Oppositions in electoral authoritarian regimes often boycott sham elections. Yet unfair elections can be game-changing. This article shows how the opposition contested the 9 August 2020 presidential election in Belarus to mobilize a large-scale grassroots prodemocracy movement by: 1) presenting a credible alternative to the regime and unifying efforts, 2) drawing on citizen-led initiatives—including an innovative artificial-intelligence parallel vote-tabulation system—to expose the extent of electoral manipulation, build solidarity, and engender belief in the possibility of change, 3) involving citizens at every stage of the electoral process to credibly demonstrate support for the opposition, and 4) wielding the regime’s electoral law against it to publicize electoral violations. The election transformed Belarus’s once-apathetic populace into active citizens and created conditions for future change, despite mass state-sanctioned violence.
Leaders of electoral authoritarian regimes use unfair elections to deceive their citizens, create the illusion of popular support, and legitimize their rule. To those ends, they employ a myriad of nefarious tactics that include repressing the opposition and its supporters as well as manipulating the law, media, electoral administration, and campaign resources. When opposition movements confront seemingly impossible odds of success, many argue that there is no use in their participating in sham elections and advocate boycotting them. Oppositions worldwide, including in Algeria, Kenya, Serbia, Tunisia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, have opted to sit out elections.
Yet even unfair elections present rare and valuable opportunities to challenge authoritarians that oppositions can and should exploit. Elections are national events that attract increased public scrutiny at home and abroad. They involve complex bureaucratic exercises, for which autocrats must secure both the loyalty of state agents and the acquiescence of the public at every stage of the process.1 Elections may also enable oppositions to organize and campaign more openly, as authoritarians limit the use of repressive tactics in order to create the appearance of a fair contest. As such, oppositions can use electoral procedures to engage otherwise apathetic citizens in the struggle for fair elections and to undermine support for autocratic incumbents.
This essay examines how oppositions can take advantage of unfair elections to mobilize mass grassroots resistance to authoritarian rule, drawing on lessons from strategies used by the opposition during the 2020 presidential election in Belarus. While such strategies are unlikely to succeed in closed authoritarian settings, they may open an effective pathway to democratic change in hegemonic and competitive authoritarian regimes.
By 2020, Alyaksandr Lukashenka had ruled Belarus for 26 years, coming to power three years after the country’s 1991 independence from the Soviet Union. According to official results, Lukashenka had won every presidential election—a thin democratic veneer over his regime’s overt and intense repression. The key to Lukashenka’s success, Vitali Silitski wrote in these pages, is a strategy of “preemption.” By eliminating any potential challenger or source of dissent well before they could foster a credible democratic alternative to his rule, Lukashenka sought to project an aura of invulnerability and wide popular support.2
Lukashenka’s excessive control of the political and economic spheres has made popular mobilization in Belarus particularly difficult. Laws on public assembly are overly restrictive, and the regime exercises tight control over public-opinion surveys and exit polls. The state controls roughly half the economy, although Belarus had a vibrant information-technology (IT) sector. In 2020, Varieties of Democracy classified Belarus as an “electoral autocracy,” and the country ranked in the bottom fifth of the Liberal Democracy Index. In the lead up to the 2020 election, traditional opposition parties were in disarray and advocated boycotting it.
Yet the 9 August 2020 election catalyzed Belarus’s largest civic mobilization since independence and posed the most serious challenge to Lukashenka’s rule. A united opposition led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya—the only major opposition candidate not imprisoned or expelled by the regime—drew more than a hundred thousand to rallies around the country (population: nine million) with a simple message based on a love of Belarus and a desire for fair elections. After the official results implausibly showed a landslide for Lukashenka, hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets for several months and were only driven underground by a brutal crackdown.3 Forced to flee, Tsikhanouskaya has led an opposition movement in exile that has won global support for its cause.
While civic mobilization failed to oust Lukashenka in 2020, the opposition made significant, lasting gains in its struggle for democracy. First, many Belarusians became convinced that the majority of citizens support change and that Lukashenka’s power rests on violence rather than popular consent—a massive shift from Belarus before 2020. Second, the opposition-contested election transformed an apathetic populace into active citizens and spurred the creation of influential grassroots initiatives. Belarusians at home and in the diaspora formed new civic organizations with credible leadership. Protests spanning society—including women, workers, students, pensioners, doctors, and athletes—led to the creation of networks of solidarity and mutual support in the face of Lukashenka’s repression.
