Armenia launches anti-Belarusian campaign
Taking into account the nature of Belarusian-Azeri relations, the extradition of Lapshin was predetermined. Provided, that Lapshin was a Russian citizen, only Russia could interfere to prevent it. Armenian politicians are attempting to use the situation to solve domestic political issues and to take Minsk’s place as the Kremlin’s main ally.
The extradition of Russian national Alexander Lapshin from Belarus to Azerbaijan for an illegal visit to Nagorno-Karabakh caused uproar in Armenia. Armenia’s rumble was anticipated, given the sensitivity of the Karabakh issue. However, statements made by Yerevan fell outside reasonable and necessary, in particular, the request to exclude Belarus from the CSTO.
In early April, Armenia will hold the parliamentary elections. It is hard to say, whether dramatic statements of Armenian politicians were a righteous anger or a patriotic election agitation. In addition, Armenia’s verbal response could be due to the desire to use the crisis in Russo-Belarusian relations to intercept Minsk’s status of Russia's closest ally. This could explain appeals by Armenian politicians to Russia.
CSTO leaders did not respond to appeals by Armenian MPs to exclude Belarus from the block. In addition, Moscow has been silent about Lapshin’s extradition to Azerbaijan and about excluding Belarus from the CSTO.
After detaining Lapshin, the Belarusian authorities had only two options: to extradite him either to Azerbaijan, or to Russia upon the request from the latter. Due to the nature of the Belarusian-Azeri relations, there was simply no other option to avoid his extradition to Baku. Although the proposal to exclude Belarus from the Collective Security Treaty Organization was a reaction to a local event, in the future, it could translate into an instrument of political pressure. Moscow may use the Armenian initiative to add a multilateral vector to the Russo-Belarusian political conflict. In addition, it may prompt pressure on Belarus for mala fides by other member states of the CIS, the CSTO, and the EEU. For instance, Kyrgyzstan could again raise the issue of concealing Kurmanbek Bakiyev by the Belarusian authorities from prosecution in Kyrgyzstan.
The Belarusian authorities have revived the cyclical political agenda, including preventive crackdown with the use of force during the Freedom Day rally in Minsk and a loyal attitude to the participants in the opposition events in the regions. The protest rally in Minsk has evidenced that the Belarusian society has freed from the post-Maidan syndrome and showed high self-organisation capacity during the event in the absence of opposition leaders. In the future, the authorities are likely to expand the framework for sanctioned and legal activity for the moderate opposition in order to reduce the potential for street protests.
The Freedom Day march in Minsk on March 25th, 2017 was marked by unprecedented and brutal detentions before and during the event.
The Belarusian leadership has managed to stretch in time the political cycle - liberalization followed by repressions - and move beyond the electoral campaigns. Simultaneously, Minsk has demonstrated a rather high mobilisation potential under political slogans, despite the pressure from the state media and security forces before and during Freedom Day, including the presence of armed officers and new special equipment to disperse demonstrations in the streets of Minsk. That said, in other towns (Vitebsk, Gomel, Brest and Grodno) the Freedom Day march led by the opposition, was sanctioned by the local authorities (except Vitebsk), albeit there were fewer participants than in February and March protests against the decree on social dependants.
The Belarusian leadership has depersonalised (removed leaders) the protest, preventively weakened the protest movement, and has not opted for the harsh crackdown like in 2010 with many injured and hundreds arrested. For instance, some party leaders were preventively arrested or detained (Lebedko, Rymashevsky, Gubarevich, Neklyaev, Logvinets, Severinets) before the event. Nikolai Statkevich has disappeared and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Some could not pass through the police cordons (Yanukevich and Kostusev) or participated in the rallies in the regions (Dmitriev, Korotkevich and Milinkevich).
Despite the lack of protest leaders, some demonstrators managed to self-organize and march down the Minsk centre. The march was unauthorised but gathered several thousand participants. Many were detained by the law enforcement and later released without charges. In addition, the Belarusian law enforcers used some tactics of the western riot police against peaceful protesters, allegedly in order to mitigate the criticism from Western capitals.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities have used the entire set of propaganda and power mechanisms applied during the highly politicised 2006 and 2010 elections - criminal prosecution of the opposition leaders, preventive detentions and arrests of activists, harsh propaganda campaign in the state media and, finally, the crackdown on the protest action in Minsk with the use of force.
Overall, the mobilisation potential of the Belarusian society remains high and the authorities are likely to expand the legal framework for public participation in politics in order to absorb superfluous tension.