Authorities’ concerns about public safety increase

April 22, 2016 18:38

There have been several accidents of late in the Minsk metro. On September 23rd, law enforcement agencies exercises were held in the metro without warning. On September 24th, ‘Vostok’ metro station was closed due to a short circuit in the electrical panel. On September 25th, around noon ‘Traktorny Zavod’ metro station was closed by sappers following unattended box reports. On the same day, a woman fell on the tracks at ‘Academy of Sciences’ station, and on September 26th, a 90-year-old gentleman fell on the tracks at ‘Pervomayskaya’ station.

Belarus’ authorities are demonstrating their readiness to deal with potential socio-political disruptions. The ripening economic crisis may result in a repeat of the full scale crisis from 2011. The authorities’ stake on preventive measures is meant to demonstrate their increased control and concerns for public safety.

In 2011, Belarus experienced an acute currency crisis, which compounded apathy in society caused by the crackdown on opposition protests and prosecution of leaders and activists. At some point, President Lukashenko, as well as the National Bank and the government, stopped interfering with foreign exchange market operations. The authorities were confused and unable to offer a solution to the deteriorating economic situation, which was multiplied by their failure to ensure public safety in the centre of Minsk. In the midst of the currency crisis, an attack in the Minsk metro was carried out during rush hour. It was symbolic that the terrorist attack was carried out at the busiest metro station, ‘Oktyabrskaya’, not far from the Presidential Administration.

The authorities have previously linked the currency crisis and the terrorist attack. In April 2011, Alexander Lukashenko said, that “even before the presidential elections we anticipated that pressure would be put on us to destabilize the situation purposefully and methodically. And so it happened: firstly, on the foreign exchange market, on the food market, and then there was an explosion in the metro. [It was] a whole chain”.

Since mid-2013, along with overstocked warehouses and problems with Belarusian exports to Russia (Belarus’ main market), there has been talk of the Belarusian ruble’s possible devaluation. The ‘potash conflict’ has exacerbated the situation with Belarus’ foreign exchange reserves. These trends have triggered expectations of devaluation among the population and, simultaneously, have sent a signal to the authorities about likely disruptions to public safety if the Belarusian ruble were to sharply devalue.

Thus, the growing economic crisis in the country has encouraged the authorities to pay more attention to ensuring public safety. On the one hand, the authorities are demonstrating their readiness to prevent destabilization and tensions from increasing within society. On the other hand, these developments stimulate people’s distrust of the national currency and multiply rumours about the imminent devaluation: public opinion links the accidents in the metro with a potential crisis on the currency market.

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.