The Kremlin was clearly on edge going into these elections – the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, who was focused on the “smart voting” project in these elections, as well as the fact that voting was extended to three days, allowing for various falsifications, are plain evidence of this.
We can only speculate on how this vote will end, but it is clear that the regional elections are only a prelude to next year’s Duma elections.
After the Belarusian revolution, it also became clear that revolutionary changes in the post-Soviet authoritarian space can be born very suddenly, instantly spreading across the country, without any of the traditional features of 19th- or 20th-century revolutions – no parties, ideologies or clear-cut leaders are necessary. On-line revolutions are real people’s revolutions and they cannot be stopped by conventional methods of government force.
And what’s more, the beginnings of these revolutions are hard to spot for outside observers. Back in April, I personally didn’t believe that a revolution could happen in Belarus, but then I began feeling the winds of change and strayed into Belarusian independent websites, telegram channels and blogs, which, to my surprise, revealed the enormous scale of the intense independent thought and independent initiatives that had spread to all regions of Belarus. This fundamentally changed my understanding of the Belarusian public arena and very quickly helped me realise that the Lukashenko regime was standing on very fragile ground.
The same goes for Russia. To understand what is happening in Russia, you can’t just watch Kremlin television or read a few central opposition websites (Meduza or Ekho Moskvy). Khabarovsk clearly proves that the regions in Russia have their own intense civic life, which we hardly see. And this, in our view, makes Russia similar to Belarus as we saw it in April, when most of us didn’t think and didn’t believe that a revolution like the one that took place on 9 August could take place in Belarus.
All this allows us to ask a simple question today: when will a democratic revolution like the “Belarusian model” take place in Russia as well?
This question may seem too radical for many, and many might say that democracy is not possible at all in Russia because “Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone” and Russia has never been a democracy.
It is my conviction that all of these sceptical arguments are wiped away by the revolution in Belarus, because until this summer, the prospects for democracy in Belarus seemed much worse than in Russia. And what is happening in Belarus at the moment is clear evidence that the same thing could begin in Russia at any moment.
I am convinced that this conclusion is based not on some real or perceived similarity between the Russian and Belarusian peoples, but on objective historical patterns, which are the root cause of the revolution in Belarus and which no atrocities of power can stop. The “circle of history” is merciless to all dictators, no matter how many thousands of army bayonets support them to the end.
I would like to single out three such historical patterns which determine the success of the revolution in Belarus today: a) the end of the “shelf life” of dictators in the post-Soviet space; b) the further slow collapse of the Soviet/Russian Empire as new territories keep escaping from the Kremlin’s sphere of influence; and c) the inevitability of the “fourth wave of democratisation”.
The same patterns also apply to Russia, which is why it is worth asking an objective and rational historical question: when will a “Belarusian” revolution be repeated in Russia, caused not by the West or other alleged enemies named by the Kremlin, but by the Russian people themselves and the three historical patterns that I mentioned?
It is therefore worth discussing these historical patterns in more detail, because only by getting to know them in greater depth will we be able to avoid getting lost in the daily life of the historical changes taking place in our neighbourhood.
I. THE END OF THE “SHELF LIFE” OF DICTATORS IN THE POST-SOVIET SPACE
I have written before that 20th century world history provides a wealth of clear evidence that authoritarian regimes, even surrounded by democracies, can survive and guarantee the loyalty of the people if they are able to guarantee the people continuous growth in terms of economic and social well-being. This has been the case with South East Asian authoritarian regimes in South Korea, Taiwan and even Singapore, which managed to function successfully enough and maintain the loyalty of the people for decades by implementing prudent policies of economic modernisation. This led to very rapid growth in the level of economic and social development of these countries. After Mao, the famous Deng Xiaoping brought about revolutionary changes in China, resulting in a rapid growth in prosperity in China to this day. This also guarantees the existing loyalty of the Chinese people to the authoritarian Chinese regime.
Both Lukashenko and Putin, in the early stages of their rule, could also expect the loyalty of the people, because after the revolutionary changes that took place in the 1990s, the authoritarian stability that they guaranteed to the people was associated with an increase in well-being. However, all that growth in the 2000s ended with the 2008-2012 global financial crisis, which neither the Belarusian nor the Russian economy has been able to recover from. Especially the Belarusian economy. Meanwhile, the authoritarian regimes themselves are unable to change, even though society itself has changed radically in both Belarus and Russia over the 20-26 years of their rule. Under these circumstances, the previously observed loyalty of the people to the authoritarian regimes is evaporating very quickly and radically. Changes in people’s well-being and self-consciousness come imperceptibly and very quickly. The need for change spills into the streets and is unstoppable, especially when people get a chance to see that they are the majority.
When an authoritarian regime begins to see resistance not from a small opposition party exhausted from constant imprisonment, but from the streets of cities and towns, it means that the period of people’s loyalty to authoritarian rule is coming to an end. The “shelf life” of the regime expires along with it. This is what is happening in Belarus today. In Russia, it could begin tomorrow.
II. THE FURTHER SLOW COLLAPSE OF THE SOVIET/RUSSIAN EMPIRE
Russia’s history over the centuries is characterised by one feature: despite all the interpretations of today’s Russian ideologues, Russia is a European state, undergoing the same changes as in the western part of the European continent, just much later. Feudalism and capitalism were late in coming to Russia for centuries, but ultimately came. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia was late in building an overseas colonial empire, but expanded the borders of its continental empire to the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine and Central Asia. Throughout the 19th century, the Russian intellegentsia and elites tried to repeat the French Revolution in Russia as well, but it all just ended with the curse of Russia – the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917.
