Belarusian opposition parties to fight for regional activists
The Belarusian opposition is attempting to strengthen party structures, consolidate regional activists and reach out to new audiences before the local elections. Parties continue to cooperate within the existing alliances, but coalitions avoid even minor coordination among them, regardless of the similar political agenda. Apparently, as the local elections draw closer, the fight for regional activists among different oppositional structures is likely to step up.
In 2017, ‘Tell the Truth’ campaign is set to focus on the Belarusian regions and hold a forum ‘For the peaceful change’ in each one of them.
The opposition parties are attempting to boost their influence in the regions and consolidate regional activists in order to strengthen their electoral potential before the local elections, which will take place in late 2017. High tension between the centre-right coalition and the initiators of the Belarusian National Congress (BNC), who support street protests, is very likely.
The BNC, headed by former political prisoner Nikolai Statkevich continues its expansion into Belarusian regions: two new structures appeared in Soligorsk and Vitebsk in early 2017. The centre-right coalition is also attempting to consolidate regional initiatives and put pressure on the authorities by using the potential of their MP Anna Kanopatskaya. ‘Tell the Truth’ campaign launched a party building process and said to focus on the regions; it also promised to bring new faces in politics.
In addition, the opposition is stepping up efforts to reach out to new audiences and recruit new volunteers from those dissatisfied with the current public policies. Virtually all opposition groups are attempting to mobilize so-called ‘social parasites’ by using various activities: collecting signatures, street agitation, holding a ‘March of the parasites’ (the centre-right coalition), and public hearings during the "parasites meeting" (‘Tell the truth’). In turn, supporters of street activity are likely to organise spontaneous protests for those affected by the “tax on social parasitism". Yet the BNC leaders have not announced any plans for a collective action, but launched an aggressive media campaign against the decree on ‘social parasitism’.
Most political parties are likely to participate in the local election campaign, and in the coming months will attempt to mobilise new leaders from those dissatisfied with the current government policies. Their success largely depends on the actions of the authorities and the intensity of the state’s financial pressure on the population.
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.