Minsk is attempting to play down human rights issues in relations with EU
The Belarusian authorities aim to raise the profile of the geopolitical aspect in the Belarusian-European relations to enhance economic cooperation. That said, Minsk shows discontent with Europe’s persistence regarding Belarus’ compliance with her human rights commitments and attempts to slow down the dialogue on human rights and democratisation. The Belarusian authorities aspire to preserve the current political liberalisation without harsh persecution of the opposition, but with the use of financial mechanisms to curb protest activity.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has sharply reacted to the critical resolution of the European Parliament, which, however, is unlikely to affect Minsk’s commitment to the Belarusian-European normalisation. The Belarusian authorities hope that the document adopted by European MPs will not slow down the steady positive cooperation between Minsk and European capitals. According to the Belarusian authorities, geopolitical conflict with Russia is a crucial factor for developing Belarusian-European relations, and Minsk’s attempts to become the "regional stability donor" compensate for the lack of democracy and violations of human rights in the country.
The Belarusian authorities seek to give an additional impetus to relations with the European capitals, to update Minsk image as a stability donor in the region and put forward additional peace initiatives. For instance, the president suggested that Belarus could participate in the peacekeeping mission in Donbass, and Minsk could host the settlement process for Western capitals and the Kremlin. The Belarusian leadership hopes that such initiatives would drive away the West’s attention from the critical assessments of the human rights situation in the country.
Minsk is attempting to link financial assistance with strengthening of the Belarusian independence in order to pay down the value aspect in the dialogue with European capitals. From pragmatic cooperation with the EU, Belarus expects assistance in obtaining credit support from international institutions, assistance in joining the WTO, restoring trade preferences for Belarusian goods on the EU market, and signing a basic agreement between Belarus and the EU. Visa liberalisation issue seems to be less important for the officials in Minsk.
The Belarusian authorities do not see the need to continue political liberalisation with regard to political opposition and human rights in the country in the near future.
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.