System updated with slight liberalisation of the authorities’ monopoly on communication with the population

January 03, 2017 11:07

In 2016, amid oscillating popular ratings of the state and public institutions, the Belarusian society demonstrated high adaptability and reduced its requirements on the state. Social tension caused by the decline in the people's wellbeing and cutbacks in the state social guarantees, neither transformed into open protests and enhanced support for the opposition, nor boosted electoral activity. Spontaneous and localised protests by regional entrepreneurs were the only exception, but the authorities had successfully neutralised them by the spring, i.e. by the time the opposition normally woke up.

Some business organisations attempted to unite SMEs and channel the protests into a constructive stream without the street protests, which was the main negotiation requirement by the authorities. Entrepreneurs attempted to distance themselves from the opposition and did not politicise their demands, which, however, became stronger as the authorities refused to address them. Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities managed to mute protests by making small concessions, relaxing power pressure, involving local administration in the negotiations with the protesters and delaying the conflict resolution.

In relations with the opposition and civil society, the authorities abandoned harsh repressions and focused on the financial pressure, legal restrictions and economic discrimination. Despite some political liberalisation, the Belarusian authorities pre-emptively expanded the legal framework for repressions in the case of social unrest and "hybrid" threats. In addition, new faces emerged in the protest movement from high-profile cases and prosecution of active citizens not connected with the titular opposition.

The government became more open to contacts with opposition representatives in order to improve its reputation internationally and divert protest sentiments. The Belarusian authorities somewhat increased the opportunities for the opposition to communicate with the population by allowing some limited access to the state TV and the print media.

During the parliamentary elections, the authorities increased the opportunities for the opposition to hold campaign events, but retained full control over the election process and the election results. The authorities made minor concessions to the opposition during the election race, (yet not at the legislative level) in order to create a favourable environment for the normalisation of relations with Western capitals.

Apparently, thanks to the joint pressure from Western capitals and the opposition with a constructive agenda, the Belarusian leadership granted two seats in the Parliament to the opposition.

Amid plans to reduce the state apparatus, anti-corruption pressure and unattainable economic growth plans, the nomenclature stepped up the competition for seats in the new parliament to "wait out" a crisis in a more comfortable "parliamentary" environment. The fact that the competition within the state apparatus became visible meant there was a certain imbalance in the public administration system.

In addition, the authorities milked some businessmen proxies, who built their wealth by being close to the authorities and public resources (eg Case of Yuri Chizh). Security officers were often used as a final argument in the struggle for the resource redistribution; they firmly anchored in Lukashenka’s environment, while large private businesses somewhat lost their influence and political representation in the Parliament.

The government attempted to limit pro-Russian activity in Belarus and allowed ‘soft belarusisation’. That said, the authorities adopted some opposition's popular slogans, symbols and ideas promoting independent Belarus.

Amid lingering socio-economic crisis, expectations of a steady decline in public institutions’ popular ratings prompted the authorities to take a final decision on ‘killing off’ independent sociology: the only independent sociological agency in Belarus, conducting regular polls on social, economic and political issues, IISEPS, ceased its activity entirely.

The All-Belarusian People's Assembly demonstrated that the authorities lacked new ideas and strategies for driving Belarus out of economic recession; that the Belarusian leadership was committed to the state monopoly in the economy and immutability of the political system, while gradually waving social responsibility.

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Belarusian authorities hope to narrow application of Decree on ‘social parasites’
February 27, 2017 12:35
Фото: TUT.BY

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.