There was no Orange-style revolution in Belarus following the 19 March presidential elections. But there may have been the beginning of a revolution of the spirit that will bring the last tyranny in Europe to an end. Observers should not lament the "failure" of revolution but should hail the beginning of a genuine democratic movement, which is stronger today than it was just a few years ago.
From the beginning of this campaign, there was little sign of a real contest. Lukashenka could have won a free and fair election: Strong economic growth and social stability might have guaranteed him half of the vote or so, had the vote actually been counted. But a free and fair vote carried the risk of defeat, however remote, and the ghost of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 fueled hysteria within the regime. Consequently, just before the vote, the government criminalized opposition-related activity and began to arrest election monitors and activists from nongovernmental organizations on charges of terrorism.
Yet Lukashenka wanted some legitimacy for his reelection and therefore allowed opposition candidates to participate. Surprisingly, two challengers, the leader of the united opposition, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, and the former rector of the Belarusian State University, Alyaksandr Kazulin, refused to bow to the dictator and decided to play by their own rules. Their 30-minute campaign speeches on state TV (that is how much exposure to alternative opinions an ordinary TV viewer in Belarus has had in five years) were devoted not much to the issues but to attacking Lukashenka's character - an act previously unthinkable in a country where one official once declared Lukashenka to be "a bit higher than God." Both candidates emphasized freedom and democracy rather that day-to-day issues in their messages and found much sympathy, to the surprise of observers. Thousands turned out on the streets to hear speeches from opposition candidates, numbers that were unthinkable even in Minsk just a year ago.
Lukashenka saw the crowds as well and got nervous. Kazulin, whose particularly scathing attacks made him an instant celebrity, was beaten up by riot police. Dozens of observers and reporters were denied visas, expelled, or even arrested and charged with helping to plot a coup. State TV propped up its propaganda, and the KGB began to discover one plot after another every several days. In the last revelation, the head of the KGB claimed that the opposition would poison the tap water in Minsk using decomposing rats. And dozens of opposition activists with experience in street protests were rounded up in the run-up to the vote. Yet even in the face of these repressive tactics, Lukashenka's autocratic regime failed to deter people from mobilizing on the streets after the vote to denounce the fraudulent results.
On 19 March, at least 20,000 people took to the streets to protest the announcement of a "smashing" victory for Lukashenka, who was declared winner with 83 percent of the vote cast. And the protesters did not stop there, organizing an around-the-clock vigil on the central square of Minsk to demand annulment of the vote and new elections.
To be sure, the size of the protests was nowhere near the crowds that turned out in the streets in Kyiv a year and half ago. Yet thousands of Belarusians braved not only the blizzard but explicit threats of jail and even the death penalty made by the KGB on the eve of elections. Most of them faced immediate dismissal from state jobs or university if found in the crowd or even caught checking an opposition website. And they barely had means to communicate with each other due to suspension of most of the opposition press and an almost total blockade of the Internet and mobile communications. Could one have expected a protest of more than just a handful of dissidents in these, almost Soviet-style conditions?
In retrospect, one has to admit that the protest was doomed. The opposition knew it did not win the elections and hence did not attempt to stage a revolution as such: that is, to attempt to snatch power from Lukashenka by force. Instead, the protest turned into a show of defiance, an attempt to get the sympathy and attention of fellow countrymen. Day after day, the numbers dwindled, not least because each new day brought the protesters closer to an imminent show of force by the government. It came on the morning of 23 March, when people on the square were surrounded and thrown into police trucks, then taken to jails and sentenced to various prison terms.
The dramatic end of the protest also highlighted an unpleasant fact for the Belarusian opposition: A combination of fear imposed by the government on one part society, and acceptance of the regime by another part, still limits its appeal and following. The streets of Minsk these days were full of pictures of solidarity and defiance, but also of indifference from passers-by and loathing for the protesters from the regime's supporters.
Lukashenka's opponents still have a long way to go to communicate their message to the entire society - and will have to do so in an even more repressive political climate than they have endured so far. But failures and disappointments shall not distract attraction from the opposition's successes in this campaign and afterward. It achieved unity and presented society with a leader whom many accepted as a credible alternative to Lukashenka. It invigorated the network of democratic activists, who braved certain repression and imprisonment. It spurred public debate, and the quest for free information was boosted even when the regime knocked out independent newspapers by the dozens. And it proved to the society and the entire world that support for democratic change in Belarus is not limited to just a handful of fanatics.
The March events may be the beginning of a newly invigorated fight for democracy in Belarus as much as it can trigger a new, more severe round of oppression from the regime. The West cannot stop paying attention. Those struggling for democracy, especially those already in jail, deserve our solidarity; families of political prisoners need support; and recently expanded democratic assistance programs, especially efforts to expand access to independent media within Belarus, must be sustained, not cut, now that the election is over.
Democrats in Belarus defied expectations and demonstrated that they exist, they have some popular support, and they are willing to take risks in their fight for freedom. Now, more than ever, supporters of freedom in the West need to stand with them.