Katsiaryna Shmatsina is a research fellow at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, where she deals with Belarusian foreign policy, regional security and the effects of relations between great powers and small actors. Katsiaryna is also a Rethink.CEE Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in the USA, where she studies the interface between digital technological rivalry and geopolitics. Katsiaryna previously worked at the American Bar Association, where she led the democratic governance and rule of law projects. Katsiaryna has published her analysis of the post-election crisis in Belarus, the significance of the US elections for Belarus and Belarus’ participation in the EU Eastern Partnership Program. Find Katsiaryna on Twitter @kshmatsina.
Where do you see the most exciting research / debate in your field?
There is one subject that I consider timeless: Great power relations. Regardless of whether we are talking about the current triangle between the US, China and Russia, the rivalry in the Cold War or the lessons of the “Thucydides Trap”, relationships between great powers shape the world order and force smaller actors to adapt. This notion sounds obvious, but it is not uncommon for policy analysts to focus too closely on their respective countries’ bilateral relations and regional issues and withhold the bigger picture. To better understand where our world could be headed, I find it useful to look at the Pentagon war game scenarios over Taiwan or other escalation projections over small states as depicted in Michael O’Hanlons The Senkaku Paradox. Similarly, I find it fascinating how rivalries find their way into the digital realm. Whoever wins the digital technology competition will shape our century.
Another debate I follow is the future of the world order and the exchange of arguments between proponents of liberal internationalism and those more realistically more critical. The assessment that I find most appealing is John Mearsheimer’s projection of two separate “finite” orders led by the US and China and the idea that the liberal international order requires unipolarity.
How has the way you understand the world changed over time and what (or who) triggered the most important changes in your thinking?
My understanding of the world of politics is not set in stone as I am constantly discovering new perspectives. As a law student at a Belarusian university, I heard a lot of state propaganda praising the Lukashenko regime and condemning the political opposition. At the same time, I volunteered for human rights NGOs that draw attention to the lack of democratic freedoms in the country. As a young professional, I worked with UN agencies and foundations that supported good governance projects around the world and gained an insight into how the international development area works. Later I made the transition into the world of think tanks and discovered a gap between policy recommendations and the interests of decision makers. After consulting the political parties, I saw decisions being made and later presented to the public, and political commentators making educated guesses that were wrong, however, without knowing the full picture. The extent of the repression in my home country in the current political crisis revives parallels to the time of Stalin. Now I can better understand the stories of my great-grandparents who kept a suitcase with basic necessities under their bed in case they were arrested at night. At the same time, the ongoing struggle for freedom in Belarus gives us hope that Belarus will make a democratic transition that is long overdue.
What are the key factors behind current protests against the Lukashenko government?
The backlash against the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko is not new. In 1996-1997 there were major protests in the “Minsk Spring” against the unconstitutional referendum that enabled Lukashenko to consolidate power and sign integration agreements with Russia. In the years that followed, Lukashenko sent his political opponents to prison, including potential candidates who could challenge him in the elections. Several disappearances occurred in 1999: former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka, Viktor Gonchar, former head of the Central Electoral Commission, and Anatoly Krassovsky, a businessman who supported the opposition, were kidnapped. Years later, evidence of their murders surfaced along with allegations that orders came from high-ranking officials. All three were strong critics of Lukashenko’s authoritarian tendencies.
In the following years the opposition was expelled from parliament. Parliament became a stamp institution, and Lukashenko eventually held a referendum that allowed him to run for president without restriction on terms. No further presidential elections have been recognized as free and fair by the OSCE since 1994. After the elections in 2006 and 2010, there were several large protests when several thousand Belarusians gathered on the streets to object to the rigged elections and to demand new elections without Lukashenko. In both cases the demonstrations were violently broken up by riot police and hundreds of activists were arrested. At that time, the brutal reaction of the authorities managed to contain the mood of protest.
The incumbent’s decision to run for a sixth term came as no surprise this year. And there was little surprise at the repression that began during the campaign. Key front runners were removed from the race, two of them jailed and one forced to leave the country. Sporadic gatherings in the streets in support of the detained candidates were broken up by the riot police. On August 9, Belarusians took to the streets to express distrust of the election results. Again, as usual, the number of votes was not transparent, observers were removed from the polling stations, and records showed intimidation by members of the electoral commission, the number of votes reported in favor of Lukashenko.
When you read the news reports of major events in Belarusian politics over the past 26 years and compare them to the current crisis, you have a strong sense of déjà vu – the same reports of fraudulent elections, harassment of the opposition and independent media. What is different this time around is that the patience of the people seems to be at an end and that the oppression no longer prevents Belarusians from fighting for democratic change.
