Minsk enhances negotiating position in dialogue with European Union
Minsk has deliberately aggravated relations with the EU believing that it strengthened its bargaining position in the Belarusian-European dialogue. By refocusing on the death penalty, Minsk aims to defuse Europe’s criticism over human rights violations and deficit of democracy in the country. Apparently, the Belarusian authorities attempt to translate enhanced contacts with European capitals into economic benefits, especially given the oil and gas dispute with the Kremlin.
Since early 2016, Belarus executed four convicts. Despite the desire to normalize relations with the European capitals, in 2016, the Belarusian authorities resumed executions after a long break since November 2014. The Belarusian authorities were ready to harsh criticism by the EU and the international community, because they knew how important the death penalty issue was for the Belarusian-European dialogue. The decision to execute three convicts was made during an active phase of the dialogue with the EU and increased contacts and official visits from Western capitals to Minsk.
The Belarusian authorities are convinced that the EU will not resume the sanctions policy and will retain the established dynamics in Belarusian-European normalisation. However, the Belarusian authorities have sent a signal to Western capitals that the current format of relations has reached its limits and that they would like to receive economic benefits from cooperation, rather than a boost in contacts.
In addition, by putting the death penalty issue at the top of the European-Belarusian agenda, the Belarusian authorities have diverted the focus of the EU from the criticism of the 2016 parliamentary campaign, the NPP construction near the border with Lithuania and other requirements put forward by Western capitals in human rights and democratisation spheres.
Overall, the Belarusian authorities anticipate reducing a broad list of problem issues on the Belarusian-European agenda to discussions about the abolition of the death penalty.
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.