Belarusian president opens up to criticism to ease tension in society

February 06, 2017 12:02
Image: Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Belarus

The president has outlined the acceptable framework for criticising and opposing to government policies. The Belarusian authorities invited some civil society and expert community representatives to participate in the official public event in order to narrow differences and search for a value consensus in Belarusian society. President Lukashenka appears willing to strengthen some state and public institutions, which could create the environment for a peaceful transition of power in the future.

Last week, Belarusian President Lukashenka met with journalists and experts for ‘A big talk with the President’.

The president attempted to respond to many issues of concern, but in reality reiterated all his previous theses. Many pressing issues were raised by pro-government journalists and experts, indicating the readiness of the Belarusian authorities to a public dialogue, albeit on their terms and without the sharp pressure from the opponents. Simultaneously, the president’s bright and long-lasting presentation (7 hours and 19 minutes) demonstrated that he was in a good shape as a politician.

The president only briefly mentioned a possible transfer of power through elections in the future, without the modalities and terms. Nevertheless, he invited some mild critics of the government policy to participate in the meeting, including some representatives of the independent media, NGOs (the Belarusian Language Society), political parties (Liberal Democratic Party), and experts (Liberal Club, Mises Center). This reinforced the trend towards strengthening the role of political parties and the parliament in the political system, as well as the independent media.

By inviting some critics of the government policies, the authorities have outlined the acceptable level of criticism for the opposition to form a common value-based platform for co-operation. Nevertheless, while talking about the opposition, the president referred to the ‘fifth column’, thereby strongly rejecting any consensus with his harsh critics.

Apparently, the systemic crisis and discontent of the population have encouraged the Belarusian authorities to search for a new value system as a base for public consensus. The Belarusian leadership appears ready to tolerate moderate opposition in the public space and may revise the social contract with the population, based on non-interference in politics in exchange for growing well-being.

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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.