–18 show that there is no guarantee of success without strong Western support.

This paper also demonstrates that the post-Soviet autocratic regime in Belarus has become stronger and more willing to use excessive violence as a means of repression. There are at least two generations of citizens, bureaucrats, and security officers who have grown up under the autocratic conditions in Belarus which they see as “natural” (a situation that can be compared, for example, to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia).

Despite a series of crises in the US and EU, Western influence in Eastern Europe remains strong but unstable. The Ukrainian case shows that Western powers have increased their influence in the security sector and internal politics while Russian influence radically decreased after the Euromaidan protests changed the government. The Belarus case shows that Western influence on this country has decreased, but support for the opposition abroad provides the West with a strategic role in the future.

Eastern European social movements have been among the key players in determining the political reality in the region. This study demonstrates that the political situation is constructed not only by the global and national power elites, but by the active participation of citizens in social movements.

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