Minsk-Kiev: love is gone, but mutual interest remains
Statements by Ukrainian politicians about a possible closure of the Minsk process and potential military threats from Belarus, are not least because of the internal political process in Ukraine. Although a crisis matures in the Belarusian-Ukrainian political relations, the pragmatic bilateral interest outweighs politics.
Being at war, Ukraine is very sensitive to Belarusian moves contrary to the position of Kyiv. Belarus, due to complex relations with Russia, cannot take a clear pro-Ukrainian position. Hence, growing political distrust between the two states is only natural.
While not denying the validity of Kyiv’s claims to Minsk, the following should be marked.
Amid socio-economic crisis in Ukraine, external threat has united Ukrainian society and distracted it from domestic issues. This could explain recurrent untrue statements by Ukrainian high-level politicians about the concentration of the Russian troops on the Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine. Minsk agreements and the Minsk process were imposed on Ukraine. Both, the Ukrainian society and political elite are not satisfied with the results of Minsk talks. There is a political demand for a de facto waiver of Minsk agreements by Ukraine, hence, doubts about Belarus' equidistance from the parties to the conflict is only part of a complex mosaic.
That said, Kyiv rejected several proposals from Minsk, aimed at creating a system of trust in the security field between the two states, referring to undue close relations between Belarus and Russia. Kyiv believes there is a threat that sensitive information may leak to Moscow, i.e. there is lack of trust to Belarus.
Minsk is ready to give some guarantees to Kyiv in the security sphere within its capacities and interests. Obviously, Ukraine anticipated something more. Meanwhile, de facto bilateral cooperation in various fields is so important for both states, that neither Belarus nor Ukraine is ready to give up the benefits it brings. In this situation, Kyiv is unlikely to take any action, which could damage the existing cooperation between Belarus and Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian politicians are likely to tighten their rhetoric vis-a-vis Belarus. Albeit the trust between the leaders of the two countries fell sharply, pragmatic interests would guarantee conflict-free Belarusian-Ukrainian relations.
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.