Ekaterina Schulman: “The Usual Problem with Authoritarian Regimes is Being Out-of-touch with Reality”

Ekaterina Schulman is a political scientist and Assistance Professor at the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences. In an interview for ReForum, she discusses the recent protests in Belarus and what the unrest might mean for Russia.

ReForum: On election day, you wrote that the preliminary voting results of 82% for Lukashenko was an invitation to war. What did you mean by that?

Schulman: The results were clearly at odds with reality. An 80% vote for Lukashenko was an open declaration: “We don’t care how you voted, and that’s just the way it’s going to be.” Naturally, people were outraged. To some extent, this situation is similar to the protests during the Moscow City Duma election campaign in 2019. However, back then, it wasn’t the election results which caused outrage, rather, it was the refusal to register candidates. Voters provided their signatures to opposition candidates so that they could officially register in the elections, but then voters were told “you didn’t sign anything.”

People who take part in political processes – for example, by submitting signatures or voting – feel that they have invested in something that belongs to them. When this investment is declared nonexistent or denied, people feel that something that is rightfully their own has been taken away from them.

That’s important. It’s often said that injustice and cruelty outrage people. That’s true, but it doesn’t explain why some of the government’s actions cause mass protests and others don’t, even if, from a moralistic point-of-view, they’re not any different from one another. 

ReForum: Then what’s the difference? What leads to mass protests?

Schulman: Generally speaking, people are outraged when conventions are violated. Something was once allowed, and now suddenly it’s not. Something was once yours, but now it belongs to someone else. This can include taking away certain privileges which people think are fair, or the rejection of election results, that is, rejecting a person’s right to participate in political processes. Injustice and cruelty from the government do outrage people, but it alone doesn’t account for why people actively participate in protests. Announcing that Lukashenko won by 80% the following day after the election was an invitation to war because it declared voters non-existent. That’s not going to just go away.

ReForum: Lukashenko has already spoken publicly in front of Belarusians. What kind of conclusions can be made based on his statements?

Schulman: His speeches have been rambling. When Lukashenko spoke to a crowd of factory workers, he wandered from one topic to another, promising this, rejecting that, saying that there will be a new constitution soon, and that powered might be handed over to someone else, though, not under pressure from street protesters. Imaginary constitutional reforms aren’t so important as what he said about transferring power. Sincetheveryideawaseven mentioned it would suggest that some kind of bartering has already begun. Therefore, resignation is something that’s being discussed.

Considering this possibility seems to have happened after Lukashenko was confronted by striking factory workers. This was a dose of reality, and it became evidently clear that the protests are real, not just fake news from Telegram, but something that needs to be addressed. Authoritarian regimes run into the same problems they age: being out of touch with reality, a lack of feedback. Inthefinalstage, autocrat send up being completely isolated in an information bubble, in their own little world from which they make the wrong decisions. It’s textbook stuff.

The events in Belarus are absolutely typical. It’s the sort of thing we teach students, and we’ll probably use the events in Belarus as a textbook example of personalistic autocracy, as well as to show what trends exist in this type of regime.

ReForum: How do you think the situation in Belarus will develop?

Schulman: Of course, only a charlatan would make predications with a specific timeline. But on a fundamental level, we should look at a number of factors. 

The first factor we should consider is the sustainably of the protests. In other words, the ability of protesters to at least maintain their numbers, if not grow.

The second factor is the diversification of protest methods. Something else should be going on in parallel with street protests. One well-known example is to take over public space and set up camp. In Russia, we associate this with the Euromaidan in Ukraine, gathering signatures, speeches from famous people, protest art, flash mobs, and other tactics. In Belarus, worker strikes are proving to be very effective since they run counter to the founding myth of a socialist nation an oasis for the working class.

The third factor is a schism within the elite, what we call “elite defection.” This describes the appearance of individuals within the power structure whose statements may be interpreted as sympathetic to protesters. At a later stage, we see the resignations of high-profile individuals as a form of protest against the government. In Belarus, former Prime Minister Sergei Rumas made a statement, as well as several diplomatic workers and the head of the Department of Internal Affairs of the Grodno region. But we still haven’t seen anything like that from high-ranking security officials.

The fourth factor is the development of parallel power structures. So far, I don’t see this happening in Belarus. Yes, there are strikes, but so far there aren’t any strike committees. There is a call to organize a headquarters for a power transfer on behalf of the opposition. Though, I don’t see any mayors or governors who would fill the power vacuum. But new power structures can form very quickly. Unlike state institutions, a strike or coordinating council of opposition forces can be created almost instantly.

The fifth factor is the position which the international community takes. The international community’s position on Belarus is just barely beginning to materialize. Great Britain and the EU parliament haven’t recognized the election results. The United States’ response has been limited to tweets. Russia also hasn’t made public statements. Putin’s congratulations to Lukashenko can be thought of as a gesture of support, but it was a one-time event, and the two telephone conversations initiated from the side of Belarus look like an attempt to get support which doesn’t exist.

ReForum: Based on what we’re observing right now, can any conclusions be made?

Schulman: I hope that a wide swath of the public can see what’s going on in Belarus as a way to understand what legitimacy looks like. Many people believe that legitimacy is something decorative and pretty, though, something you can do without – you can always rule just by force. Nowitshouldbecomeclearthatsomething along those lines is impossible.

Using force may be effective. But if it doesn’t quickly deescalate the situation to the benefit of the government, then the continued use of force ceases to be effective.

