Minsk escalates tension with the Kremlin
In response to Russia’s pressure and stoking tension in relations with the EEU member states, Minsk refuses to demonstrate loyalty to the Kremlin as an ally. The Belarusian authorities have factored out the lingering conflict with Moscow from bilateral relations and taken a toll on the reputation of the Eurasian integration. Minsk has in sight that the Kremlin is unlikely to building-up the crisis and prompt disintegration of the EEU by lowering expectations of the participants in the Kremlin-led initiatives.
Following the Kremlin’s attempts to lower Minsk’s status in the alliance, the Belarusian authorities engage new parties in the conflict among their EEU partners. Minsk reckons that Moscow would mitigate the conflict in order not to frustrate other EEU member states. Meanwhile, Yerevan harshly criticized the Belarusian authorities for extraditing a Russian national to Azerbaijan and appealed to the Kremlin as the guarantor of the compliance with the CIS, EEU and CSTO commitments to put pressure on the ‘ally’.
That said, Russia keeps pressuring Minsk by introducing further restrictions on Belarusian exports to Russia. For instance, the Agriculture Ministry and the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance failed to discuss the increase in agricultural products supply to Russia from Belarus due to the postponement of the visit of Russian inspectors to Belarus amid the threat of provocations by the Belarusian security forces.
Minsk also decided to wait-and-see and toughened its rhetoric vis-a-vis the Kremlin by accusing the latter of waiving the transparency of the internal borders within the Union State. According to media reports, President Lukashenka postponed a meeting with President Putin within the Summit of the Union State. Apparently, Lukashenka no longer regards the Union State as a mechanism enabling to resolve tension in bilateral relations and is no more interested in the post-Soviet integration associations.
Overall, Minsk reckons that the Kremlin is unlikely to factor out tension from bilateral relations and destabilise the Eurasian integration.
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.