Ildar Yakubov tries to answer the question why the protests in the two countries of the post-Soviet space lead to different results – in an article, written specially for CABAR.asia.
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Presidential elections in Belarus and parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan were held in August and October 2020. In both cases, they ended in mass protests of the population, who did not agree with their results.
If in the Kyrgyz Republic the very first day of protests led to the cancellation of the voting results, and over the next few days – to a complete change of political leadership, including Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who did not serve until the end of the presidential term, in Belarus large-scale protests have been going on for over two months, and until so far have not led to either a change in the ruling regime or to a revision of the results of the electoral process.
The article attempts to analyze the differences regardless of what the specific results of the current political crises will be, and to predict the most probable prospects for the development of the political systems of the two countries.
Now, why do the protests in two post-Soviet countries lead to different results?
Political institutions: over-centralization vs. democratization
Belarus and Kyrgyzstan inherited similar political systems from the USSR. The last Soviet Constitution of 1977 defined a unified system of government in each of the Soviet Socialist Republics under the general administration of Moscow. The 1988 amendments to the Constitution concerned the democratization of governance and the enhancement of the role of the Council of People’s Deputies. However, the most important were the amendments from 1990, according to which, in particular, the clause on the leading role of the Communist Party was abolished, and instead a multiparty system was consolidated as the basis of democratic government at the constitutional level.
The processes of decentralization and democratization have created opportunities for the formation of differences in the political systems of the republics. A parliamentary system of government began to form in Belarus. However, these processes were actually interrupted in 1994, after A. Lukashenko came to power by winning the democratic elections, using the slogan of restoring order and combating corruption.
The final end of the period of democratization and the accompanying certain instability and weakness of the political system is associated with the 1996 constitutional referendum, which, due to numerous violations, opponents call a coup d’état and consolidation of power.
- Lukashenko strove to revive the Soviet system of government. After 1996, the political system in Belarus has been building and strengthening almost unhindered for almost a quarter of a century, becoming a stable vertical, in which the security forces play the main role, and the adoption of all more or less significant decisions go through the president, whose powers are similar to those of the monarch.
The formed system of public administration is completely dependent on the head of state. His ability to avoid mistakes that would violate the uspoken social contract – social guarantees, stability and security in exchange for political rights – becomes in this regard a key factor in the stability of the situation.
Over the past decade, A. Lukashenko’s regime has periodically faced public protests, indicating a growing inability to fulfill his part of the social contract. However, until the summer of 2020, there was no doubt about the ability of his control system to cope with threats to the regime.
If the political processes in Belarus have transformed from a parliamentary republic to a super-presidential one, then in Kyrgyzstan there are attempts to build a model of democracy, which by now have formed a mixed system of government in which both the president and parliament are responsible for making political decisions.
At the same time, the “island of democracy” in Central Asia did not have a number of necessary structural prerequisites for an effective transition to the declared system of government. In particular, the country lacked such preconditions as the desired social structure of society, the level of economic development, and strong state institutions. The development process revealed the problems of building new centralized political institutions, the inability of central government bodies to exercise effective control throughout the country.
A distinctive feature of Kyrgyzstan is the fact that, unlike Belarus, which is a single centralized state, Kyrgyzstan is historically divided into northern and southern parts, which creates additional difficulties in governing.
In these conditions, attempts to build a democratic state are permanently faced with an intractable dilemma of the political system: the strengthening of state institutions leads to authoritarianism, while their democratization leads to further weakening and the threat of loss of control over governing.
The unfortunate fate of all elected presidents of the Kyrgyz Republic is an obvious evidence of the peculiarities of the functioning of the central authorities and the political system as a whole, and at the same time of civil society and the processes of democratization.
