by Maciej BartkowskiJuly 29, 2020
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko is facing the biggest challenge to his 26-year authoritarian rule over 9.5 million Belarusian citizens.
He is learning firsthand about the “power of the powerless” (a phrase used by famous Czechoslovak dissident and former Czech president Václav Havel to describe nonviolent resistance against Soviet rule) as he and others witness a major awakening of a heretofore withdrawn and passive population. In a break with precedent, his political opposition is led by several women who, until recently, were not widely known. This combined with widespread nonviolent resistance happening on the eve of the August 9th presidential elections is upsetting expectations, and shaking Lukashenko’s rule to the core.
Grassroots mobilization against Lukashenko quickened its pace when he imprisoned Viktor Babariko, one of his key opposition contenders, and another one, Valery Tsepkalo, fled Belarus fearing prosecution. Meanwhile, the election committee refused to register the main opposition candidates to run against Lukashenko.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya , a teacher and the wife of an imprisoned video-blogger, stepped in. According to Lukashenko, she was a “poor thing” and likely to “collapse” under the pressure of politics, so authorities didn’t see Tsikhanouskaya as a major threat and allowed her to register as an independent candidate.
But Tsikhanouskaya’s appeal as an everyday person, rather than a professional political oppositionist, grew among Belarusians. It also helped that two other women joined her on the campaign trail: Veronika Tsepkalo (wife of imprisoned Tsepkalo) and Maria Kolesnikova (Viktor Babariko’s campaign manager). These three women formed the new, all-female face of the Belarusian opposition. This female triumvirate is now galvanizing thousands of Belarusians across the country. Social media postings about their rallies go viral and people join their campaign spontaneously with an enthusiasm not seen in the country since its independence in 1991. People’s response to an ugly and boring dictatorship is a beautiful, humorous, and carnival-like campaign.
On top of this seismic political upheaval, over the last several weeks Belarusians have engaged in an impressive repertoire of creative nonviolent actions against Lukashenko in his sixth bid for reelection.
Petitions to remove Lukashenko from power have been signed by more than 35,000 people and counting. Belarusians have stood in line to file thousands of complaints to the electoral commission regarding preparation for and organization of the presidential elections that favor only one candidate. The streets of major Belarusian cities have seen convoys of cyclists and cars honking in protest and in solidarity with the ongoing street actions.
Fueling the fire of defiance, informal online polling surveys found that Lukashenko’s popular support stands at a mere 3%. Even though these surveys were not done with much scientific rigor—and there is no way to know his actual public support because independent polling about support for the president is banned in the country—the 3% news quickly spread among online users. When state media vigorously disputed the polling results—claiming that Lukashenko in fact enjoyed much higher support—the news backfired. The state propaganda unintentionally brought even greater attention to the 3% and before the regime could catch up with the fast-developing story, the 3% became the national narrative.
The campaign of ridicule has taken other forms as well. Like Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Lukashenko loves to play hockey with the national hockey team. His hockey jersey has now been emblazoned with “3%.” Using Lukashenko’s Russian nickname “Sasha,” the term “Sasha 3%” has become a hit meme in Belarus—"Sasha 3%” has shown up on bus stops, in elevators, on newspaper stands and on milk cartons. Local gas stations and online stores offer a 3% discount for their customers.
T-shirts featuring 3% and a mustache—Lukashenko’s cutaway trademark—or a “3% power left” symbol have become popular among activists. Even the local currency, the Belarusian ruble, has become a platform for resistance messages, with “Sasha 3%” written on banknotes. The scene from the German movie “Downfall” about the last days of Adolf Hitler hunkered down in his bunker in Berlin was subtitled into Russian as if it were about Lukashenko having a nervous breakdown over his 3% rating. It has gotten more than 660,000 views so far.
On the flip side, “We 97%” is another message which appears on clothing and paraphernalia during the opposition protests. Belarusians abroad, including those in Moscow, have joined in to demonstrate their support for the protests at home.
Since Lukashenko mocked the response to the coronavirus pandemic as “psychosis,” Belarusians turned it against him through a popular store selling stickers and T-shirts emblazoned with “Psycho3%.” The government issued an order to close down the store, the "Psycho3%" T-shirts were confiscated and the store owner was arrested and beaten, leading to ordinary Belarusians lining up in the street outside the store to buy its goods in support. If “Sasha 3%” and “Psycho3%” were not enough, Belarusians also began calling their president “whiskered cockroach” and threatened to swat him with slippers during protests.
Mocking must be infuriating for any dictator that desires nothing more than to be feared and taken seriously. Lukashenko is no different. He even asked Belarusians to stop mocking him when he spoke with his opponents at a local campaign stop in Brest: "Was it you who wrote 'Sasha 3%' on T-shirts? Do you really believe that the serving president has just three percent support? … Stop harassing and insulting …. We must not insult one another. ‘Whiskered cockroach' or whatever else. I am the current president….”
What is more disconcerting to Lukashenko and his regime, are the unconfirmed reports of the police officers and soldiers in uniform openly displaying “3%,” “We 97%,” and “Stop the Cockroach” signs as well as throwing their military ID cards into the trash bin circulating on social media. This is bound to increase the regime’s paranoia about who can be trusted and who will remain loyal if orders come to shoot resisters.
We know for certain at this moment that the mobilization in Belarus is widespread and that people are enthusiastic about a new female opposition candidate to whom they can finally relate. The unprecedented scale of the opposition mobilization, and the audacity of the public displays of disdain for and mockery of the current president show that Belarusians have shed their fear.
However, what we do not yet know is whether the current mobilization will survive if the regime attempts to crack down heavily, as is expected. In addition to trying to mobilize Belarusian security forces, Lukashenko can also count on his fellow despot to the east for additional personnel and weapons if needed.
Given these dynamics, based on past cases of civil resistance against autocrats—especially during elections—there are at least three planning goals that this growing movement should consider:
History has shown that when people stop fearing an autocrat, they will no longer obey him. If the mass-based disobedience turns into well-organized nonviolent resistance, the tyrant falls. Lukashenko’s rule might be heading in that very direction provided the opposition becomes vastly strategic in their resistance actions and their planning.
Dr. Maciej Bartkowski is a Senior Advisor to ICNC. He works on academic programs to support teaching, research and study on civil resistance. He is a series editor of the ICNC Monographs and ICNC Special Reports, and book editor of Recovering Nonviolent History. You can follow him @macbartkow