Belarusian opposition aims to expand support base amid growing tension in society

February 13, 2017 10:32
Image: https://www.facebook.com/Pravdaby/

Most opposition parties are attempting to reach out to new social groups beyond the traditional opposition electorate from those affected by the decree on ‘social parasitism’. Different opposition groups offer a variety of approaches to opposing the decree on ‘social parasitism’ and albeit conventional supporters of the opposition are somewhat disoriented, it creates the preconditions for expanding the support base of democratic institutions and achieving success in revoking or amending this government initiative.

"Tell the Truth" campaign has invited ‘social parasites’ from across the country to discuss an action plan.

The opposition is using a wide range of means to engage those affected by the decree on ‘social parasites’ in party activities both, in the capital and in the regions. This includes signing a petition to abolish the decree and recall MPs; sabotage; litigating with the authorities; holding pickets, marches, round tables, and meetings with government officials; inter alia, through the Internet and social networks. By using different approaches, the opposition is able to reach out to broad population groups, which somewhat bridges diversities among the parties.

Organizers of the Belarusian National Congress (BNC) aim to mobilise supporters of street actions by organizing a ‘March of perturbed Belarusians’, an unsanctioned rally. “Tell the Truth" campaign aims to recruit new activists with no experience in politics by applying ‘safe’ pressure on the authorities. The centre-right coalition aims, on the one hand, to stop their supporters from joining the BNC led by Statkevich with harsh rhetoric and street actions (sanctioned by the authorities); and on the other hand, to attract new activists through MP Kanopatskaya and other forms of legal activity.

Amid growing tension and discontent in society, the authorities are showing concern about growing potential for street activity and engagement of new social groups. In the regions, local authorities refuse to sanction mass activity organised by the opposition in support for the abolition of the decree and impose heavy fines on participants in unauthorised actions. However, so far, the law enforcement has not taken any preventive action against the organizers of the unauthorized March. Perhaps, they count on differences among various opposition centres to build up over pressure strategies on the government.

Overall, some democratic organisations are attempting to step beyond the traditional opposition core inclined to boycott election campaigns. Should new social groups start supporting the opposition, its electoral potential would enhance by the local elections, scheduled for early 2018.

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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.