How did Belarusian civic actors make these inroads? They devised a set of tactics to counter the very cynicism that Lukashenka’s preemptive strategy was designed to foster among Belarusians. First, a unified campaign led by three political outsiders provided a credible vision of a future without Lukashenka. Second, citizen-led efforts, including an innovative parallel vote-tabulation system, exposed the extent of the regime’s electoral manipulation, built solidarity, and convinced many once-apathetic Belarusians that change was possible. Third, campaigning at rallies and signature-collection drives yielded massive popular mobilizations, demonstrating Lukashenka’s weakening support among the public. And fourth, the opposition campaign wielded the regime’s electoral law against it to underscore the unfair nature of the election.
Several contingent factors also facilitated sustained opposition to Lukashenka. For starters, the government’s negligent response to the pandemic—which consisted of denying that it was a problem and minimizing the deaths that it caused—galvanized ordinary Belarusians and spurred the creation of a volunteering campaign, #ByCovid19. It helped hospitals across the country to procure personal protective equipment, and some of its volunteers later joined fair-elections initiatives.4 In a similar manner, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster resulted in one of the first civic initiatives in communist-controlled Belarus, the Chernobyl Children’s Fund. Existential challenges can redefine the boundaries of possible and desirable civic action.
In addition, a constellation of independent media and bloggers facilitated civic action by producing livestreams of key electoral mobilization events and communicating information about the opposition. Further, in 2019, the Kremlin negotiated a deal with Lukashenka to deepen the integration of Russia and Belarus within the “Union State,” but did not reveal the contents of the agreement. The fear that Belarus’s independence was in jeopardy spurred opposition candidates to run. These factors—combined with the opposition’s strategies—enabled a sustained protest movement that has permanently damaged the Lukashenka regime.
Autocrats in hegemonic regimes eliminate any sources of potential opposition in order to convince the public that there are no viable alternatives to the regime. Faced with heavy repression and demoralized by successive electoral defeats, oppositions in authoritarian regimes are often marginalized, divided, and distrusted by ordinary citizens.5 As a result, autocrats benefit from the illusion of invincibility at the polls.
In 2020, Belarus seemed to be heading down this path: Lukashenka’s well-tested repertoire of electoral-manipulation tactics and a lack of credible alternatives to his rule were poised to turn that year’s election into another acclamation of the incumbent. The inability of Belarus’s traditional opposition to put forward a credible electoral challenger was on full display. Several months before the election date was set, five political parties participated in primaries to nominate a single opposition candidate. But they failed to execute a complex voting procedure, and the three frontrunners opted to boycott the election. Their decision was also motivated by the covid pandemic, which made the task of collecting the required hundred-thousand signatures to register as a candidate overwhelming. In an interview, a veteran opposition activist suggested that traditional opposition leaders were unpopular and incapable of mobilizing voters.6
But then several unexpected, independent challengers entered the race. Popular vlogger and entrepreneur Siarhei Tsikhanouski was preemptively arrested on May 6—two days before the official start of the campaign season—but announced his presidential candidacy in a YouTube video released that same day. But the Central Election Commission (CEC) rejected his candidate registration because he was imprisoned and so could not file his documents in person. His wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, later registered in his stead. As an ordinary citizen herself, she became a powerful example of popular defiance of the regime. On May 8, Valyer Tsapkala—a former high-ranking state official and founder of Hi-Tech Park (Belarus’s Silicon Valley)—joined the presidential race. A few days later, Viktar Babaryka, a prominent patron of Belarusian culture who had spent twenty years as the head of the Russian-owned private bank Belgazprombank, resigned his post to run in the election.
All three electoral challengers were new to the opposition and (with the exception of Tsikhanouskaya) had experience in business, finance, and the state bureaucracy, rather than political parties or NGOs. These new leaders made change seem not only possible, but something that individual citizens could affect. An activist lawyer, discussing Babaryka’s candidacy, explained in an interview that before May 2020, the political field consisted of veteran oppositionists who could not bring about change. Babaryka, by contrast, inspired hope among activists that “if we gave it all we’d got, we would achieve results.”7 Tsapkala, Tsikhanouskaya, and Tsikhanouski engendered similar sentiments among Belarusians.