Political culture: an authoritarian world vs. democratic violence
In addition to political institutions, an important role in understanding why protests in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan follow different scenarios lies in political culture. This term refers to the widely held beliefs, values and norms that govern the relationship between citizens and government, and citizens with each other. Moreover, political culture is understood as a set of general views and normative judgments shared by the population regarding the political system of society, but it does not refer to the relationship of specific actors, such as the president or the prime minister, but rather to how people view the political system as a whole, including their belief in its legitimacy. Political culture can be defined as a set of basic values, feelings, and knowledge underlying the political process. Consequently, the basis of political culture is the beliefs, opinions and emotions of citizens in relation to their form of government.
One of the key features of the political culture of the Belarusian society is its belonging to Eastern Europe. Belarus borders on the countries of the European Union, Ukraine, and Russia, and this largely determines the values and perceptions of the population.
At the same time, the authoritarian regime of government requires citizens to prioritize “reliability, loyalty and allegiance” to the head of state over professionalism or the quality of skills. Demanding the unconditional loyalty of government officials, and especially the security forces, then leads to disproportionate brutality in suppressing protests.
Any kind of doubt or refusal leads to repression, as happened with those civil servants who publicly condemned the actions of the ruling regime or expressed disagreement with the election results. Loud resignations of Belarusian diplomats with derogatory wording and deprivation of their diplomatic ranks looked like “scathing rebuke” during the current protests.
The most recent political history of Kyrgyzstan includes violent changes of power, interethnic conflicts, and permanent clashes on the borders with neighbors. Together with chronic economic problems, this contributed to the political mobilization and political activism of citizens.
The relatively low legitimacy of legal political institutions and processes, including elections, emphasizes the high role of the “street”, which complements the informal legitimacy of political power. The willingness to use violence to achieve their goals leads to a radicalization of protests and a significant number of injured and victims of clashes.
In addition, the existing division of the republic into north and south contributes to the fact that in any electoral scenario, a significant number of dissatisfied people will remain in the country, who will also form a protest potential.
The experience of previous revolutions in Kyrgyzstan shows that the current rapid development of events is not something unusual for the country but reflects the state of its political institutions and political culture.
External factor: when does the intervention take place
Ex-President of Kyrgyzstan K. Bakiev, who lives in Belarus, believes that the external factor played a major role in the Belarusian protests. He accuses the West of interference. However, these statements look more like the work of A. Lukashenko’s propaganda machine, who later enlisted Russia’s help and transferred the confrontation from the domestic political to the level of the bipolar world of the Cold War era.
It is Russia that acts as the main external factor in Belarus and in the CIS in general. Belarus and Kyrgyzstan are linked with the Russian Federation by participation in the CSTO and the EAEU, two key Russian integration projects in the field of defense and economic cooperation. Both republics are of great strategic importance.
However, Russia’s response to the protests in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan differed sharply. Moscow openly supported A. Lukashenko. This support was manifested not only through “soft power”, that is, diplomacy, information and propaganda support, personal meetings of the President, Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, heads of Russian regions, but also in the form of “hard power”, through the provision of 1.5 billion credit and military support – according to opposition reports, Russian law enforcement agencies took part in the suppression of the protests.
On the issue of the legitimacy of the Belarusian leader, Russia has taken a tough stance in relations with the West, along with Minsk, introducing countersanctions and putting on the wanted list of the opposition presidential candidate S. Tikhanovskaya.
- Lukashenko himself, after the initial accusations of both Russia and the West of interference, switched to a more familiar rhetoric, designating the protests as a manifestation of the opposition between the West and Russia.
For all the smooth running of the state apparatus, without Russia’s interference A. Lukashenko would hardly have retained power. A series of his own mistakes, especially obvious in the first days of protests against the background of public anti-Lukashenka’s demarches of diplomats, mass protests and the beginning of strikes, seemed to indicate the confusion and growing helplessness of the authorities, while the speeches of the country’s leader were scattered into sarcastic memes. Due to the mistakes of the President of Belarus, Russia’s role in preserving his power has increased to, probably, decisive level, requiring a proactive course on the part of the Kremlin.
