Armenia launches anti-Belarusian campaign
Taking into account the nature of Belarusian-Azeri relations, the extradition of Lapshin was predetermined. Provided, that Lapshin was a Russian citizen, only Russia could interfere to prevent it. Armenian politicians are attempting to use the situation to solve domestic political issues and to take Minsk’s place as the Kremlin’s main ally.
The extradition of Russian national Alexander Lapshin from Belarus to Azerbaijan for an illegal visit to Nagorno-Karabakh caused uproar in Armenia. Armenia’s rumble was anticipated, given the sensitivity of the Karabakh issue. However, statements made by Yerevan fell outside reasonable and necessary, in particular, the request to exclude Belarus from the CSTO.
In early April, Armenia will hold the parliamentary elections. It is hard to say, whether dramatic statements of Armenian politicians were a righteous anger or a patriotic election agitation. In addition, Armenia’s verbal response could be due to the desire to use the crisis in Russo-Belarusian relations to intercept Minsk’s status of Russia's closest ally. This could explain appeals by Armenian politicians to Russia.
CSTO leaders did not respond to appeals by Armenian MPs to exclude Belarus from the block. In addition, Moscow has been silent about Lapshin’s extradition to Azerbaijan and about excluding Belarus from the CSTO.
After detaining Lapshin, the Belarusian authorities had only two options: to extradite him either to Azerbaijan, or to Russia upon the request from the latter. Due to the nature of the Belarusian-Azeri relations, there was simply no other option to avoid his extradition to Baku. Although the proposal to exclude Belarus from the Collective Security Treaty Organization was a reaction to a local event, in the future, it could translate into an instrument of political pressure. Moscow may use the Armenian initiative to add a multilateral vector to the Russo-Belarusian political conflict. In addition, it may prompt pressure on Belarus for mala fides by other member states of the CIS, the CSTO, and the EEU. For instance, Kyrgyzstan could again raise the issue of concealing Kurmanbek Bakiyev by the Belarusian authorities from prosecution in Kyrgyzstan.
Yet the Belarusian authorities have not taken any action to prevent massive protests against the decree on ‘social parasites’. On February 26th, 2017, multiple protests against the decree were held in three Belarusian regions in Vitebsk, Baranovichi, Brest and Bobruisk (more than 4 000 people participated in total). Very likely, the authorities, on the one hand, anticipate that the decree will be abolished, and other hand, do not want to take responsibility for decisions either on the decree or on the protests.
It should be noted, that the mass street protests on February 17th, 19th, and 26th, were held in the absence of the president in the country. There are reasons to believe that the authorities did not expect such a massive action. The state propaganda responded tangentially, insisting that protests were unjustified, because ‘the state did not require a lot’, despite the fact, that the protesters primarily complained about the lack of jobs in the country. In addition, the protesters pointed to the unfairness of the requirement to pay the tax for being unemployed as the state could not provide job and money making opportunities, while people were humiliated by the need to prove to the state they were unable to pay the tax.
In the past ten days, there were several protests against the decree, which were characterised by the following: the protesters easily picked up anti-Lukashenka slogans; they eagerly shared their outrage with journalists; many protesters said it was their first time when they took to the streets; protesters were ‘common people’, i.e. not political activists; there were fewer white-red-white flags during these protests than during conventional oppositional actions; politicians, who organised protests (eg on February 26th, by the centre-right coalition and the independent trade union) did not attempt to take the lead, especially in the regions. All this gives a picture of truly popular protests.
While refraining from interfering with the meetings and protest marches, the militia on February 26th attempted to put pressure on the protest organisers in the regions by handing out reports on administrative violations after the events. Other than that, it appears that the local and central authorities are unable to respond to the massive protests against the Decree No 3, including crowded street speeches, numerous signatories of petitions (over 80 000), multiple collective and personal appeals to the authorities, and mass meetings.
That said, the authorities are unable to enforce the Decree No 3 as they do not have sufficient resources to trial some 400 000 people for non-compliance. In addition, the authorities do not have sufficient institutional capacity to exempt all those not liable for the tax from the mailing lists of the Tax authorities. The Belarusian Bar Association will provide free legal consultations on March 1st, 2017 for those wishing be exempt from the tax imposed by the Decree No 3, however, this would only slightly east the tension in society.
In addition, despite concerns expressed by some experts and the leader of the protest in Minsk on February 17th Mikola Statkevich, there were only scarce reports in the Russian media about the protests in Belarus.