When the CEC denied registration to Babaryka and Tsapkala, Tsikhanouskaya emerged as the only major opposition candidate. She pitched herself as a transitional leader; her campaign platform prioritized fair, new elections and the release of political prisoners. Maryya Kalyes’nikava (Babaryka’s campaign chief) and Vyeranika Tsapkala (Tsapkala’s wife) united their campaigns behind her. The three women embarked on a national tour, holding rallies of unprecedented scale: Ten-thousand people attended the first campaign rally in the capital, Minsk, and attendance at events in regional centers and smaller towns also broke records. The second Minsk rally had up to seventy-thousand participants, and the final large rally in the regional center of Brest attracted twenty-thousand. Onstage campaigning by Tsikhanouskaya, Kalyes’nikava, and Tsapkala had a theatrical quality, and the three women were enthusiastically received by admiring crowds—a powerful demonstration of popular support for the united campaign.
Change Is Possible
Even with a compelling candidate, oppositions still face significant obstacles: Electoral authoritarian regimes severely limit opposition access to media, finance, the rule of law, and other resources. By tapping into the citizenry’s unique assets—enthusiasm, expertise, creativity, solidarity, and courage—Belarus’s opposition crafted a powerful strategy to make up for these imbalances and challenge dictatorship. Citizen-led efforts of solidarity inspired growing numbers of everyday Belarusians to fight for fair elections.
For example, Tsikhanouski’s antigovernment vlogging resonated with ordinary people in ways that traditional media never could. He built an online community around his YouTube channel, “Country for Life,” which had grown to more than 130,000 subscribers by the start of the official campaign season. Tsikhanouski and his subscribers co-created informal and occasionally humorous videos about the regime’s failings, including police and judicial lawlessness, bureaucrats’ negligence, the decay of the country’s post-Soviet economy, and electoral manipulation. As one journalist observed, Tsikhanouski spoke with a passion and emotion that resonated with his subscribers, unlike the stilted tone employed by mainstream media.8
His efforts mobilized many once-apolitical Belarusians to become involved. As he explained to his followers in a 2019 livestream, “Do not count on the opposition; take everything into your own hands. It is a mistake to think that you alone cannot do anything. You are the masters of history.”9 After broadcasting his experience as an observer of the rigged November 2019 parliamentary election, Tsikhanouski called on his followers to protest Lukashenka’s election fraud by wearing white ribbons and clothing. Tsikhanouski also conducted a national tour in the five months preceding the presidential-campaign season, organizing forty meetings with his YouTube subscribers in 35 regional cities and towns. These meetings, broadcast live on his channel, served as open-air public forums in which subscribers recounted their daily problems and the regime’s abuses. These forums revealed a deep, nationwide dissatisfaction with Lukashenka’s government. Tsikhanouski also fostered grassroots organization and in-person interaction by setting up local and regional channels and chats on Telegram, a social-media messaging platform.
Due to his extensive community organizing, Tsikhanouski could rely on a committed online following and a core network of activists to support his wife’s presidential campaign. In the two weeks following his first arrest in early May, his YouTube-subscriber count rose 40 percent. His vlogging and tour before the presidential race effectively extended campaigning beyond the short, official campaign season and grew his base. Tsikhanouski’s mounting popularity demonstrated weakening support for the Lukashenka regime.
Grassroots efforts were crucial to launching and sustaining the opposition challenge to Lukashenka. In the first few days of his campaign, Babaryka attracted almost ten-thousand volunteers. Volunteers for the Tsikhanouskaya campaign had very meager resources and were constantly persecuted by the regime. Nevertheless, their efforts to collect, verify, and count signatures were critical, enabling Tsikhanouskaya to register as a candidate. After the three opposition campaigns united, photographers volunteered to produce their campaign photos, ordinary citizens provided security, and an artist designed their signature tripartite campaign logo consisting of a fist, heart, and victory sign.
Citizen electoral-integrity efforts helped to preempt and expose regime attempts to manipulate the results, making Belarusians optimistic and enthusiastic about the possibility of change. On June 9, Babaryka launched a new civic initiative called Honest People to promote free and fair elections.10 By July 25, Honest People had three-hundred volunteers working on ten different projects and had recruited ten-thousand citizens to apply for election-observer roles.11 The group educated citizens about electoral falsification, communicated the importance of participating in the electoral process and voting, and encouraged them to wear white bracelets to the polls to show their support for change. Ordinary citizens helped Honest People to print shirts, contributed white bracelets, and donated their savings.
