Belarusian authorities bring in strict restrictions for supporters of union with Russia
The arrest of three Regnum authors, a Russian news agency, is a clear signal to the nomenclature to readjust their loyalty. The strategic alliance with Russia has been marked with a red line: the unconditional recognition of Belarus’ cultural and political self-determination and sovereignty. Belarusian power bodies remain the main instrument of domestic policy.
On December 8th-10th, the law enforcement conducted searches and detained three authors of Regnum, a Russian news agency, Yuri Pavlovets, Dmitry Alimkin and Sergei Shiptenko (who wrote for Regnum.ru under pseudonyms Nikolai Radov, Alla Bron and Artur Grigoriev) on charges envisaged by part 1 Article 130 of the Criminal Code - incitement of ethnic hatred and enmity. All state TV channels broadly covered the arrests and the reasons behind them.
Belarusian Information Minister Liliya Ananich explained to the media that the ministry launched a compliance assessment of Regnum publications for incitement of ethnic hatred in early November and that numerous components of a crime were discovered. The commission transferred its conclusions to the law enforcement. The Ministry also appealed to the Russian authorities with a request to explain how Regnum’s editorial policy corresponded with the Kremlin policy towards Belarus.
That said, the Belarusian state media emphasised that cases of Regnum and Eduard Palchis, who was recently found guilty under Article 130 of the Criminal Code, were regarded as related - as inciting enmity between the Russian and Belarusian peoples. Apparently, the authorities adhere to the following logic: the state should take harsh measures against anyone who interferes with a common information space with Russia on either side.
Most likely, the Belarusian authorities have long warned supporters of Slavic trinity, Western Russia and other pro-Russian movements denying Belarusian sovereignty, who occupied high positions in the government and voiced discontent with strengthening of the state sovereignty. For instance, the case of former MP and leader of the Belarusian Slavic Committee S. Kostyan, who directly referred to the previous state policy in this regard. Now the rules have changed and the authorities have undertaken a more decisive action.
It should also be noted that the Belarusian authorities often use preventive detentions to ensure the loyalty. The Belarusian authorities are likely to use ad hoc detentions, rather than, for example, closing down broadcasting or media outlets - similar to what they did with independent media. Belarusian power bodies remain the main instrument of domestic policy.
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.