The events of the summer of 2020, when the police brutally attacked protesters, seemed to be a turning point. On August 10, police shot dead a clearly unarmed demonstrator, Aliaksandr Taraikovsky. Heartbreaking news broke in the coming days of two other protesters who had died of police violence, as well as news of several suspicious deaths. These suspicious deaths were protesters found in public places whose death was reported by police as a suicide or heart attack. For example, the body of Konstantin Shishmakov, a museum director and member of the electoral commission, was found near the river a few days after he refused to sign fraudulent protocols at the polling station. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested and placed under administrative arrest. They were held in intolerable conditions with no food or water, several inmates reported sexual assault, and people were in their own blood and refused medical treatment. Some activists were deliberately beaten by the guards before they were released from the detention center to ensure that they would not be physically able to participate in future protests. Such cruelty on the part of the regime means that there is no return. The protest became something bigger than an objection to the number of votes on election day – it became a struggle for human dignity.
How do current protests in Belarus compare with previous protests in other post-Soviet states?
One can look for parallels to the Ukrainian Maidan or learn lessons from the Armenian revolution. However, I would rather look at the end of the Soviet era and the struggle for freedom in the Soviet republics. The Belarusian state under Lukashenko is similar to the Soviet structure, and political opposition exists under conditions similar to those of Soviet dissidents. We still have a KGB building in downtown Minsk where political prisoners are being held. This place has been a symbol of terror for almost a hundred years, while the Baltic states, for example, turned KGB buildings into museums and exposed the crimes of state terror. The barricades in Latvia and the events of January 1991 in Lithuania paved the way to freedom and democracy at a high price for sacrificed lives. Similar processes are now taking place in my home country.
Do you imagine the protests and the democracy movement in Belarus gaining ground?
The protests began in the summer of 2020 and continue to this day, despite over 30,000 detentions, 1,000 testimonies from torture victims and 228 political prisoners. Street gatherings may not be numerous in the winter months, but they persist. People set up grassroots initiatives in their neighborhood and take part in solidarity campaigns to help victims of repression, pay fines and support one another materially and morally. This happens against the terrible backdrop of state repression when a civilian initiative is attacked. There is news of new arrests literally every day. The most recent example is the questioning of lawyers from the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities who have been prosecuted for their human rights work. In addition, there are annoying leaks from talks by state officials about creating a special camp to isolate the protesters. In such an environment, any protest activity requires extraordinary courage and commitment, as many Belarusians show. Lukashenko and his friends rely heavily on administrative resources and repression to maintain the status quo, and one shouldn’t expect rapid change overnight until they exhaust those resources. However, the change in public perception is irreversible. In recent months, Belarusians have realized that those who stand for democratic change are the majority in the country. In the long term, this makes the authoritarian system unprofitable.
To what extent do foreign states and actors influence Belarusian foreign policy? What are the main foreign influences?
The existence of the Lukashenko regime is possible due to the political and economic support of Russia. Such support comes, of course, with a condition of loyalty that Belarus holds in Moscow orbit. In the current crisis, the Kremlin rhetorically supports Lukashenko’s government, but there are informal talks about consolidating pro-Russian armed forces in Belarus and establishing a pro-Russian political party. Moscow is tired of Lukashenko and the turmoil in Minsk could be a good time to find his replacement. At the same time, the unraveled protests in Russia are complicating the situation for Belarus. The more tension there is between Moscow and the West, the less likely it is that Putin will agree to some form of mediation for Belarus under the auspices of the OSCE – a scenario advocated by the Belarusian democratic forces along with their supporters in Brussels and Europe Washington.
What direction do you see in Belarusian foreign policy? Will Belarus continue to be a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or do you see a pivotal point towards NATO?
The direction of Belarusian foreign policy depends on who has the opportunity to formulate it. The Lukashenko government is currently in isolation after entering another cycle of distancing itself from the West due to massive human rights violations. If Lukashenko manages to keep power under control, Belarus will follow a familiar pattern that has emerged over the last 26 years of his presidency: excessive dependence on Russia, consent to deeper integration into Russian-led Eurasian integration structures, including the CSTO , and try to diversify its foreign policy options by turning to China. Over time, there could be another sporadic wave of “normalization” in relations with the West if sanctions are lifted and high-level contacts are re-established – until the next major protest and subsequent repression.
Should there be a democratic transition, an optimal formula for Belarusian foreign policy would include neutrality and a balanced stance between West and East. The democratic leaders of Belarus are cautiously formulating their future foreign policy priorities, stressing the importance of maintaining good relations with Russia, bearing in mind that any misjudgment could spark Russian aggression to which we are unfortunately vulnerable and unprotected.
What is the most important advice you can give to young international relations scholars?
Build a personal brand and promote your public visibility. Your visibility corresponds to the weight your opinion has in the public eye when you are invited to a debate or political discussion. You might be a brilliant researcher, but if you’re just sitting in the library hesitating to talk about yourself, you could be overshadowed by a commenter doing quick and possibly less thoughtful analysis on social media. The balance I am striving for is to bring together policy-relevant research and personal support.
Further reading on e-international relations