Volunteers also led efforts to use cutting-edge technology to expose electoral fraud and pressure state agents to avoid tampering with the vote. A group of forty Belarusian software engineers pioneered the use of artificial-intelligence (AI) technology for parallel vote tabulation. In June 2020, IT professional Pavel Liber wrote in a Facebook post that “if the majority of citizens of the country have a smartphone, you can turn this crowd of people into one big digital electoral district.”12 This idea became Golos, a digital platform to which citizens could send a photograph of their ballot. Golos, which means “vote” or “voice” in Russian, used these images to create an independent tally of the precinct-level election results. This secure AI-based system was developed in under a month and went live on July 23. It used neural networks and machine vision—the large-scale extraction of information from an image—to recognize, authenticate, and tabulate ballots; encrypted voter data for security; and collected images via chat bots. In a three-week span before the election, Golos grew to 1.2 million users—representing more than 17 percent of all registered voters. After the election, Golos received more than 550,000 ballot photographs. Honest People played a crucial role in getting citizens to send photos of their ballots to Golos.13
The use of machine vision to quickly and accurately process ballot photos was a major breakthrough: Vote totals could now be checked independently of the official, manipulated results. According to a postelection report, Golos reported significantly more votes for Tsikhanouskaya than the official results in at least a third of all precincts. And even these falsified precinct counts differed significantly from the CEC results. The report also suggests that more than 70 percent of all precincts withheld their results altogether.14
As Golos founder Pavel Liber explained, his platform served as a tool for citizens to defend their vote, and as an instrument to hold election-commission members accountable. In his view, Golos was critical to getting people “directly involved” and “interested” in the electoral process.15 Because electoral fraud is typically committed in secret, these initiatives helped to “render visible what cannot be reliably observed by relevant audiences.”16 The three united campaigns projected optimism about the possibility of change through elections in part because emerging technology promised to increase the transparency of the vote.
Campaign staff and civic associations, including Honest People and Golos, were made up of decentralized volunteer networks that lacked rigid hierarchical structures. Decentralized organization enabled citizens to show initiative and creativity. Importantly, citizens were left hopeful that change was not only possible, but something to which their efforts could contribute. Tsikhanouskaya and the united campaign also encouraged citizens to engage with grassroots electoral-integrity efforts. At nearly every campaign rally, Kalyes’nikava, Babaryka’s campaign chief, proclaimed that fear they could not change anything was the biggest enemy of success. She chanted with the energized crowds, “I can change everything.”
An exiled strike leader argued that one of the most significant achievements of the opposition campaign was solidarity, a feeling “that I am not alone, that we are many.”17 In a severely repressive regime, solidarity can help to mitigate the risks of resistance. Babaryka encouraged citizens to support those who suffered persecution or were fired as a result of their activism. Honest People managed the Emergency Mutual Aid digital platform that connected those in need to citizens with resources and opportunities.
Despite Lukashenka’s continued grip on power, these citizen-led efforts became a lasting demonstration of his illegitimacy, fueling hope for the future. Three months after the election, a prominent doctor wrote in an open letter to a high-ranking state official that
people became more intelligent, active, creative. There appeared independent online platforms with more than a million participants, white ribbons, and ballots folded in a special way. All of this demonstrated so vividly that [Lukashenka] lost. . . . We did not forget and will never forget. And new elections will definitely be conducted soon.18
Popular enthusiasm for the campaign transformed Belarus as hope prevailed over despair in the national consciousness. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said that she ran out of love for her husband, and persisted—despite threats to her and her children—out of love for her fellow citizens. Babaryka described his love for Belarus in a video released during the campaign. His campaign used the heart as its symbol, and posters with hand-drawn hearts were prominent at every rally. The three women who led the united campaign recounted the injustices suffered by candidates and their families at the hands of the regime. Their message of love and fairness stood in stark contrast to the government’s repression.
Solidarity in Numbers
In electoral authoritarian regimes, public sympathy for the opposition may not materialize in the streets or at the ballot box. In public-opinion polls and during elections, support for the regime could be inflated as polls are rigged and voters hide their true opinions out of fear of reprisals. Citizens may have limited exposure to contentious national issues and lack opportunities to express their discontent. Information regarding the scope of any electoral manipulation and the impact that it has on election outcomes is difficult to assess. Restricted access to credible media and public-opinion polls may lead voters to feel isolated and to disengage from public life.