In the case of Kyrgyzstan, Moscow is extremely passive. This position of the Russian Federation is already becoming traditional here. The coups in the Kyrgyz Republic are not accompanied by an increase in the influence of the Russian factor and do not entail direct intervention of the Russian Federation or the PRC. It can hardly be expected that current events will lead to an intensification of Russian policy in Kyrgyzstan or Central Asia in general.
The reasons for the differences in Russia’s position are the geopolitical locations of Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. Belarus is located between Russia and the European Union, which attracts increased attention from Moscow and European capitals. During the current crisis, Belarus has become a central element in the geopolitical struggle. The recent events in Ukraine, 2013-2014, indicate how far Moscow is ready to go in protecting its interests in this Eastern European republic.
Kyrgyzstan is also strategically important for Russia. At the same time, the Kyrgyz Republic and Central Asia as a whole do not feel such Western influence as it can be observed in Ukraine or Belarus. At present, Russia faces other types of threats in the Central Asian direction.
However, Moscow’s passivity does not mean its indifference. The Kremlin’s policy can be traced to the belief that no matter who comes to power and no matter how the internal political balance of power is formed, Moscow, like Beijing, will be able to preserve and secure its interests.
Primarily, Russia is only concerned with maintaining strategic and long-term stability in the region and does not consider it necessary to openly support any of the parties to the internal political conflict in the Kyrgyz Republic.
The principle of legitimacy, which Moscow seeks to defend in the international arena, including in Belarus, due to geopolitical reasons is not very relevant in relation to its assessments of events in the Kyrgyz Republic.
In conclusion, it should be emphasized that opposing the protests in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, the goal is to point out the differences in the nature of the protest movement, regardless of how the current Belarusian events may end up or what form the further political processes in the Kyrgyz Republic will take.
The analysis showed that the main differences are based on political institutions, political culture, and the role of external factors. Furthermore, if discussions in Kyrgyzstan are relevant about what is more in the political system, parliamentary or presidential power, then in relation to Belarus, the discussions are around the totalitarian or authoritarian nature of the ruling regime.
The strong state institutions in Belarus, backed by Russia, are able to cope with large-scale peaceful protests of the population by asymmetric use of force to suppress the possibility of their radicalization.
The clash of interests between Russia and the West presupposes more favorable conditions for the development of authoritarianism in Belarus, and democratization will mean a threat to Russian interests and a more pro-Western course. At the same time, in Kyrgyzstan, the confidence of the main external actors in the protection of their strategic interests in the absence of geopolitical competition creates comparatively better preconditions for the further formation of a civil society and a democratic state, leaving the fate of the republic in the hands of its citizens. Nevertheless, the weakness of state institutions and the growing power of the “street” can lead to controlled ochlocracy.
This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.
 The Constitution (Basic Law) of the USSR, adopted in 1977. Text. – https://www.1000dokumente.de/index.html?c=dokument_ru&dokument=0021_ver&object=translation&l=ru
 Law of the USSR of December 1, 1988 N 9853-XI “On amendments and additions to the Constitution (Basic Law) of the USSR”. Text. – http://constitution.garant.ru/history/ussr-rsfsr/1977/zakony/185466/
 Law of the USSR of March 14, 1990 N 1360-I “On the establishment of the post of President of the USSR and amendments and additions to the Constitution (Basic Law) of the USSR”. Text. – http://constitution.garant.ru/history/ussr-rsfsr/1977/zakony/185465/
 See, for example: L. Buryeva 20 years ago Lukashenko staged a coup d’état and avoided impeachment. – https://belsat.eu/ru/in-focus/20-let-nazad-lukashenko-sovershil-gosudarstvennyi-perevorot-i-izbezhal-impichmenta/
 Jürgen R. Winkler. Political culture. URL: https://www.britannica.com/topic/political-culture
 Lukashenko: Time requires reliable people, loyal and devoted. 10/15/2020. URL: https://reform.by/172932-lukashenko-vremja-trebuet-nadezhnyh-ljudej-vernyh-i-predannyh