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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Erik Sigerud, Post Mortem, 2009, oil and vinyl on canvas, 74.8” x 177.” Courtesy of the artist.

Amid budgetary cuts on social protection, the Belarusian public sector is experiencing a management crisis and a balance shift in the state resource redistribution system. The authorities are forced to revise their most unpopular decisions during the implementation due to the pressure from affected social groups. The state is unlikely to oppose to some civil society and opposition organisations in strengthening their role in society in order to retain touch with the population and to be able to respond to the most harsh criticism of state initiatives.

The Architecture and Construction Ministry has acknowledged that the decree No 585 on assistance to large and young families in building and buying housing was prematurely rescinded.

The authorities are often forced to revise their decisions on curtailing social assistance to different social groups during their implementation, without preliminary impact assessment and feedback from the population, so as they lead to the growth in social tension. Due to the centralised decision making, languishing state resources and the lack of public debate as a balancing instrument in issues related to social protection, the state administration is losing control of the population.

Perhaps, the compensatory mechanisms of the state apparatus lack the time to adjust to dwindling state resources for supporting the existing social model, even in a reduced form. The authorities have completely or partially paralysed operations of independent public institutions and representative bodies, through which they could monitor public moods and receive feedback from the population, such as local councils, the parliament, political parties and NGOs. Last year, under the pressure of the authorities, the last independent institute for measuring public sentiment, IISEPS, suspended operations.

President Lukashenka’s self-removal from the decision-making on current socio-economic issues, also could have affected the state apparatus’ operations. The president has always been very sensitive about adopting unpopular decisions which could lower his popular support, hence demanded a careful preliminary assessment of such decisions. However, recently, especially after the introduction of the tax on social dependants, the president has mainly focused on the foreign policy agenda.

Hence, a lacuna has formed in the state decision-making after the president reduced participation in the current socio-economic policy formation, which leads to an increase in manifestations of dysfunction in the public administration.