In order to rally ordinary Belarusians against unfair elections, the opposition needed to credibly demonstrate nationwide support. Civic engagement during all stages of the electoral process was a critical tool to demonstrate public support for the opposition.
Belarusian law severely restricts public assembly, subjecting citizens to arrest and fines for participating in “illegal mass rallies.” Gathering for campaign events within the official campaign season, however, was allowed. Thus campaigning offered a rare opportunity for opposition supporters to gather in public legally and relatively safely. Tsikhanouski and the 2010 presidential candidate Mikola Statkyevich organized the first signature-collection event on May 24 at Kamarowka market in Minsk. This event attracted thousands of participants who stood in long queues for hours to sign in support of opposition candidates. Across the country, citizens queued in public squares for signature-collection drives. The turnout provided a visual demonstration of the Belarusians’ support for the opposition and their willingness to show it. As a student waiting in the Minsk queue explained, “The meaning of this is not in giving the signature, but that we are standing. This is seen, people see it, and all the world sees that people are standing, and will keep standing, and they will fight.”19
Signature-collection drives helped to give voters a personal stake in the electoral process, making it harder for the regime to manipulate election results. When voters do not participate in the electoral process, acts of electoral manipulation, such as decisions to invalidate signatures and deny registration to opposition candidates on specious grounds, appear less brazen. As chief lawyer for the Babaryka campaign Maksim Znak explained in an interview with Belsat, “When you encounter [violations] in your personal experience, it becomes your personal business and personal hurt—a very different attitude.”20
Belarusians were keen to demonstrate their support for the opposition in defiance of the regime’s repression. On May 29, Tsikhanouski was arrested again during a signature drive in Hrodna after an apparently staged government provocation that led to a police officer falling to the ground. Watching video of the incident, Belarusians ridiculed the regime for the pathetic and poorly executed setup, and flocked to signature-collection events in droves. After the June 11 arrest of Viktar Babaryka and his son and former campaign chief Eduard, the last two signature-collection events morphed into rallies of solidarity for the detained. Participation in these events, and in electoral activities that followed, blurred the line between engagement in the formal electoral process and protest. In a repressive dictatorship, electoral participation itself becomes a form of protest.
Signature-collection events, in addition to filling public spaces that were usually dominated by the state, demonstrated record support for independent candidates. Babaryka collected 435,000 signatures—the most ever collected by an opposition candidate. Tsapkala and Tsikhanouskaya obtained 200,000 and 146,000 signatures, respectively. In an interview with Radio Svaboda, Znak explained that such overwhelming support makes election manipulation costlier for the regime: “If we collect 450,000 signatures, maybe half of them will be invalidated, and we won’t have the 400,000 required. But if we collect two million—it will be a different reality.”21
His words proved prescient. On July 14, the CEC invalidated many of Babaryka’s and Tsapkala’s signatures, and denied registration to both candidates. In response, hundreds of Belarusians took to the streets across Belarus to express solidarity with the candidates. Some noted how improbable it was that so many signatures were invalid (which precluded Tsapkala from obtaining registration), and how absurd the CEC’s justifications for the denials were. It claimed, for example, that Babaryka provided false income and property declarations.22
On election day, long queues formed at the polling stations, with many citizens wearing white ribbons as the symbol of the opposition campaign. There were crowds waiting outside for results from election precincts until late at night. Overwhelming demonstrations of public support—in signature collections, campaign rallies, and election-day turnout—highlighted the absurdity of the official election results. According to the CEC, Lukashenka won 80 percent of the vote while Tsikhanouskaya obtained a mere 10 percent. While the lopsided results resembled those of Belarus’s previous presidential elections, public perception of them was now very different because of citizen-led efforts. As a middle-aged engineer explained:
I participated in the 2010 [presidential election]. In 2020, the lie was obvious. Previously, it was ambiguous. . . . I stood for one and a half hours at Kamarowka, to sign for Babaryka and Tsikhanouskaya—and people were standing. It is worth something! On the election day, I came to my school and waited for forty minutes to cast my ballot—and a lot of people kept coming, all with bracelets. . . . Then the election commission were escorted by the police, and they put out a protocol that Lukashenka won. . . . It was an insult.23
Playing by the Rules
In electoral authoritarian regimes, election law—even when it is unfair—can be both a shield against repression and a sword against the regime. Even in authoritarian Belarus, the letter of the law provides a façade of democracy. The opposition educated voters about their rights, enabling them to use the law to hold the regime accountable for its electoral manipulation. After Tsikhanouski’s arrest at a signature-collection event, Babaryka issued a “Declaration on Fair Elections” calling on people to “not be afraid to act according to the law.”24 He asked citizens to take action within the electoral process: sign for opposition candidates, participate in election administration as independent members of precinct electoral commissions (PECs), monitor elections as observers, and file complaints. Independent media criticized this strategy as naïve, given total government control of election-management bodies. Nevertheless, civic actors appealed to electoral law to publicize violations, to “name and shame” the perpetrators, and to pressure state officials to defect from the regime.
