Belarusian authorities gradually step up penalties for street protest participants

March 20, 2017 9:55

The Belarusian authorities seem determined to use force in the case street protests continue and become politicised. In addition, the Belarusian leadership has mobilised the state apparatus, ideologists and state employees to be used as a "soft power" to ease tension in the regions. In relations with European capitals, Minsk aims to impose its interpretation of growth in public discontent with socio-economic policy and toughening of response by the security forces due to the Russian factor mainstreaming in street protests.

Last week, street protests against decree No 3 on ‘social dependants’ were held in Minsk, Grodno and Mogilev.

The Belarusian authorities have proportionally and demonstratively stepped-up repressions against opposition activists, informal youth movements and protesters in the regions. The law enforcement has applied pointed detentions, administrative arrests and imposed fines on opposition activists. The authorities have meaningfully enhanced pressure on protesters in the regions, including preventive talks, threats of dismissal and home visits to the unemployed. Apparently, the Belarusian authorities have achieved some success in reducing growth in protest activity, albeit the total number of protesters across the country has not decreased.

The Belarusian authorities have failed in localising the protest activity in the capital, which is probably why they have sanctioned a protest march on March 15th in Minsk. As before, numerous unauthorized protests took place in Grodno and Mogilev, but without the visible participation of opposition leaders. Most likely, the Belarusian leadership anticipates a more low-profile socio-economic agenda in Minsk due to higher well-being and employment as compared with the regions. In addition, in order to curtail the street activity, the authorities have used force when detaining the most active participants among anarchists in the authorised rally in Minsk on March 15th.

The Belarusian leadership is attempting to disorient the opposition and defocus the political agenda by updating the threats to Belarus’ territorial integrity from the Kremlin among the national democrats. In addition, Minsk anticipates a softer response from Western capitals to tougher repressions due to the exaggerated Russian factor in protests and force provocations. The Belarusian authorities are likely to count on a wide response among Europeans to alleged Russian interference with the US and the EU elections. Nevertheless, despite some attempts during the first protests in the Belarusian regions, pro-Kremlin provocations did not gain momentum and were rejected by the protesters.

Overall, the authorities are attempting to prompt their format and agenda in a direct dialogue with society, excluding opposition leaders from negotiations and depoliticising demands of those discontent with the state policy.

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Yet Minsk has not decided on the "patriots' case" and is attempting to break new grounds in relations with the West. Meanwhile, Brussels is ready to lower cooperation levels with the Belarusian authorities in anticipation of new political prisoners to appear after the trial against former White Legion activists, irrelevant of the charges, either preparation for riots, or creation of illegal armed groups, or any other. Minsk is unlikely to cross the red line in bilateral relations with the West and new political prisoners are unlikely to appear in Belarus.

The harsh clampdown on protests and arrests this spring in Belarus are unlikely to lead to new moves by the European Union, however, the EU would closely monitor ‘some investigations’, including the ‘patriot’s case’ aka the ‘White Legion’ case.

According to human rights defenders, 17 people remain in custody, of which 16 are former members of the White Legion and one supporter of Statkevich-led the Belarusian National Committee, Sergei Kuntsevich. The law enforcement has been releasing former activists of the White Legion and members of the Patriot Club, most likely in order to mitigate criticism from Western capitals. Amid Minsk Dialogue expert conference with the participation of Belarusian and EU officials, the authorities released from custody head of the Bobruisk "Patriot" Club Nikolai Mikhalkov. In addition, the Belarusian leadership expects to ease some tension by demonstrating greater openness to a dialogue with civil society on human rights issues. For instance, for the first time the Belarusian authorities and human rights defenders held consultations on Belarus’ fifth periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Belarusian leadership has attempted to mitigate the West’s attitude towards the criminal prosecution against former activists of the "White Legion" by adding charges of creating an ‘illegal armed formation’ to ‘preparing for mass riots’ charges.

Apparently, Minsk also gains from speculations about possible disagreements among the executives - supporters of stronger ties with Russia, and "pro-Western" reformists lead by Foreign Minister Makei. That said, the Presidential Administration and President Lukashenka have full control over the foreign policy agenda and the law enforcement.

Overall, Minsk is determined to develop relations with Western capitals. The Belarusian authorities are likely to take controversial actions, i.e. to demonstrate the desire for liberalization in some areas and occasionally tighten repressions against the opponents, however without creating new political prisoners.