When an insignificant group of Ukrainian students was brutally dispersed by riot police in Kyiv in late November 2013, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the city's streets in response. The rally was dubbed a 'march of the millions', and it laid the foundations for the subsequent three-month long Euromaidan protests.
When on March 25 Belarusian riot police dispersed a peaceful anti-government rally in Minsk, detaining more than 700 participants, only a couple of dozen individuals gathered at the main city's square to protest against the repressions. The majority of them were also detained.
The Minsk events have demonstrated that the Belarusian leadership under President Alexander Lukashenko has little reason to fear a possible Ukrainian scenario in Belarus. But why are there such marked differences between the two countries in terms of street political action?
While in Ukraine, repressions against the opposition readily trigger retaliation, in the neighbouring post-Soviet country, the authorities can easily neutralise any crowds seeking to continue street protests, by means of detentions and arrests.
In 2011, a financial and economic meltdown in Belarus triggered a wave of mass street rallies, dubbed the 'Silent Protests', during which anti-government protesters gathered in the centre of Minsk without any banners, just standing in silence or clapping their hands. After hundreds were detained by plain clothes policemen, the protests petered out.
Consequences of risk-taking
The Belarusians are considered by observers to be a very conservative nation, without a track record of successfully fighting for their rights (unlike the Ukrainians, who already enacted one successful revolution in 2005).
The majority of students in Belarus, a social group that traditionally forms the basis for street protests in the post-Soviet space, are unwilling to take significant risks, given that they face being expelled from their universities for participating in anti-government actions. There would also be repercussions for their families.
"I have the freedom to go to a square [to a demonstration], but I could hardly send anyone to a square, because these boys and girls will be thrown out of their universities. Then they once again find themselves abroad, while their poor mothers educate them, hanging on for dear life," Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Aleksievich told the Belarusian service of RFE/RL on the eve of the March 25 protests.
The middle class in Minsk is also generally unwilling to take risks, as they could lose their well-paid jobs, or government institutions could harm their private businesses.Yet more significantly, Belarusians are not ready to take risks as they don't believe that the political opposition has a realistic chance of gaining power in the country.
As shown in the 2005 and 2014 Ukrainian revolutions, street protests could help systemic political forces represented in parliament win electoral victory, thereby putting pressures on the authorities. However, the opposition in Belarus’s 110-seat legislative is represented by only two lawmakers, both elected in 2016.
Significant financial resources are also crucially important for opposition politicians. It is widely believed that millions of US dollars were channelled to the Euromaidan in 2013-2014 by Ukrainian businessmen, specifically, oligarch Dmytro Firtash and his allies.
Businessmen in Belarus are not ready to sponsor the opposition after Lukashenko's repeated recent warnings.
"I would like to emphasise that if any businessmen finance 'the fifth column' or negatively influence society in some way, I will regard it as their involvement in political struggle, the struggle against the state. Such a struggle has its own laws. Such businessmen should not complain afterwards," Lukashenko told local businessmen in 2013.
Belarus's weak opposition is also highly divided. Some opposition leaders, including former presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich, refused to take part in the Minsk rally on March 25, and travelled away from the capital on this day in order to take part in rallies that had been officially permitted by the authorities in other regional cities.
"This situation in the opposition, when everyone has his own agenda ... is very dangerous. Not only for the existence of the opposition itself, but also for the goals and tasks that it faces. Therefore, I propose to get together, discuss the situation and finally come to some decision; towards unification," Vladimir Nekliaev, another former presidential candidate, said in an interview with the TUT.by online outlet on March 27.
Nekliaev was unable to take part in the Minsk rally on March 25, because he was detained in the city of Brest, and then hospitalised.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko will surely use his crackdown on the pro-European opposition to try to win concessions from Russia, because it highlights the way that, unlike in Ukraine, he has been able to prevent what Moscow sees as a pro-Western coup d'etat.
According to Minsk, Lukashenko will meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 3 to discuss the removal of trade restrictions in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). "I cannot say that everything [in the EEU] is great and is going the right way," Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko told reporters on March 29. "Therefore, the creation of a single market without any exemptions, restrictions, and especially wrong actions will be discussed at the level of the heads of state."