Volunteer group Honest People provided online forms and instructions on how citizens could nominate themselves to the PECs. The group also partnered with more than 150 lawyers who helped citizens to apply for PEC membership pro bono, and to file appeals in court when the applications were denied.25 Almost all 2,192 PEC applications from Honest People were denied on spurious grounds by local authorities. Most of the resulting 63,347 election commissioners at 5,723 precincts were nominated by major state-controlled parties, unions, and organizations, violating the independence of electoral-management bodies.26 Babaryka’s staff issued a statement condemning the nomination process and elections for the PECs as a farce.27
Despite the wholesale rejection of Honest People’s PEC applications, the group’s strategy carved out space for institutional action that increased public engagement: Every nominee had to obtain the signatures of at least ten neighbors for the application. Some citizens applied because they wanted to see for themselves how the vote count worked and if the rumors of electoral fraud were true.28 Publicizing citizens’ application rejections made the independence of election authorities a personal and public issue, reclaiming it from the margins of opposition-party activities tracked by expert monitors.
Citizen engagement increased pressure on local authorities to make the electoral process appear fair, revealing its inconsistencies and flaws. The charade of the application denials further motivated citizens to get involved in electoral observation to hold the “elected” commissioners accountable. The Babaryka campaign used the PEC episode to decry the violation of the electoral law and to educate citizens about electoral integrity. The campaign also reminded state officials that the law made them criminally liable for manipulating election results, and asked them to withdraw from the electoral process if they had been coerced into malpractice. In an interview, an Honest People activist recounted that some precinct election commissioners did indeed decide to resign rather than continue to engage in fraud on behalf of the regime.29
Fair elections depend not only on how the ballots are counted but also on who appears on the ballots themselves. Electoral authoritarian regimes often use legal technicalities to bar opposition candidates from running. During the signature-verification process, officials invalidated tens of thousands of signatures for opposition candidates. The CEC accepted only 165,000 of Babaryka’s 365,000 signatures and 75,000 of Tsapkala’s 160,000 signatures, making him fall short of the minimum required to appear on the ballot.30 On July 14, the CEC denied registration to both candidates. On July 15, heeding the call of Babaryka’s campaign, several thousand citizens formed a lengthy queue in front of the CEC office to submit legal complaints. As one voter in the queue remarked, complaints were not futile because they were public acts: Under scrutiny, state agents may well have refrained from wrongdoing or begun hesitating.31
Relying on legitimation through the electoral process—even a flawed one—creates vulnerabilities for authoritarian regimes. The discrepancy between the government’s de jure claims of legality and fairness and the de facto subversion of these principles enables citizens to challenge violations using existing electoral law and the constitution. As part of this effort, campaign lawyer Maksim Znak explained via livestreams how the regime was breaking Belarusian election law in its conduct of the 2020 election. Circulated by independent media, these informal lectures demonstrated to citizens that their electoral rights were being violated, empowering them to fight for change. After his September 2020 arrest, Znak (who has since been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment) gave a postelection interview from his prison cell in which he emphasized that the Babaryka campaign’s eight-thousand volunteers were not revolutionaries, “but came to participate in the campaign with the help of legal methods and tools.”32 He argued that many of those people would not have participated if the methods had been different.
