Belarusian authorities gradually step up penalties for street protest participants
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.
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.