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Minsk, Moscow, And Beyond: Belarus Protests Reverberate On Russian Streets

"Long live Belarus!" People clash with police during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 23.
"Long live Belarus!" People clash with police during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 23.

When Russians took to the streets in the tens of thousands on January 23 in the biggest wave of nationwide protests in years to demand the release of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, there were chants demanding the Kremlin critic's release as well as calls for President Vladimir Putin to step down.

But there was something else seen and heard at rallies from Yakutsk to thousands of kilometers west in the capital, Moscow. Chants of "Long live Belarus!" rose from the crowds and some protesters held up white-and-red flags, the symbol of the protests against Alyaksandr Lukashenka that erupted last August after an election tens of thousands of Belarusians believe was rigged to hand the 66-year-old authoritarian leader another term in office.

And like in Belarus, cars honked in support as they cranked up Changes, a Soviet-era dissident rock anthem, also on the playlist of protesters in Belarus.

"I am sure Belarusian protests inspired some Russians, and the presence of white-red-white flags as well as 'Long live Belarus' slogans proves it," explained Alesia Rudnik, a Belarusian analyst based in Sweden, in e-mailed comments to RFE/RL.

What's Different About The Latest Protests Across Russia?
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The similarities don't end on the street. The rallies in Russia were called by Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, shortly after Navalny returned to Russia on January 17 from Germany, where he had been treated for poisoning with a Soviet-era nerve agent that he blamed on the Russian authorities. However, much of the legwork to organize the rallies at the local level was done using social media, especially Telegram, according to Alexander Morozov, an expert on Russia at Prague's Charles University.

"NEXTA also claims it is coordinating the Russian protests," added Morozov, referring to the popular Belarusian Telegram channel that has played a key role in the protests there, as well as providing unfiltered information in a country where most media serve merely as government mouthpieces.

And just like Belarus, where protests have spread to many towns and smaller cities outside of Minsk, the January 23 protests in Russia were not limited to a few dense population centers such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. That, according to Morozov, was largely unprecedented.

"Protests are taking place in cities such as Belgorod, Magnitogorsk, Bratsk, in cities where protests have not been held for the past 200 years," Morozov told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

Demonstrations in Russia were reported in more than 100 cities and towns nationwide, with an estimated 40,000 attending the rally in Moscow.

Police were reported to have detained 3,711 people on January 23, according to the independent monitor OVD-Info, which said the number was a record in its decade of tracking arrests. Reports of bloodied and battered protesters and bystanders were plentiful.

As In Minsk, So In Moscow...

Support for Belarus's pro-democracy movement is not a recent phenomenon, noted Katsiaryna Shmatsina, a research fellow at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.

"The fact that Russian protesters express solidarity with Belarus underlines that Russian society is not homogeneous with regards to Kremlin's 'near abroad' revanchism. Russian liberals have sympathized with Belarus's struggle for democracy since the beginning of the protests in August 2020," Shmatsina told RFE/RL.

'We Have The Same Ideals': Protesters In Russia's Far East And Belarus Feel A Connection
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But despite the similarities, the role of Belarus's protests on the current movement in Russia is probably minimal, argued Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"Although Russians are aware of recent events in Belarus, I don't see clear evidence that many are specifically inspired by them," Gould-Davies told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.

Furthermore, the red-and-white flag of the short-lived first Belarusian republic has been flown in months of protests in Russia's Far East in support of detained ex-Governor Sergei Furgal, noted Gould-Davies.

Furgal, the former governor of Khabarovsk, is being held in Moscow on charges of ordering the murder of at least two businessmen 15 years ago, which he denies, and supporters say was payback for beating the Kremlin-backed candidate from the ruling United Russia party in the 2018 election.

What does link Russia and Belarus, noted Gould-Davies, are the "underlying causes" fueling unrest in both countries: "frustration and disillusion with a long-standing authoritarian system, poor economic prospects, and growing repression."

In the early days of the protests in Belarus, Lukashenka appealed to Putin to send riot police, warning that "if Belarus falls, Russia will be next." He also accused the West of trying to whip up a "color revolution" in Belarus.

The Kremlin has also tried to paint the Navalny rallies in Russia as foreign-inspired, even citing Belarus as an example.

"Given the example of the political techniques tested in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, we cannot rule out the possibility of similar destabilization in our country, Russian First Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandr Gorovoi said on January 21, two days ahead of the nationwide demonstrations.

Lukashenka's government has responded to protests at home with what Human Rights Watch has called an "unprecedented crackdown," as security forces have detained thousands of people and "subjected hundreds to torture and other ill-treatment in an attempt to stifle the protests."

Reports of protesters being kicked, beaten, and abused by Russian police on January 23 appeared to indicate the Kremlin is ready to deal with any wave of protests harshly. But the excesses of Belarus may prove a warning to the Kremlin.

"The harshness of the Belarusian crackdown -- initially much worse than what we have just seen in Russia -- proved counterproductive and provoked even bigger protests," offered Gould-Davies.

Are Putin's, Lukashenka's Fates Now Tied Together?

In September, Putin promised Lukashenka possible police or other military support, as well as a financial injection of $1.5 billion in the form of a state loan. However, as the Belarusian strongman showed not only no signs of acceding to opposition demands, but doubled down on his government's crackdown, Putin appears to have become wary of hitching himself too closely to the increasingly isolated Lukashenka.

"Even though Putin understands that the protests in Russia were triggered by the Navalny case, rather than being inspired by Belarus, he will most likely avoid direct public confrontation with Lukashenka so as to avoid supporting the so-called 'myth of protests' viral spreading from neighboring countries," Rudnik explained.

For Lukashenka, Putin's predicament could offer a bit of breather from Kremlin demands to orchestrate a transfer of power, said Oleg Chupryna, a PhD candidate at the Center for European and Eurasian Studies at Maynooth University, Ireland.

"For Lukashenka, I think the developing events in Russia represent a double-edged sword. Indeed, Putin's current domestic troubles may buy Lukashenka some time and sympathy from his Russian colleague," Chupryna explained to RFE/RL. "I think the Belarusian autocrat was absolutely right when he said that if Belarus falls (meaning his regime), Russia would be next. But the opposite also is true; if Putin's regime falls, Lukashenka's will be next for sure."

The possibility of facing a similar threat could push Putin and Lukashenka closer, at least for the time being, opined Kenneth Yalowitz, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington who served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus in the 1990s, in e-mail comments to RFE/RL.

"The Russian demonstrations are not yet a real danger to Putin but they are a serious warning of the level of popular dissent in Russia and Belarus," Yalowitz explained. "Both Putin and Lukashenka now face a common threat from below and the response will likely be more crackdowns."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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