While the regime used the law to achieve its goals, lawyers and citizens used it as an instrument of accountability. As activist lawyer Il’lya Salyey explained, publicity, media, and public opinion were the most pressing problems for the government. It was much easier for the regime when everything was quiet, and no one drew public attention to its corrupt and repressive methods.33 By exposing electoral-law violations and educating citizens about their electoral rights, Znak, Salyey, and other lawyers played a crucial role in peeling away the regime’s veneer of electoral legitimacy.
Breaking the Machine
In electoral authoritarian regimes, the main arena of conflict between the government and opposition is elections—even though they are typically unfair. Elections in the Philippines (1986), Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), and Ukraine (2004) catalyzed large-scale protests and proved transformative. Yet in many electoral authoritarian regimes, large portions of the population may perceive the elections as fair, even when credible international observers assess them to be flawed. The way that oppositions contest elections is likely a part of the answer to the question of why some authoritarian elections become transformative, while others become mere footnotes in the long history of electoral manipulation.
The 2020 election campaign produced a genuine shift among Belarusians from disengagement, helplessness, and distrust to active participation, self-organization at the neighborhood level, solidarity, and activism. As Tsikhanouski admitted during the first major campaign event, “I never was interested in politics before and never voted. It is a big mistake of Belarusians. You need to get involved!”34 While postelection protests occurred after both the 2006 and 2010 presidential elections, the scale and durability of the 2020 demonstrations was much greater. Hundreds of thousands protested for at least four months after the election in Minsk alone, and the regional distribution of protests was unprecedented.
The case of Belarus shows that even a severely repressive electoral authoritarian regime can be vulnerable to electoral challenge. The key is to take advantage of small openings provided by the electoral process through mass grassroots participation. Such civic mobilization should aim to make visible the extent of public support for the opposition as well as the full scale of the regime’s electoral manipulation. By credibly demonstrating to the public that every stage of the electoral process is unfair, civic actors can spur sustained protest mobilizations.
The violent postelection crackdown on peaceful protesters, which included mass beatings and torture, is well documented.35 But even as the Lukashenka regime drove street protests underground by imprisoning thousands of citizens and disbanding media and NGOs, ordinary people took advantage of the 27 February 2022 constitutional referendum to protest Lukashenka’s regime and his participation in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that had begun three days earlier. Defying repression, people across Belarus formed queues at polling stations, reminiscent of the 2020 electoral queues, and wrote antiwar slogans on the paper ballots.
Belarusian authorities have concluded from the 2020 protests that their best option to prevent a popular uprising is to continually apply mass repression. Even minor expressions of discontent, such as wearing red or white—the colors of the historic Belarusian flag—are targeted and suppressed. But the regime’s brutality is a testament to the opposition’s creativity and effectiveness. Antiregime forces learned that participating in, rather than boycotting, elections—even deeply unfair ones marred by state-sanctioned violence—can present opportunities to mobilize protests and demonstrate solidarity. In the end, as the regime’s continued crackdowns showed, the referendum could not fill the vacuum of legitimacy left by the rigged 2020 election.
Even though the 2020 protests in Belarus have been suppressed, they underscored the uncertainty underlying authoritarian regimes. While there are serious risks that civic mobilization will fail, the final outcomes cannot be known in advance and depend in large part on effort and individual agency. Civic action around the 2020 election in Belarus has produced a long-lasting crisis of legitimacy for Lukashenka’s regime and a widespread demand for new and fair elections. Moreover, it has also led to the emergence of credible community-based leaders, solidarity initiatives, and the massive involvement of ordinary citizens. This years-long struggle and process of civic education may plant the seeds of a durable participatory democracy in a future Belarus. Ultimately, the 2020 civic mobilization transformed the consciousness of the Belarusian nation and laid the foundations for the struggle to come.
Some of the research used for this essay, including the interviews the author and her research assistant conducted with Belarusian activists, was supported by Freedom House.
1. Andreas Schedler, The Politics of Uncertainty: Sustaining and Subverting Electoral Authoritarianism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
2. Vitali Silitski, “Preempting Democracy: The Case of Belarus,” Journal of Democracy 16 (October 2005): 95.
3. Sławomir Sierakowski, “Belarus Uprising: The Making of a Revolution,” Journal of Democracy 31 (October 2020): 5–16; Lucan Ahmad Way, “Belarus Uprising: How a Dictator Became Vulnerable,” Journal of Democracy 31 (October 2020): 17–27.
