Power block in Belarus to redistribute resources in 2017
Downsizing in one law enforcement agency in Belarus could be due to the need to allocate additional resources to another agency. The external environment and uncertain prospects for preserving socio-political stability in the country require capacity building to counter potential threats to national security.
The financial and economic crisis in Belarus has limited the authorities’ capacities to mobilise additional resources to respond to the new security challenges. Without additional resources, the Belarusian authorities may start redistributing available funds within the power block.
On January 24th, 2017, at the debriefing with Interior Minister Igor Shunevich, Lukashenka talked about the prospects of downsizing the Interior Ministry. He also said that the saved resources would remain in the Ministry. The day before, Interior Troops Commander, Major-General Yuri Garayev noted that staff reductions would affect managers who were not directly engaged in the law enforcement activity.
In 2016, mass layoffs were carried out in the Ministry of Emergency Situations. According to unofficial reports, the Ministry’s personnel was downsized by 10%, while the Ministry’s budget was cut by 12%. The Interior Ministry is very unlikely to retain funds freed up due to layoffs.
The unfavourable internal and external environment does not allow asserting unequivocally that the above measures are aimed at cost savings in times of a crisis. Amid budget deficit, Minsk is facing new challenges, which require an adequate response. For instance, Russia could introduce full border control at the Belarusian-Russian border, which would require reciprocal steps from the Belarusian authorities.
Layoffs in the Interior Ministry could become a part of the overall redistribution of funds within the national defence and security sector in 2017. The most likely beneficiaries include the Defence Ministry, the Interior Ministry Troops and the State Border Committee - in order to increase the combat potential of the Belarusian army, to build capacity for armed riot control in urban areas, and enforce (if necessary) border controls at the border with Russia.
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.