Therefore, legitimacy is the people’s consent to be governed. The government can’t exist without people’s consent. You can’t send riot police after every citizen. Time is an important factor here, but not a defining one. Yes, the government can try to buy time with conversations about dialogue or constitutional processes in the hope that people will get tired and make concessions. Buying time may lead to less desirable outcomes, but the government can at least negotiate for a safe resignation, as well as ensure that some of its people are appointed to certain posts later on. All this is a matter of negotiations.

ReForum: Negotiations with whom?

Schulman: Usually, in the case of smaller countries, negotiations take place between both domestic and foreign political actors. Larger countries can make guarantees and give support to either the opposition or the former dictator. These negotiations take place in the public eye, and they also take place behind-closed-doors, which is the less glamorous part, but it’s where assets are ultimately divided up. These include businesses, flows of capital, trade, and customs, government agencies. In general, these backroom talks decide who gets what and on what conditions. It’s not very virtuous or revolutionary, but it’s better than civil war. The start of these negotiations is a generally positive process. As far as I understand, the current government in Belarus will try to convince Russia that it is under direct threat from external aggression so as to force Russia to somehow get involved as a show of authoritarian solidarity.

ReForum: There were reports of motorcade moving from Russia towards Belarus.

Schulman: There were videos of police motorcades with vehicles similar to those that the National Guard of Russia uses – no license plates or identification markers.

The National Guard may show up in Belarus. That might happen after some kind of consultation between Putin and Lukashenko, and it wouldn’t require approval from the Federation Council since the National Guard isn’t the military.

I wouldn’t be surprised if National Guard troops show up in Belarus to secure buildings and strategically important locations, such as nuclear power plants, law enforcement buildings, prisons, or any other places in which masses of protesters may want to storm.

ReForum: To what extent might the events in Belarus influence the political situation in Russia? What effect might they have on the attitude of Russians, and on the attitudes of Russian authorities?

Schulman: For now, public opinion surveys show us that Russians are following what’s going on in Belarus. In general, Russians sympathize with peaceful protests, meanwhile, police violence, contrary to popular misconceptions, isn’t so popular. That much was clear based on survey data from last summer in Moscow. We saw the same reaction towards judicial repression during the “Moscow Affair.” Nobody likes police violence and judicial repression. To be more precise, more people categorically disapprove of police violence than those who approve of it or those who are neutral. Plus, insofar as the protests in Belarus aren’t anti-Russian – unlike past protests in Ukraine – Russians are sympathetic to what’s going on in Belarus. According to data recently published by VTSOM, respondents are more likely to think that Lukashenko will hold onto power and that the protests will be suppressed. People in Russia are used to believing in the longevity of autocrats and the permanent victory of the ruling powers against all opposition. It’s difficult for Russians to think differently.

So, I think that, officially, Russia doesn’t want Lukashenko to be overthrown by a rebellious mass of people. Instead, Moscow would prefer a gradual resolution brought about by means of negotiation, where Russia could act as an intermediary. Then, state media would be able to say that Lukashenko paid the price for not being friendly enough with Russia and that he tried cozying up to the West as well. In other words, he miscalculated. But had he been more pro-Russian and agreed to deeper integration between Belarus and Russian, then he would still be in power.

ReForum: Can we expect any further consolidation of authoritarianism in Russia because of the events in Belarus? Maybe new laws that further restrict protests?

Schulman: That process has been underway in Russia since 2012 and has been the main focus of legislation in the State Duma. Everything that can be consolidated has already been consolidated, and from time to time, unconsolidated. But if we look at the events in Bashkortostan, for example, then it’s interesting to see what lessons the Russian government is trying to take away from what’s going on there. First, we saw a classic dispersal of protesters by private security guards. Then, when it became clear that this strategy wasn’t working, the president of Bashkortostan went to speak with the protesters. He apologized for what had happened and began to negotiate with them. This didn’t change anything about fines or arrests which had been made, but the very fact that negotiations took place is itself interesting.

ReForum: You’ve mentioned before that what’s happening today in Belarus will be Russia in 2024. What do you mean by that?

Schulman: I was talking about what lessons the Russian government can glean from what’s going on in Belarus today.

One of the possible conclusions that we can make is that it’s better to follow the example of Boris Yeltsin: choose a successor while you can when your approval ratings start to do poorly. Don’t test your electorates’ last ounce of patience and personally run for reelection.

The president’s approval ratings have shown a negative trend since 2018. It’s unclear what needs to happen in order for that trend to somehow reverse. Belarus may show that the wiser strategy isn’t to run for reelection, but to run “indirectly.”

ReForum: If we take a look at Belarussians’ unified response to the election results, then might a similar kind of solidarity be possible in Russian society? Are protests similar to those in Belarus possible here?

Schulman: Protest behavior is difficult to predict. It’s difficult to understand for what reasons people will think worthy enough to go out and protest. Sometimes very unjust and cruel things don’t cause an uproar in the public, while something which seems insignificant to the government causes people to take to the streets. But as far as tools for civil society go, then the skills of self-organization exist both in Russian and Belarusian society. I see another similarity between our two countries: massive protests in Russia and Belarus are never accompanied by vandalism. I’ve talked about this a lot with respect to protests in Russia. Protesters in Russia are often accused of being excessive liberals because of their lack of destructive and violent behavior. Some say that, in order for protests to be more effective, it would be better to beat someone, loot stores, and burn buildings. However, this runs counter to the very ideology of protesting as such, regardless of the cause. In Russia, protest participation is considered a fulfillment of moral duty and a kind of sacrificial act. People who go out to protest believe that they walk away as“morally superior” representatives of the whole of Russian society. And those who are morally superior don’t break windows, burn cars, or ruin other people’s property, and they don’t even litter. In this sense, the events in Belarus confirm that this kind of culture is also characteristic of Belarus.

Translated by Mackenzie Tubridy