4. #ByCovid19activist, online interview conducted by research assistant, 3 September 2021.
5. Valerie J. Bunce and Sharon L. Wolchik, Defeating Authoritarian Leaders in Postcommunist Countries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
6. Political analyst, online interview conducted by research assistant, 31 August 2021.
7. Lawyer, online interview conducted by research assistant, 13 August 2021.
8. Activist and journalist, online interview conducted by research assistant, 24 August 2021.
11. Tamara Kolos, “‘Chestnyye lyudi’: ‘Yesli uvidim, chto Lukashenko nabral 51%, my dolzhny budem priznat’ eti tsifry,’” [‘Honest people’: “If we see that Lukashenko got 51% of the vote, we will have to accept these results”] 42.TUT.By, 25 July 2020, https://42.tut.by/694135. Note that TUT.By was shut down by the government in 2021.
12. Tamara Kolos, “Razrabotchik ‘Golosa’ raskryl svoye imya. Pogovorili s nim o rabote platformy i vyborakh v Belarusi,” [“Golos” developer revealed his name. We talked with him about the work of the platform and elections in Belarus] 42.TUT.By, 22 August 2020, https://42.tut.by/697664.
13. Honest People volunteer, online interview conducted by research assistant, 26 August 2021.
15. Kolos, “Razrabotchik ‘Golosa’ raskryl svoye imya.”
16. Schedler, The Politics of Uncertainty, 386.
18. Nikita Solovey, “‘Za chto nas nado pakovat’, izbivat’ i v tyur’my pomeshchat’?” Narodnaya Volya (Minsk), November 13, 2020.
20. Svyatlana Kalinkina and Vital’ Tsyhankow, “Advakat Babaryki: ‘Ploshcha nye yosts’ sposabam zmyanits’ uladu,’” [Babaryka’s lawyer: “Protest is not an instrument of transition of power”], Belsat TV, https://belsat.eu/programs/advakat-babaryki-ploshcha-ne-yosts-sposabam-zmyanits-uladu.
21. Znak is referring here to a 2020 campaign to hold a constitutional referendum, which requires a minimum 400,000 signatures. Yury Drakakhrust and Alyaksyey Znatkyevich, “Yuryst shtabu Babaryki adkazaw na pytan’ni pra referendum. Videa,” Radio Svaboda, 7 July 2020, www.svaboda.org/a/30712264.html.
24. “Pretendent v presidenty Viktor Babariko predstavil Deklaratsiyu o chestnykh vyborakh,” [Presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka presented the Declaration on fair elections] TUT.By, 31 May 2020, https://news.tut.by/elections/686782.html.
25. Lawyer, online interview conducted by research assistant, 13 August 2021.
27. “Shtab Babariko ob uchastkovykh komissiyakh: o kakikh chestnykh vyborakh mozhno vesti rech’ pri takom podkhode?” [Babaryka campaign staff on precinct commissions: what kind of fair elections can we talk about given such an approach?], TUT.By, 24 June 2020, https://news.tut.by/elections/690221.html.
28. Adar’ya Hushtyn, “‘Pered nami razygryvayetsya tsinichnyy spektakl’.’ Chto govoryat belorusy, kotoryye khoteli schitat’ golosa na vyborakh” [“We are witnessing a cynical spectacle.” What the Belarusians who wanted to count the votes at the polls are saying], TUT.By, 25 June 2020, https://news.tut.by/elections/690315.html.
29. Honest People volunteer, online interview conducted by research assistant, 26 August 2021.
32. “Maksim Znak u interviyu z-za krataw: ‘Zykhodzyachy z sensu abvinavachvan’nya, ekstremistami mozhna lichyts’ usikh hodnykh byelarusaw,’” Radyyo Svaboda, 17 June 2021, www.svaboda.org/a/31312968.html.
33. Il’ya Saley, “‘Pravo v Respublike Belarus’ slomalos’,’” Advokatskaya ulitsa, 15 December 2021, https://advstreet.ru/interview/pravo-v-respublike-belarus-slomalos.
34. “Pikyet Tsikhanouskaha i Statkyevicha na Kamarowtsy.”
35. Wolfgang Benedek, OSCE Rapporteur’s Report Under the Moscow Mechanism on Alleged Human Rights Violations Related to the Presidential Elections of 9 August 2020 in Belarus (Warsaw: Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, 2020).
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