Belarusian president reiterates independence and sovereignty talks to relax tension in society
Amid lingering recession and falling living standards of the population, the Belarusian authorities focus on threats to Belarus' sovereignty and independence in order to defuse protest moods in society. The president’s statement is likely to weaken the opposition’s mobilisation efforts. The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue cautious and often inconsistent attempts to weld a nation by promoting Belarus’ independence and strengthening national identity.
Last week, President Lukashenka said that some attempted to question the sovereignty and independence of Belarus.
The president is attempting to ease protest moods in society, which are used by the opposition to mobilise those dissatisfied with the current government policies. Virtually all main opposition alliances, including the centre-right coalition, "Tell the Truth" and the Belarusian National Congress (BNC) said to attempt to engage those affected "by the decree on social parasitism", who make up a significant part of the population, in some kind of activity.
Official rhetoric about the threat to Belarus’ sovereignty aims to weaken supporters of street protests and determined opponents of the Belarusian authorities. Part of the opposition, led by former political prisoner Nikolai Statkevich seeks to use speculations about ‘Zapad-2017’, a joint Russo-Belarusian large-scale military exercise to mobilise its supporters within the framework of the BNC "regional military commissions". The arrest of Regnum [Russian news agency] authors, and restricted access to ‘Sputnik and Mayhem’, an odious web site, could also reduce the protest capacity.
Apparently, amid exhausted capacity of the ‘younger brother’ (‘younger sister’) strategy in relation to Russia, the Belarusian authorities started a careful revision of the Belarusian statehood ideological constructs. The authorities’ rhetoric started echoing the rhetoric of the national-democratic opposition as regards the Belarusian sate’s origins. For instance, the authorities plan to erect a memorial sign ‘Polotsk is the cradle of the Belarusian statehood’ in the Vitebsk region, one of the most Russified regions. That said, since the mid-2000s the Belarusian authorities regarded the Great Patriotic War and the election of the first president as major milestones in the Belarusian state formation.
The Belarusian authorities’ actions aimed to strengthen national identity remain cautious. For example, the Belarusian parliament and the government expressed scepticism concerning legislative changes envisaging the mandatory use of the Belarusian language along with Russian by manufacturers, despite strong pressure from civil society activists. Even such cautious steps caused biting attacks by the ‘Russian World’ supporters in Russia.
Overall, the Belarusian authorities seem ready to take over slogans and ideas from their opponents in order to strengthen the sovereignty and independence of Belarus and to weaken the opposition’s influence on the protest social groups.
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.