Belarusian authorities are preparing for social discontent to grow
On April 20th, the president signed amendments to the law on extremism. Most experts believe that the fight against ‘extremism’ is used to tighten liability for political and protest activity and for participation in military operations abroad. It seems that the Belarusian authorities have accepted the fact that current economic and financial crisis will drag on for years and started tightening legislation in case social unrest rises.
The recent amendments to the criminal and administrative legislation, toughening responsibility for extremism, have been initiated by the KGB and developed by the Security Council.
The definition of extremism has been expanded significantly. Henceforth, registered organisations and unregistered groups may be recognised as extremist. Previously, extremism implied incitement to racial, ethnic or religious, social hostility and hatred associated with violence or calls for violence, and now the precondition of violence / incitement to violence has been removed.
Incitement to language or social hatred or discord has been criminalised. Administrative liability has been introduced for dissemination of information containing calls to extremist activity, even if they have not been recognised as extremist by the court at the time when such information was disseminated.
The definition of incitement to hatred on social grounds has not been specified, allowing for arbitrary interpretations and providing a basis for arbitrary decisions for the Belarusian authorities with regard to citizens who dared not only to express their disagreement, but also to criticize the regime.
There are no serious grounds to hope for some political liberalisation of the regime in Belarus. The legal framework for repressions has only expanded.
The most odious provisions of the Criminal Code are still in place in Belarus (eg, criminal liability for discrediting the Republic of Belarus). Political prisoners have been released, but not rehabilitated. Administrative fines are used to curb opposition activity. Security forces have not changed their repression practices, including coercive means against journalists.
New crimes have been added to the Criminal Code, introducing criminal liability for participation in military operations abroad and for the recruitment of volunteers. These amendments were made to Article 361 of the Criminal Code “Calls for action to the detriment of Belarus’ external security, its sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security and defence” in the chapter “Crimes against the state”. The Criminal Code also envisages liability for the involvement of military actions in another state for a reward (Article 132 “Recruitment, training, financing and use of mercenaries” and Article 133 “Mercenary”).
Legislative amendments have expanded the authorities’ capacity to prevent potential social unrest and to take action in the case of "hybrid" threats. The authorities’ failure to overcome economic crisis in the near future, has prompted them to stay alarmed and be ready to resume repressive practices in order to suppress discontent (political or social), regardless of the response from the West.
Following crackdown and arrests of participants in the spring protests, the authorities resumed arrests as punishment for participating in street protests in addition to fines, which for some time were the only punishment for political activity. On September 22nd, 2017, the riot police detained the Belarusian National Congress leader Nikolai Statkevich, the opposition politician was placed in detention centre on Akrestin street. On the same day, after serving seven days of arrest, another BNC leader, Vladimir Neklyaev, was released. He was sentenced for organising a street protest on September 8th against the West-2017 exercises. Other participants in the protest have been fined too. The authorities are likely to continue to use fines and arrests against political activists to punish for their protest activity.