Kremlin started information campaign to sow seeds of strife between Minsk and Kiev
The Kremlin has stepped up the information and political-economic pressure on the Belarusian authorities. So far, the Belarusian authorities have not thought about replacing aggressive Russian content in the Belarusian media with domestic products. The Kremlin is attempting to create difficulties for Minsk and Kyiv (and Western capitals), and devalue Belarus’ foothold as an international negotiation platform.
The Russian First Channel aired ‘Time will tell’ last week, a talk show, which discussed the influence of history on relations between Belarus and Ukraine on the one side and Russia on the other.
The Kremlin has stepped up pressure on Minsk in the information space, international and trade relations. After freezing the oil and gas dispute, Moscow started insisting that Belarus gave in some of her sovereignty and agreed to a common visa space.
The information pressure could imply that the Kremlin is against strengthening international position of Minsk. Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities are attempting to revive the negotiating platform over Ukraine and step up their status of a peacekeeper. Ukrainian media were alarmed by the news in the Russian and Belarusian media about the Russian Defence Ministry plans to increase cargo transportation through Belarus by 2017. Analysts pointed to this fact as a possible strengthening of the Russian military presence in Belarus. In addition, the Russian Defence Ministry’s media are attempting to build tension between Minsk and Kiev by talking about possible provocations against the Belarusian authorities from Ukraine.
Perhaps, the Russian media have stepped up criticism of the Belarusian authorities in response to the press tour for the Russian regional media organised by Belarus. Minsk used the press tour to influence public opinion in Russia and ensure a positive attitude towards the Belarusian government. Such an initiative could have been zealously interpreted in the Kremlin amid lingering tension over oil and gas in the Belarusian-Russian relations. By drawing parallels between Belarus and events in Ukraine, Russian propagandists aim to neutralize rosy perceptions of Belarus by inhabitants of the Russian province.
Nevertheless, in the case of a full-scale information war, Minsk could start censoring media content from Russia and switch on Internet filters.
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.