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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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.