Belarusian authorities have localized protest activity of entrepreneurs in regions as yet
Spontaneous protest activity has grown in business environment and the idea of creating a broad national movement is trending. As yet the Belarusian government has localised the protest activity in the regions and controls street activity through negotiations between the local administration and entrepreneurs. The authorities are likely to make more concessions to SMEs if protest activity in the regions persists and spreads to the capital.
Massive spontaneous rallies of entrepreneurs are taking place virtually in all Belarusian regions. Most of them have not been sanctioned by the authorities and take place in the city markets. In some larger towns, entrepreneurs have protested near local administrations (for example, in Vitebsk and Orsha). Independent media has reported about circa 150-300 protesters in regional centres and major cities.
So far, SME protest activity has manifested in suspended activity for an indefinite period, the refusal to pay taxes and rents, and spontaneous meetings. During the meetings entrepreneurs nominate and elect candidates for the next anti-crisis business forum scheduled for February 1st, 2016 in Minsk.
In addition, the authorities hold talks with the SMEs in order to develop a compromise solution suitable for both sides, however, to no avail as yet. For instance, entrepreneurs insist on fully revoking or postponing the ban on trade in light industry goods without supporting documents. In turn, local authorities claim to have agreements with Belarusian manufacturers to supply domestic goods to small business with discounts or deterred payments.
The Belarusian authorities are likely to insist on their measures so as they seek to reduce imports and promote Belarusian producers.
It is worth noting, that protesters are particularly unhappy with the fact that the authorities sell goods confiscated from the SMEs to the population in order to replenish the state budget. That said, the authorities sell goods seized from entrepreneurs through public trading networks without supporting documents.
So far, entrepreneurs in the capital have neither demonstrated radical attitudes, nor have politicised their claims vis-à-vis the authorities. Most protesters have publicly emphasised their apolitical stance and the loyalty towards President Lukashenka. However, leaders of the entrepreneurs’ movement are attempting to coordinate their activity, liaise with their colleagues from different regions, and expand networks in order to organise joint actions and form a trade union.
That said, only entrepreneurs selling imported light industry goods have been engaged in the protest activity. Simultaneously, some of them continue to run their business without the supporting documents and not taking part in the protests. In addition, other SME groups, not engaged in trade in light industry goods, have not shown solidarity with their counterparts.
The Belarusian leadership has used the local authorities to sooth protest moods and to localise them in the regions – representatives of local administrations participated in SME meetings. In addition, regional authorities have provided facilities for SME meetings – on the one hand, due to the fear of the rise in street protests, on the other – due to the dependence of local governments on the work of local markets. Despite the presence of numerous law enforcement representatives at the SME meetings, no force has been used against the activists. The president has not yet stepped in with a suitable solution to relieve tension in relations with entrepreneurs.
In turn, the opposition parties have attempted to initiate a broad campaign in solidarity with SMEs. However, their initiative has not developed. The population has neither shown visible support for SMEs, nor has expressed dissatisfaction with the state’s import restriction policy.
Overall, the authorities will do their best to prevent the spread of SME protest activity to the capital.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.