In Western Europe, colonial empires began to collapse immediately after World War II. It didn’t happen in one day and it wasn’t an easy process. Nostalgia for the imperial past clouded minds in both Britain and France. For France, the “farewell” to Colonial Algeria was so painful that in the mid-1950s, it began to threaten the fate of democracy in France. The turmoil and chaos in France itself was only stopped by the decisive action of General de Gaulle, who had returned to power, and his farewell to the imperial colonies.
Russia/the Soviet Union only began saying goodbye to its imperial past in the early 1990s. The collapse of the empire has always been painful for Moscow, and it definitely did not end with the agreements signed in the Belovezha Forest at the end of 1991 on the legal dissolution of the Soviet Union. Despite this legal act, most of the former Soviet Union remained in Moscow’s area of influence in one way or another. Only the Baltic States, thanks to their historical distinctiveness, were able to escape the empire at that time, both legally and in terms of political influence, even though the influence of the Soviet-era energy pipeline and power line empire has largely remained to this day.
After the Baltic States, the first to follow our example to liberate themselves from Moscow’s influence once and for all were the people of Sakartvelo (Georgia) who, under the leadership of Mikheil Saakashvili, set down the path of liberation from the empire in 2003, only to pay the price of war with Russia in 2008, with Russia occupying the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the end.
In 2014, Maidan Ukraine took a similar path: after the people’s revolution, Putin occupied Crimea and Donbass, but Ukraine made a decisive move from the status of a country under the influence of Moscow to a state that has irreversibly chosen a pro-Western orientation.
Even Armenia, still dependent on Russian security guarantees in the Karabakh conflict, went through a real people’s revolution in 2018. Armenia is not changing its geopolitical orientations, but democracy in the post-Soviet space means one thing – the speed varies, but in such a country, Kremlin influence inevitably begins to diminish over time. And this is the kind of change where two consecutive processes only reinforce one another: the nostalgic imperial power of the Kremlin that is diminishing naturally and consistently over time is opening up more space for democratic processes in the former colonies of the empire, and the strengthening democracy is further decreasing the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
The democratic revolution in Belarus is part of the same historical process – the old Russian/Soviet empire, based on imperial and autocratic methods of government, is slowly but inevitably losing its influence. Even in Belarus. And the longer Putin supports Lukashenko, the faster this process of shrinking and alienating the Kremlin’s influence will be.
Some people, remembering Ukraine’s Maidan, are regretting the absence of European Union flags at the Belarusian demonstrations. The Belarusians themselves are loudly declaring that the Belarusian revolution is one of democracy, and not a geopolitical revolution. And this is a smart position for the Belarusians, since if they were to declare aspirations of a geopolitical revolution today, tomorrow Putin’s tanks would be standing not only in Minsk, but in Grodno and Ashmyany as well.
However, the democratic revolution in Belarus in itself has enormous geopolitical significance – not only that the new democratic Belarus will be able to decide its geopolitical strategy itself in a democratic way rather than by the decisions of a single dictator, but more importantly, that democracy in Belarus and Ukraine will eventually inspire Russia’s transformation into a democratic state as well. And this will be the most important geopolitical transformation of this century in the entire European continent.
III. THE INEVITABLE “FOURTH WAVE OF DEMOCRATISATION”
In The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, the famous book that he published back in 1991, the renowned American academic analyst Samuel P. Huntington substantiated one clear historical pattern with clear arguments: in a global world, democracy spreads like ocean tides – in due course, a wave of democracy begins to surge throughout the world and floods more and more new countries with democratisation. However, democracy is not able to take root in all of the new countries flooded by the high tide of democratisation, so when low tide comes, some of the new democracies – especially those flooded for the first time – turn back to authoritarian rule and wait for a new wave of democratisation.
According to Huntington, the world experienced three waves of democratisation in the 20th century: the first began after World War I and lasted until the end of the 1920s; the second began after World War II and lasted until the 1960s; and the third began in the second half of the 1980s and lasted until the 2000s.
We, Lithuania and the whole of Central Europe, are also the products of this third wave. We were fortunate that the global wave of democracy that flooded us did not leave us with the low tide that followed. The process of European integration that began in the early 1990s also helped. In Russia, meanwhile, the low tide of democracy returned the country itself to Putin’s authoritarian rule in the 2000s. In Belarus, this low tide came even earlier. According to Huntington, this is the fate of states that have no previous experience with democracy – the first attempt at democracy in these countries is quite short.
However, Huntigton’s popularisation of the three waves of democratisation theory, which is based on a number of concrete facts, including the history of change and transformation in our region over the past 30 years, also leads to a conclusion that supports another historical pattern and allows us to look optimistically at the future of democracy in our region: if the world experienced as many as three waves of democratisation in the 20th century that recurred approximately every 20 years, then it is now time to start preparing for the fourth wave of democratisation, since the third wave ended around 2000.
And this fourth wave, which is currently flooding Belarus, will inevitably flood the expanses of Russia as well. Such is the historical pattern.
It is completely wrong to think that democracy is not possible in Russia. It is just as possible in Russia as it is in Ukraine or Belarus. And we are not anything special – we were just fortunate that the third wave took root in our country, and we are not immune to the erosion of democracy either. The three historical patterns discussed in this text allow us to boldly and optimistically ask the question of when the processes we are seeing in Belarus today will begin in Russia.
This year we remembered the slogan Zyvie Belarus! (“Viva Belarus!”) and learned to chant it with the Belarusians united by the democratic revolution.
Now it is time to look into what slogan we will be chanting with the Russians when a “Belarusian” people’s democratic revolution begins in Russia in the coming years.
Translated by Metropolio vertimai – your trusted translation partner
The article first appeared in the Lithuania Tribune news portal